Memo to Secretary of State Kerry:
When you arrived in Oman over the weekend to resume talks on Iran’s nuclear program, you must’ve known your pass-or-fail moment is on the line. The deadline for a deal is November 24th, and there’s a lot of work yet to be done.
Make this fly and you’ll redeem a record of foreign policy messes you and your boss have accumulated with remarkable, regrettable consistency. Punt now and you’ll take your place on a too-long list of forgettable secretaries.
You returned to the table Sunday with some strong cards, but you have deuces and threes, too. You can win with this hand, but playing timid poker will cost you and President Obama the pot. This will take craft, courage and imagination—and, not to add to your anxieties, more of these than you’ve exhibited to date.
The overarching task is to settle on a nuclear power program that is restricted enough to extend the time it would take Iran to weaponize nuclear material. O.K., not easy to find the common ground, but some interesting technical solutions to the tougher sticking points are apparently in play.
Iran has 19,000 centrifuges and likes it that way—it wants more, indeed—while your side will accept 4,000 or so. A few weeks ago, American nuclear scientists suggested a clever way at this: Remove a specified number of the pipes that carry fuel from one centrifuge to another in the enrichment process—making the count less important and achieving the same result.
As David Sanger put it in The New York Times piece explaining the idea, Tehran calls in a plumber. Who’s buying into this isn’t clear, at least to us ordinary folk, but it does not appear to be dead as you begin this final phase of talks.
Yet more intriguing is the recent idea that Iran exports most of its large uranium stockpile to Russia. The Russians would send back enriched fuel if and when Iran needs it to run the nuclear power program it says is its goal. Again, the centrifuge count can thus be re-reckoned.
Fair enough, this idea was floated in 2009 and the Iranians said no when the dreaded Ahmadinejad was president. Now it’s the reformist Hassan Rouhani, and he has supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s backing. In the bargain, Tehran has tentatively agreed to this arrangement -- provided it gets a broader deal defining its rights to a nuclear program.
In all of this, Mr. Secretary, don’t get lost in technicalities and lose sight of the bigger picture. As a matter of pure diplomacy, you have things to leverage.
Tehran has its reactionary factions under control now and wants this deal. It wants out of the sanctions regime and into a cooperative relationship so it can work with the U.S. to address the regional crisis. Talk about perverse benefits: The mess the ISIS militias are making starts to look like a positive motivator.
Russia wants this deal, too. Moscow sees the Iran talks as a chance to showcase its importance as a constructive global player. Did you read the speech Putin gave in Sochi two weeks ago -- the one you and everyone else in Washington pretended to ignore? In it, the Russian leader singled out Iran as an example of the cooperative relationship he, too, desires to build. Don’t ignore this.
On a purely personal level, you’re working with Mohammad Javad Zarif and Sergei Lavrov, the Iranian and Russian foreign ministers respectively. These are among the most capable diplomats now active. Zarif knows Americans well, having studied here. Remember, Lavrov saved your boss’s bacon last year when he got Damascus to give up its chemical weapons, allowing Obama to step back from that red line he unwisely drew in the Syrian sand.
Plenty to work with, Mr. Secretary, and therefore plenty to lose. But you’ve got headwinds, too, as follows:
Israel has been notably quiet on Iran lately, but who knows what Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israel American Public Affairs Committee will cook up if a deal starts to look real? When the going gets tough—and you know the rest of the sentence. Same with Congress, which has never been as eager as the White House for rapprochement with Iran—and which now has a Republican majority emboldened by its recent election successes.
Other matters rest with you and the White House, and to be honest one worries. You are bringing Russia to the brink of another financial crisis over the Ukraine question, and if you push too hard you could lose the Kremlin’s help and cost yourself a much greater prize. You have to walk and chew gum on this one.
There are three things you can do that those favoring an agreement must dearly hope you get done.
First, as a tactical matter let the Iranians know you’ll get sanctions lifted as quickly as possible. This is a big one for them. They are hurting Iran across the board and Iranians trust America about as little as Americans trust Iran. It would be a shame not to clear the timing hurdle. Make a deal work like a deal.
Second and more strategically, look over the Iranian negotiators’ shoulders. Their nuclear program is totemic as an emblem of the equal status they want among nations (a desire the Russians share, incidentally). You must be smart enough to make your deal play to this sensibility. It is real -- operative for those across the table.
Third, look over your own shoulder. You and Obama have a big sales job in Congress if you get a deal with Tehran -- you’ll have to do a lot better on Capitol Hill than either of you has done to date. That drink with Mitch McConnell Obama stupidly scoffed at last year? Have it.
Did you see Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln? Abe wanted that 13th Amendment like nothing else, and he pulled every trick and cut every half-cocked deal he had to cut to get it.
Want this deal very badly, Mr. Secretary. After three and a half decades of mostly pointless animosity with Iranians, there’s a piece of history to be made with it.
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