No pain, no gain

With less than a month to go before the deadline for completing nuclear talks with Iran, what does it look like? Touchdown, punt or overtime?

From the US perspective, the time is ripe to bring this negotiation to a successful conclusion:

  1. Further delay risks encouraging opponents, especially in Congress. Once the 2016 presidential campaign gets started in earnest (no later than spring 2015 I’m afraid), the odds of concluding the negotiation successfully go way down.
  2. Failure to reach an agreement would either open the door to an unrestrained Iranian push for nuclear weapons or, in case the current temporary Plan of Action is extended, risk deterioration of the sanctions that have been so effective in bringing Iran to the table.
  3. The need to respond ever more forcefully to the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria makes it imperative to get other issues off the priority table as quickly as possible.

What is a “successful conclusion”? To make a long story short, it is one that verifiably blocks any Iranian route to building a nuclear weapon, including enrichment and reprocessing conducted either covertly or overtly. Ideally it would provide at least a year’s warning before any “break out” could occur.

This may be a goal the Iranians share. They claim to have forsworn nuclear weapons and have good reason to do so. Were Iran thought to have them, Israel would be prepared to attack on warning (not on launch, but before that). A conventional attack might be deemed inadequate to the case. The Americans might then step in to do the job. When President Rouhani says Iran would be less secure with nuclear weapons than without them, he is not exaggerating. It’s true.

The moment is ripe also for the Iranians:

  1. Further delay would risk encouraging President Rouhani’s opponents in the majlis and in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Iranians know the American political timetable, and their own also argues for no long delay. Rouhani’s term ends in 2017. Sanctions relief won’t produce real results in less than 6-12 months.
  2. Failure to reach agreement could cause the US Congress to ratchet up sanctions, which combined with lower oil prices would deal another severe blow to the Iranian economy, which Rouhani promised to repair.
  3. It doesn’t make sense for Iran to be wrestling with the Americans, who also oppose the Islamic State, on nuclear issues. Better to clear the decks and get as much cooperation as Washington will permit. Tehran will also hope to earn enough credit with the Americans to continue to protect Bashar al Assad from direct attack.

None of this means the negotiations will in fact conclude successfully, or precisely on time. It will not be easy for Iran to swallow the necessary limits on its nuclear program. Nor will it be easy for the Obama administration to sell an agreement that allows Iran to continue enriching uranium, even if there is tight verification that it is not being used for weapons purposes.

But no one said this would be easy. The standard rule of exercise applies to international negotiations:  no pain, no gain.

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