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Published On: Sat, Jul 11th, 2015

Demanding What You Can’t Get: Obama’s Gamble with the Iran Talks in Vienna

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TND Guest Contributors: Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett |

The Huffington Post has published our latest piece, “Demanding What You Can’t Get: Obama’s Gamble with the Iran Talks in Vienna.”  We also append it below:

As nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Vienna extend past yet another (largely U.S.-imposed) deadline, the dysfunctionality of the Obama administration’s approach becomes increasingly apparent.  Since April, when the parties announced a set of “parameters” for a final deal, senior administration officials have staked out public positions on the most important unresolved issues that, frankly, are inconsistent with what was agreed in April.  These include a U.S. demand for open-ended retention of a conventional arms embargo and other aspects of the United Nations Security Council-authorized sanctions regime.

There has never been any serious prospect that these U.S. positions could actually provide bases for negotiated outcomes.  Take, for example, the Obama administration’s demand for open-ended retention of a conventional arms embargo and other aspects of the United Nations Security Council-authorized sanctions regime against Iran.  Not only does Tehran object to this demand; Russia and China—like the United States, veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council—do, too.

The Obama administration defined stark stances on the future of UN sanctions and some of the other outstanding issues ostensibly to rebut charges of “weakness” from domestic opponents and to deflect criticism from traditional U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia that it is “appeasing” Iran.  But, if Obama and his team ultimately want to conclude a deal, they will, at some point, have to retreat from the diplomatically untenable positions they have so publicly assumed—thereby exposing themselves to even stronger political attacks.

This is the (entirely self-generated) dilemma currently looming over the Obama administration.  Going into this week, relative optimism was rising that the Vienna talks might be on the verge of producing a final deal.  Officials from participating governments say that compromises have been found over previously disputed aspects of lifting U.S., European, and most UN sanctions against Iran.  U.S. and Iranian negotiators have also been making progress toward resolving differences over the kinds of nuclear research that Iran will conduct while a final agreement is in effect.

Against this backdrop, the most difficult challenges facing the seven delegations in Vienna pertain to the drafting of a prospective UN Security Council resolution that would nullify previous resolutions authorizing international sanctions against Iran and formally start implementation of a final deal.  It is in this context that unrealistic U.S. demands to keep in place an open-ended arms embargo against Iran have become the main obstacle blocking conclusion of a comprehensive nuclear agreement.

There was considerable speculation, in Washington as well as in Vienna, that the Obama administration would be eager to finish negotiations before July 9.  (According to recently enacted U.S. law, if the administration had presented the text of a final nuclear agreement to Congress by July 9, Congress would have had thirty days to review it; from July 9 until September 7, the law gives Congress sixty days.)  Such speculation, however, overlooked the White House’s real calculation:  that, by modifying U.S. negotiating positions to permit agreement on terms of a new Security Council resolution—thus setting the stage to conclude a final deal this weak—the administration would receive more political criticism than if it appeared to “hang tough” and let July 9 pass.

This calculation explains why, according to officials from participating governments, the U.S position regarding the terms of a new Security Council resolution has, over the last few days, become less conducive to reaching a final agreement.  Moreover, the United States appears to be encouraging its British and French partners in the talks to define their own increasingly individuated positions on the issue.  As a result, P5+1 delegations are now spending more time in Vienna negotiating among themselves than with their Iranian counterparts.  When they do interact with Iranian representatives, their dialogue becomes, in effect, ever less a multilateral negotiation between the P5+1 and Iran and ever more a series of bilateral negotiations between Iran and various P5+1 states.

The Obama administration appears to calculate that it can posture in this way for some as yet unspecified period time, after which it can then quietly modify U.S. negotiating positions and reach a final agreement—claiming all the while that, by “hanging tough,” Washington persuaded Tehran and Moscow to take more “reasonable” stances.  This will be political theater with little connection to diplomatic reality.  But it is the narrative that Obama and company want to craft.

No doubt, Obama and his White House advisers think they are handling difficult domestic political dynamics with admirable adroitness.  But, in diplomatic terms, their approach assumes that other key players—including Iran—will wait indefinitely for Washington to get serious about closing a deal.  It also assumes that, if the process breaks down due to a U.S.-induced impasse over terms for a new Security Council resolution, the rest of the world will buy the Obama administration’s narrative that this is Iran and Russia’s fault.

Odds that these assumptions will prove false are greater than Obama and his team are ready to acknowledge—a reality that makes their course strategically irresponsible.  Fundamentally, this irresponsibility stems from failure to appreciate the full importance of an Iran nuclear deal—and, beyond that, of a broader realignment of U.S. relations with Tehran—to American interests, in the Middle East and globally.

