The Geopolitics Behind the Extension

Hearing of the second extension to the Iran nuclear talks, I’m sure everyone who was rooting for the comprehensive agreement’s success felt annoyed and was wondering why the negotiators had to delay the deal again and couldn’t get on with it already. It was also true of those who have been advocating for more sanctions, which would violate the interim agreement and torpedo negotiations. Senator Robert Menendez, co-author of new sanctions legislation, found the diplomatic failure “disappointing and worrying” and boldly declared “I intend to work with my Senate colleagues in a bipartisan manner in the coming weeks to ensure that Iran comprehends that we will not ever permit it to become a threshold nuclear state.” Alright, Mister lame duck Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but do you and your colleagues plan on building a time machine?

Colin Kahl told Laura Rozen last year that “We have perhaps 12-18 months until they [Iran] reach a breakout capability,” and once that happens “Iran becomes a de facto nuclear-armed power whether they build a bomb or not and the prevention and diplomacy game is up.” Well, then the P5+1 negotiations have been a sham from the start because Iran achieved breakout capability years ago and, having enriched a couple tons of uranium, has been a nuclear threshold state the entire time. The type of diplomacy that Menendez and other Iran hawks support that demands Iran’s civilian nuclear program be dismantled was indeed never viable and they don’t expect Iran to make a deal that pleased them. But the hawks only dare flirt with sabotaging the diplomatic process because they know the Europeans will take a sledgehammer to the sanctions’ architecture if Congress is responsible for the talk’s failure. So, although they’d personally prefer it if the talks failed and Iran be at fault for it, the hawks will be content with a deal as long as non-nuclear sanctions remained.

Imposing sanctions on Iran has been the name of the game for Congress’s hawks and Washington’s Middle Eastern allies and Anthony Bubalo explains why:

“Ending Iran’s political and economic isolation will allow it to better pursue its regional ambitions and to realise its economic potential. But this is precisely what regional adversaries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia (as well as their supporters in the US Congress) fear. This is not to say that they do not fear a nuclear-armed Iran. They do, but they also recognise that the utility of nuclear weapons is limited and that a nuclear-armed Iran would be isolated and sanctioned, and would bring even stronger regional security guarantees from the US. The Israeli and Saudi preference, therefore, is to see Iran sanctioned and contained. As I argued in part 1, even if a nuclear deal leaves Iran less isolated and more influential in the region and internationally, I think over time, the end of its economic isolation will pose a more direct threat to the regime and to the interests of hardliners than the current sanctions regime. But for those regional countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia with justified fears about what a more powerful Iran means for their interests and the security of their citizens, this is unlikely to prove reassuring.”

The U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia don’t want this economic siege to cease not only to keep Iran much weaker than it should be but also to protect the Islamic Republic. Bubalo is right that an Iran that’s fully open for business poses the risk of the regime being unseated and that would mean those countries would lose a precious enemy and handy scapegoat for all that ails the Middle East. They might even fear that the easily maligned and caricatured mullahs would be replaced by a sophisticated, secular regime that retains the anti-imperialist ideology of the Islamists. That would cause migraines for the U.S. as a democratic Iran arises to become the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement and makes revolutionary waves with its impactful denunciations of the American empire.

That covers the hawk’s motivations but what is the White House trying to get out of these negotiations? The administration knows, as Barbara Slavin writes, that “ultimately, nothing can stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons if its leadership chooses to do so,” but they’re placing their bets on Slavin’s recommendation that “The best insurance that Iran won’t do this is to bind it back into the international community through trade, investment and people-to-people ties.” Bubalo agrees that President Obama is setting the stage for a measured détente and another objective besides:

“I think Obama wants to remove the nuclear issue as an obstacle to gradually normalising relations with Iran. But there is another dimension. Both enhanced sanctions, and now the nuclear negotiations, are not just designed to stop Iran from getting the bomb, they are also designed to stop some of America’s allies in the region taking unilateral military action against Iran. In particular, what I think Obama fears is that any military strike by Israel will risk drawing America into any subsequent conflict between the two. To a lesser degree, by diminishing the nuclear threat, Obama also reduces the reliance of regional Gulf allies, in particular Saudi Arabia, on US security guarantees. This again helps him recalibrate American policy and posture in the region.”

Getting a final deal is all about removing the millstone that is our Middle East allies from around our necks and avoiding additional security commitments so the administration can finally make good on pivoting to the Pacific. They have been using the threat of drawing Washington into a regional conflict in order to stop that pivot and avoid US pressure on doing things they’d rather not (like for Israel, ending the I-P conflict). But, while there is a minuscule chance now of an Israeli or Saudi assault, it would be impossible after the deal. Once relations with Iran improve and IS is wiped out, the U.S. will be able to say sayonara to any more major wars in the Middle East.

