A Nuclear Deal with Iran Starts to Look Likely

A Nuclear Deal with Iran Starts to Look Likely

Will we or won’t we have an international deal defining Iran’s nuclear program by the negotiators’ self-imposed deadline? There are two weeks left. This is now the kind of cliffhanger the London bookmakers usually offer odds on. 

My wager is that Tehran, Washington, and the other five negotiating partners will get this done. Yes, there’s more work to be done, as Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, somewhat sourly reported over the weekend. But the details of the diplomacy have now entered its most intense phase.

Related: As Iran Talks Reach Key Phase, Obama Would Walk Away

The logic seems clear. One, both sides have done well inching toward the necessary compromises. Two, there’s something in an agreement for everyone at the table. Three, there’s nothing for anybody except a nuclearized Middle East unless an understanding—we don’t even know what form it will take—is reached.

Trying to see into a diplomatic process this mature is like trying to see down to the ocean’s bottom or into somebody else’s marriage: Can’t be done. Nonetheless, a positive dynamic is now discernible, if barely.

Let’s look at what each side has so far brought to the party. Then we consider the likely impact of Benjamin Netanyahu’s much noted address to Congress last week.

Iran has proven a nice surprise, in my read. A year ago Tehran was breathing fire as to its inalienable right to a nuclear program and aspects of its sovereignty it would never compromise.

Related: Putin Throws Wrench in Iran Nuke Talks 

Well, it has. It now seems willing to accept strict limitations on its centrifuge count and its uranium stockpiles. In the latter case, it is prepared to send part of the material it enriches to Russia, which will return it according to the needs of a civilian nuclear power program and its emerging medical technologies.

Most impressively, Iran will have to accept the most rigorous inspections regime ever imposed on a national nuclear program. Reports suggest the arrangements finally struck will probably extend beyond the life of the agreement.

President Obama said today in an interview, that the U.S. would not accept any agreement that allows Iran the ability to make a nuclear weapon. “If we don’t have that kind of deal, then we’re not going to take it,” Obama said.

I credit Hassan Rouhani, the reformist president whose election two years ago set this big ball in motion, and Mohammad Javad Zarif, his able foreign minister, for bringing Iran this far along without provoking the kind of nationalist backlash many worried about at the outset. 

Now to the P5 + 1, the nations negotiating with Iran. The group is comprised of the five Security Council members—the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China—plus Germany.

Related: Netanyahu Arguments Bolstered by Protests in Iran

Two big concessions here. First, Iran’s nuclear power program is now recognized as legitimate. This is implicit, but it’s a big “implicit” if you consider the backdrop.

When Kerry went to work on this Washington wouldn’t even accept Iran’s right to enrich. Given international law is perfectly clear, the Obama administration had a choice: Climb down or your project is stillborn. It chose wisely (for once). 

Second, Kerry is stepping back from a term on the agreement that was unrealistically long. From up to three decades it may now settle for 10 years. If this deal does its work, Iran will evolve into a trustworthy member of the nuclear-capable community over the next 10 years, as Japan, Taiwan, and India are now. (If it doesn’t, all bets will be off anyway, and no deal forged now will matter.)  

Credit on this side gets wide distribution. Kerry deserves some, not least for ignoring the anti-Iran animus on Capitol Hill and staying plugged into international realities. Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, gets some for structuring the deal to take Iran’s enriched fuel and dole it back. 

Credit, too, to the Europeans. Last week in this space, I outlined Germany’s new foreign policy principles, which include commitments to multilateral action and negotiation instead of force or coercion whenever possible. Almost certainly the Germans, with the French and Chinese behind them, exert a moderating force in the diplomatic process.

Related: US, France Want Stronger Deal on Iran

With the ball on the 15-yard line, the P5 + 1 playbook looks very clever indeed. Kerry finished a week’s talks Friday and sounded optimistic. Laurent Fabius instantly insisted that no, the deal’s not good enough yet.

In my read, the French foreign minister is Kerry’s bad cop. This enables Kerry to press on for 11th-hour concessions to an extent he may not, as the Great Satan’s top diplomat, otherwise be able to manage. Remember, France has enjoyed a place of privilege among the Iranians for centuries, primarily on the cultural side.

Given the evident momentum, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last Tuesday is likely to prove far less important than all the hubbub suggests. The question now is not whether he will seek to sabotage a deal if one is struck. He will. The questions are how, and how effectively. 

Both are easy to answer. As of his speech the Israeli leader is committed to acting on Washington through Congress via the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. That answers the question of effectiveness. Aipac’s campaign against negotiations, launched right after Rouhani spoke at the U.N. two years ago, was one of the lobby’s most concerted in many years. It lost, plainly.

One disappointment arrives on the eve of the deal’s deadline. Kerry and other administration officials have begun to assert that no historical opening is in the offing. “The nuclear challenge is distinct,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said on Charlie Rose Tuesday evening. “It’s not a broader rapprochement with Iran.”

That’s very regrettable. It should be precisely that.

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