President Rouhani of Iran was elected by a staggering plurality of thirty-four percentage points. Believe what you want about the republican nature of the Islamic Republic, but Rouhani’s victory is categorical prove that the sanctions are working. With inflation soaring and unemployment sky high, the greatest risk to the clerical regime is the continuous maintenance of these sanctions. The people of Iran are hurting because the economy of Iran has essentially been crippled. The message from both the middle class and the common working person (the two ends of Tehran, north and south) was simple and clear—Help!!
In the US, the responsible party for the success of the sanction regime is not the Obama Administration. It’s the bi-partisan work of an overwhelming majority of Republicans and Democrats called Congress. Even with the government shut down, and the two political parties engaged in a deep and globally menacing ideological war, Congress can agree, for now, to keep the sanctions in place. This message is also simple and clear. While it is true that the American People do not want to go to war in the Middle East, at this point, they don’t want to lift the sanctions on Iran. Only by achieving a comprehensive deal, will Congress eventually relent. From my vantage point in the US, for the time being, I see no daylight between Congress and the Netanyahu Government.
This places a huge burden on the P5+1 negotiations. The Iranian side expects a progressive series of quid pro quo concessions leading to a final deal. Although the exact shape of a final deal is unknown, the Iranians have now declared two red lines. First, they believe that under the NPT that they have an inherent right to enrich uranium. Second, they have ruled out the shipping of those same materials out of the country. No Israeli government could ever agree to Iran’s second red line without extensive modifications to their program. And certainly, it is far from clear whether the Netanyahu Government would ever agree to any level, amount or form of Iranian nuclear enrichment. Also, Israel (left or right) would never agree to plutonium reprocessing, underground sites, centrifuge qualities and quantities above “slow motion” levels, non-access to potential military nuclear research and an international verification regime below the strictest adherence. Again, for now, I see no daylight on any of these points between Israel and Congress, with the possible exception of Iranian enrichment at low levels, speeds and quantities. In other words, Iran cannot possess breakout capability without detection and the negation of an international treaty.
With Congress in control of the bulk of the sanctions, it appears to be politically impossible for those series of mutual concessions to take place. Congress will want to see the end-game first. The negotiations will be conducted american style. The haggling of the bazaar will not go nuclear, period.
Will President Obama have any leverage to make an end run around Congress? Not with mainstream Republicans, he won’t. He’d probably have a better chance to overturn the laws of gravity. But there is a growing section of the party with isolationist tendencies. His message could appeal to them. In the Senate, where Democrats are in the majority, the president will receive a more cordial hearing. But even in his own party, on Iranian rapprochement, he is distinctly to the left of his party. Joe Biden, his VP, plans a White House run in 2016. The last thing he wants is to be branded as weak on Iran. The same is true for Hilary Clinton. As Secretary of State, she advocated for a more assertive Syrian policy toward the outrages of the Assad regime. Assad has become (if he wasn’t before) a mere proxy for Iran. Mrs. Clinton certainly understands that a nuclear deal with Iran only enhances Iran’s regional position. Biden understands, too. So does President Clinton. And so do all the Democratic senators who will be up for election in 2014 and 2016. If anything, President Obama has become slightly out of touch on the Iranian nuclear issue.
The President still has to deal with P5+1. And the daylight between Russia, China and Israel appears on the surface to be large. The Russians would like a deal to avoid a regional war. But President Putin is a savvy operator. He certainly understands that even with a nuclear deal, an expanded regional war could still be a likelihood. With Britain and France, there will be less daylight, but there will be space. Iran will attempt to run towards this opening. Obama will have to choose a more centrist position, located between Congress and his Western European allies. Naturally, he’ll portray his position as a choice between war and peace. That choice will be too stark for many in his own party, and possibly many others. The domestic economic situation in the US is bleak and Americans have become war weary. The “peace president” might just sway enough voters and politicians across a wide enough swath of political space (liberal left and libertarian right) to succeed. The Iranians will most likely oblige President Obama by making just enough concessions to allow the appearance of the deal to be palatable.
The political conclusion of the Iran nuclear file is hardly a certainty. Ambiguity obscures the final outcome. War would be a stark choice. But if the negotiations were to fail, President Obama has maintained that “all options remain on the table”. The President will do all he can to avoid the war option card. Will he be able to persuade a reluctant Congress that an Iranian backed deal is a better option than war? The American people will have the final say on that question. But how would a nuclear deal in isolation affect the Middle East regional balance? Could that have a bearing on either French, Russian or even Congressional approval? Certainly, the potential presidential candidates will weigh in.
In the final analysis, Israel’s decision will remain most crucial. PM Netanyahu claims, if need be, Israel will act alone. I don’t doubt him. Maybe soon, Iranian hardliners will kill a deal for lack of timed US concessions. Obama and Bibi might be forced to act. Will the “peace president” and Nobel Prize winner take the US into war? And if a deal is killed, what will the Iranian economy look like in the next year? Perhaps, everyone is bluffing and Iran will achieves nuclear capability. What good is a nuclear program without an economy? None of these choices are very satisfying. They all lead to a kind of dead end. What’s needed is an endgame where everyone wins, not a dead end game.