Timing For Iran Agreement Up To Obama

The deadline to a final nuclear deal with Iran is days away and, as it was in July for the first deadline, the only thing standing in its way is politics. As Julian Borger writes, “Several leading arms-control experts have argued that the residual obstacles are more political than substantial, determined by the need of President Barack Obama’s administration and President Hassan Rouhani’s reformist government in Iran to reassure conservatives at home, rather than by the actual requirements of Iran’s nuclear energy programme or genuine nonproliferation concerns.” But it’s not simply domestic critics in the U.S. and Iran that are playing political football with these negotiations but all the other international actors that have a stake in this discussion as well. The New York Times quotes Robert Litwak as saying “In every nation involved, this negotiation is a proxy for something bigger.” So will the two biggest opponents of this deal—U.S. Republicans and Israel—take advantage of a political snag and prove able to spoil President Obama’s moment of foreign policy glory?

The answer to this came over the weekend when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told CBS’s Bob Scheiffer “The alternative to a bad deal is not war. The alternative to a bad deal are more sanctions–tougher sanctions–that will make Iran dismantle its capacity to make nuclear bombs.” The Obama administration’s gambit to pull the rug out from under Netanyahu worked masterfully. In other words, Netanyahu was saying “message received, Mr. President, read you loud and clear.” There will be no more threats from him about bombing Iran. He’ll pursue the sanctions route instead. Not that it will get him very far. Now that Israel’s military option has been officially taken off the table by the White House’s outing of Netanyahu’s bluff, there goes the justification for any more harsh sanctions.

For years the thinking of the die-hard sanctions proponents in Washington—who Netanyahu relies upon–has been “Well, we need stronger sanctions or else Israel will go totally bonkers and bomb Iran.” That excuse would have been the best hope of the incoming Republican-majority Congress to push through any new punitive measures if they thought the deal was bad but that ship has thankfully sailed. No matter what Congress’s objections are, its hands have been tied. If there’s a deal by January sanctions will be impossible to pass. If diplomacy is ongoing and the threat of sanctions sends Iran walking away from the talks, the EU will then walk away from the U.S.-led sanctions regime. The Republican and Democratic Iran hawks are quite aware of this prospective rift with Europe if they go too far but they know the more vigorous their opposition to the deal the more President Obama will have to “reassure” the critics politically. They are hoping to get a great bargain by trading their acceptance of the Iran deal—which they would have supported anyway–for the President giving way on certain domestic issues.

So, since Congress has to like the deal or lump it, all that remains for the Obama administration is deciding whether they want the negotiations done on time or extended. If Obama elects to wait a few more months, I’m guessing he’d do this so he can embarrass the new hawkish Congress and take the wind out of their sails as they experience a significant foreign policy defeat so soon after assuming office. The President will have the last laugh over the midterm shellacking when every Congress member who now resists the deal so bitterly has their credibility tarnished as they each line up behind the deal having had a sudden epiphany that it’s not so bad after all. He would get a good chuckle out of the ironic sight of his most steadfast foes endorsing his greatest foreign policy achievement.

Attacking Iran Was Never An Option

Two weeks until the deadline for a final nuclear deal with Iran and President Barak Obama has made the same typically grim forecast as every other official who is involved in the talks, asking “Are we going to be able to close this final gap so that (Iran) can re-enter the international community, sanctions can be slowly reduced and we have verifiable, lock-tight assurances that they can’t develop a nuclear weapon?” He then answered himself, saying “There’s still a big gap. We may not be able to get there.” Firstly, short of détente with Iran, it’s impossible to have “lock-tight assurances” that keep Iran from constructing nukes. “The unspoken truth is that no diplomatic deal can end Iran’s program, or guarantee it never gets the bomb,” the editors of Bloomberg News write. As for Obama downplaying the deal’s chances–and the widespread denials of progress we hear in the media–it’s all part of the elaborate theatrics that the diplomats have to put on in order to succeed.