The Obama administration continues to treat a prospective nuclear deal as what might be described as an asymmetric arms control agreement, whereby Iran gives up ambitions—regularly alleged by American politicians and just as regularly denied by Tehran—to develop nuclear weapons, and the United States gives up…well, not very much.  The administration has yet to treat a potential nuclear deal as American interests actually require:  that is, as a critical initial step in a broader process of rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran—rapprochement as profound as the realignment of U.S. relations with the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s.

Hopefully, the Obama administration will get through its political theater over a new Security Council resolution over the next few days and close a final nuclear agreement with Iran.  But it would be far better if the administration renounced this kind of theater entirely—and got down to the serious business of reformulating U.S.-Iranian relations.

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Click here to learn about “Going to Tehran,” co-authored by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett.  This article originally appeared at the “Going to Tehran” website and is reprinted with permission.

About the authors:

flynt_leverettFlynt Leverett is a professor at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs and is a Visiting Scholar at Peking University’s School of International Studies.

Dr. Leverett is a leading authority on the Middle East and Persian Gulf, U.S. foreign policy, and global energy affairs. From 1992 to 2003, he had a distinguished career in the U.S. government, serving as Senior Director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council, on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and as a CIA Senior Analyst. He left the George W. Bush Administration and government service in 2003 because of disagreements about Middle East policy and the conduct of the war on terror.

Dr. Leverett has written extensively on the politics, international relations, and political economy of the Middle East and Persian Gulf. In a series of monographs, articles, and opinion pieces (many co-authored with Hillary Mann Leverett), he has challenged Western conventional wisdom on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy and internal politics, documented the historical record of previous Iranian cooperation with the United States, and presented the seminal argument in American foreign policy circles for a U.S.-Iranian “grand bargain”. His new book is Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic(also co-authored with Hillary Mann Leverett).

Dr. Leverett has published opinion pieces in many high-profile venues, including The New York Times, POLITICO, and CNN, and contributes frequently to Foreign Policy. He has been interviewed about Iran and its geopolitics on leading public affairs programs around the world, includingCharlie Rose, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Empire and Riz Khan (Al Jazeera English), Viewpoint(Abu Dhabi Television), Spotlight (Russia Today) and Washington Journal (C-Span), as well as in leading publications such as Der Spiegel and Le Monde. Along with Hillary Mann Leverett, he was featured in the PBS Frontline documentary, “Showdown With Iran”, and profiled in Esquiremagazine.

Dr. Leverett has spoken about U.S.-Iranian relations at foreign ministries and strategic research centers in Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. He has been a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University.

Dr. Leverett holds a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University and is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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hillary-mann-leverettHillary Mann Leverett is a Senior Professorial Lecturer at the American University in Washington, DC and a Visiting Scholar at Peking University in Beijing, China. She has also taught at Yale University, where she was a Senior Lecturer and inaugural Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. She is also CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. Her new book is Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic (co-authored with Flynt Leverett).

Mrs. Leverett has more than 20 years of academic, legal, business, diplomatic, and policy experience working on Middle Eastern issues. In the George W. Bush Administration, she worked as Director for Iran, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council, Middle East expert on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and Political Advisor for Middle East, Central Asian and African issues at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. From 2001-2003, she was one of a small number of U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qa’ida and Iraq. In the Clinton Administration, Leverett also served as Political Advisor for Middle East, Central Asian and African issues for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Associate Director for Near Eastern Affairs at the National Security Council, and Special Assistant to the Ambassador at the U.S. embassy in Cairo. She was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and a Watson Fellowship, and in 1990-1991 worked in the U.S. embassies in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt and Israel, and was part of the team that reopened the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait after the first Gulf War.

Ms. Leverett has published extensively on Iran as well as on other Middle Eastern, Central and South Asian, and Russian issues. She has spoken about U.S.-Iranian relations at Harvard, MIT, the National Defense University, NYU, the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs, and major research centers in China. She has appeared on news and public affairs programs on BBC, CNN, MSNBC, and Al Jazeera (Arabic and English), and was featured in the highly acclaimed BBC documentary, Iran and the West. She appeared in the PBS Frontline documentary, “Showdown With Iran”, and was profiled in Esquire magazine. Her articles, often co-written with Flynt Leverett, have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, Politico, the Penn State Journal of Law and International Affairs, the Washington Monthly, and The International Spectator. She has provided expert testimony to the U.S. House Government Reform and Oversight Committee.

Mrs. Leverett holds a Juris Doctor from Harvard University and a Bachelor of Arts in Near Eastern Studies from Brandeis University.

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