Here Comes Obama’s Big Moment with Iran

Here Comes Obama’s Big Moment with Iran

REUTERS/Keith Bedford

It is still a thrill an hour in Washington. Do we have a government? Do we pay our bills?  Two days of talks in Geneva this week will prove just as big. They begin Tuesday, the topic is Iran, and they are a must-see.

Can the major powers shape a deal with Iran that defuses the knife’s-edge tensions prompted by the Islamic republic’s nuclear program? Can the Obama administration and its allies open a cooperative relationship with the Iranians, making possible a reimagined, post-crisis Middle East?

The Geneva gathering will give us a first glimpse at answers.

Iran promises a three-step plan full of hard facts and specific intentions, according to a Wall Street Journal report. This is a good opener, given the Western nations’ incessant demands for “concrete actions” since Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s reformist president, took office in June.   

But the stakes in Geneva are too consequential for a fools-rush-in approach intended to satisfy hawkish elements on either side. I stand with Robert Einhorn at the Brookings Institution. “The upcoming talks,” he writes “will be more productive if they produce an informal exploration of what is possible rather than the introduction of detailed formal proposals.”

What is possible encompasses a lot. But the difference between success and failure will depend on one thing: how much each side commits itself to international law. It is law, not preference that will prove the fulcrum of this effort.  

Here is how this columnist sees the road ahead:

A successful diplomatic effort will end with a nuclear-capable Iran that enjoys the economic benefits of nuclear power but possesses no nuclear weapons.

This is the only outcome that will prove stable and sustainable because the nuclear question involves Iran’s sovereignty, equality, and security. To deprive it of any internationally recognized right would be to write another Treaty of Versailles, so assuring the festering and spread of the resentment and nationalist bile that are the stock in trade of Iran’s conservative, anti–Western hawks.

Accepting a nuclear-capable Iran will be the West’s biggest step. It will require measures of confidence, trust, and transparency Washington has so far considered impossible to achieve. Rouhani has signaled clearly that he wants to deliver the goods without depriving Iranians of legitimate prerogatives.

The benefits of this approach will be several. It will produce a durable settlement that governs a nuclear energy program no more worrisome than Japan’s or Korea’s (which are advanced), or Vietnam’s, Turkey’s, Jordan’s, or Saudi Arabia’s (which are just beginning).

The U.S. will enjoy a cooperative relationship with a Middle Eastern nation that is destined to accumulate regional influence no matter who slices the cake. Mutual interests can be identified on questions such as Syria and armed insurgencies active across the region.

The grimmer outcome is all too accessible. Any attempt to limits Iran’s rights on the nuclear side will produce a failed engagement—and will do so swiftly. Those facing Iranian negotiators must stay clear of the extreme demands long advocated by numerous members of Congress and, not incidentally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These include any requirement that Iran stop all enrichment and export what enriched uranium it already possesses.  

The costs of the mistaken route would be high. The crisis environment now prevailing in the Middle East will worsen. Iranians will have their faces rubbed in their pariah status, the economy will collapse under the weight of sanctions, and the West will effectively re-arm the worst elements on the domestic scene. Call this the “late–Weimar Syndrome.” 

What will those at the table in Geneva this week have in their attaché cases? Here are the probable opening positions: 

Iran. The plan reported last week is generous in its concessions. All production of nuclear fuel close to weapons grade will cease. Quantities of enriched uranium will be limited. Verification will be provided. A timetable will be set. Tehran may shut its underground enrichment plant near Qom.

In exchange, Iran may ask for sanctions to be lifted immediately as a goodwill gesture. This will prove a non-starter, but Tehran is likely to use it as a bargaining device. On the other hand, there will be no flexibility whatever as to Iran’s “right to enrich the soil,” as ISNA, the semi-official news agency, put it Saturday, and its right to keep what enriched fuel it has. These are deal-breakers.   

“We will negotiate about the volume, levels, and the methods of enrichment,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said Sunday. “But shipping out enriched material is a red line for Iran.” 

There it is. Adhering to the law cuts both ways.    

The Europeans. E.U. members comprise half of the P5 + 1 negotiating group—the Security Council nations plus Germany. Post–Berlin Wall Europeans are into East–meets–West paradigms and co-existence to the max. They will push strongly for transparency, inspections worthy of a heart surgeon, and limits on enrichment and technology proliferation. Base-line position: Law is our guide and everyone can be satisfied. The stance is sound; it may split the Europeans from the U.S.

Russia. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is vigorously nationalist and identifies to the core as a non–Western pole of power. Its ties with Iran are long and intricate, but so are its interactions with the West. Russia could play the interlocutor, pushing a compromise here or there—offering, for instance, to take care of Iran’s enrichment needs externally, as it has done in the past. This could be another big moment for Putin, just as his role in unknotting the Syria crisis has been. 

China. Count on Beijing to oppose any demand to delimit Tehran’s legitimate choices. Non-interference in the internal affairs of others is bedrock principle for the People’s Republic, dating back to Zhou En-lai’s days in the old Non–Aligned Movement. Americans do not adhere to this idea, to put the point mildly. But China will not be inflexible—it has its own interests in this diplomacy, not least its now-blocked purchases of Iranian oil.

The U.S. The Obama people will arrive in Geneva with more baggage than any other delegation. The White House wants to see how far forward Rouhani can take his nation. But Netanyahu is dead against this project and has been blitzing the U.S. media since he, Rouhani, and Obama took their turns at the recent UN General Assembly. The Israeli leader has already dismissed Iran’s reported blueprint as “cosmetic.”

The fragility of the Israeli relationship is a clear danger for Obama. The president has so far faced little forceful opposition at home, but it will mount as talks proceed, arriving from pro–Israel members of Congress and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the immensely influential lobbying group. 

Bottom line in Washington: The U.S. could prove the deal-breaker in Geneva. Netanyahu’s frequently articulated demands extend far beyond international law, requiring Iran to dismantle more or less its entire nuclear program. The Israeli leader wants nothing right now so much as he wants the Geneva gathering to fail. This lands Obama in the most difficult moment of his administration on the foreign relations side.   

There are two bad habits to overcome as the gathering in Geneva convenes. One is straight-out prejudice and the other is an unhealthy silence.

“We know that deception is part of Iran’s DNA,” Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told Congress in testimony last week. This is what scholars call a “national character” argument: The Germans or the Japanese or name-your-demons do what they do because they are German or Japanese or whomever and that is what they always do. It is a disgrace by any measure, and there is no place for it among U.S. diplomats—especially now. 

The silence has to do with Israel’s nuclear program. Estimates of Israel’s arsenal run to roughly 200 nuclear warheads, and estimates are all we have because the program is a “state secret” and there is no transparency on offer in this case. Iran has signed the Non–Proliferation Treaty; Israel declines to do so. This kind of thing cannot remain among our unmentionables any longer.

Smart Washington analysts (and I have argued in this space) that Iran wants a nuclear-free Middle East, as it claims to. But it also wants, almost certainly, the capability of weaponizing if the Israeli threat grows acute. Most of us grew up worshipping at the altar of deterrence. Is deterrence somehow no longer good logic, sound policy? 

Geneva starts us on a path that will lead to this: Success will produce what Washington and its allies want—an Iran without nukes. Failure will justify what no one wants—an Iran whose desire for nuclear weapons is justified by the very reasoning the West has long applied.