But let’s say no deal is reached and both sides get so fed up they walk away, does this mean war would be inevitable like many think? No, because there is no military option for either Israel or the U.S. and there never was. The Obama administration official in Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece on the crisis in U.S.-Israel relations was dead wrong when he said “It’s too late for him [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility.” In reality it wasn’t possible nine years ago, as Aluf Benn explains. “And the principal mission he [then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon] assigned to Dagan was stopping Iran’s nuclear program. But Dagan thought this was mission impossible. “Iran has decided to go nuclear … and nothing will stop it,” an American diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks quoted him as telling a US senator in 2005.” So supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini’s declaration that if Iran “intended to possess nuclear weapons, no power could stop us” was affirmed by none other than a former head of Israeli intelligence. Once Iran decides to go for it, that’s all she wrote.

A full-scale U.S. invasion, which would be needed to halt an Iranian drive to build nukes, isn’t feasible now after the country has been depleted by the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and is now preoccupied with the campaign against ISIS. But was there ever a time when America could have stopped Iran militarily? Senior Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit imagined an alternate past where this should have had a better chance of happening. In a New York Times op-ed, he argued the US should never have invaded Iraq so it could have focused on ending Iran’s nuclear program. You’d think he’d call for going to Tehran guns blazing and yet here’s what he suggested:

“If Bush had decided to display American leadership and exercise American power by launching a diplomatic campaign against Iran rather than a military one against Iraq, the U.S.’ international standing would be far greater today… The Bush administration didn’t initiate a political-economic siege on Iran when it was weak… The correct way to confront the Iranian threat would have been to establish a broad coalition including Russia, the EU, Sunni Arab countries, Israel and the US. This would have placed Iran’s leaders in a real stranglehold and forced them to abandon their nuclear project.”

Even though in 2003 the U.S. was at the height of its imperial might, Shavit emphasizes concerted diplomacy and sanctions instead of war. The word ‘military’ appears once and it comes across as an afterthought, like Shavit felt required to mention it as a formality. Bombing Iran didn’t figure in his counterfactual scenario and it’s easy to see why. All the same risks of a regional conflict–with all the worldwide economic chaos following in its wake–applied then as they do today. Plus there might have been far more active resistance from the international community to a U.S. invasion of Iran than there was against Gulf War II. Russia and China might have joined in the war on Iran’s side. Most of all, there never was a military option because the George W Bush administration had no settled Iran policy so by default attacking Iran was ruled out in its first term and deliberately scrapped in its second, a precedent President Obama has since kept.

Of Chickengate and the Iran Deal

There was more to Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece ‘The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here’ than having senior Obama administration officials express their discontentment (to put it mildly) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Relations had been souring for months ever since the breakdown in U.S. sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks so why wait until nearly November to go on this tirade? Well, the peculiar timing is your first clue right there—November is, of course, the deadline for a final nuclear deal with Iran. Although it has been easy to get lost in all the attention concentrated on the chickenshit epithet, Daniel Drezner was first out of the gate to speculate that Goldberg’s article, underneath all the venting about Netanyahu, was mainly a message from the White House directed at Iran that was to be found in a paragraph like this:

“This official agreed that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. The official said the Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal. “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”

“Now these observations are partly intended to tell Netanyahu that this gambit [i.e. threatening to bomb Iran if a deal isn’t to his liking] won’t constrain U.S. negotiators,” Drezner writes, adding “they might also serve to tell Iran that any fears they have of an Israeli strike are exaggerated. And if that has been holding the Iranians back, it would potentially eliminate this as a roadblock to further negotiations.” Iran has been saying the Israelis were bluffing for some time but to have administration officials call that bluff and undercut Netanyahu demonstrates to Iran just how committed President Obama is to getting this agreement done. “The way one signals credibility in a world of uncertainty is to take a costly action,” Drezner notes, and “dissing America’s closest ally in the region” could have backfired spectacularly. Everything Drezner says adds up but he cautions that he’s “spitballing”. So is he right?

As it turns out, Drezner nailed it, as the Israelis feel the same way that the Iran nuclear deal is the motivation behind the White House officials saying what they said in Goldberg’s piece. “It appears that someone in the administration is trying to pre-empt Prime Minister Netanyahu’s criticism of an imminent and highly problematic deal with Iran,” an anonymous Israeli official told Judi Rudoren. Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, explains further that since there is an irreconcilable gap between the U.S. and Israel on the final deal “there could be some kind of deliberate attempt to put Netanyahu in some kind of uncomfortable position, so when he says whatever he says in a month, it will be less relevant or attract less attention.” Aside from discrediting Netanyahu’s military threats, the Obama administration has much more in store for him if he has, as Goldberg writes, “plans to speak directly to Congress and to the American people should an Iran nuclear deal be reached.”

Given the emphasis lately placed on Netanyahu’s settlement policies by the White House and State Department, I’d say the Goldberg piece also serves as a stern warning from the administration to Israel: if you even think of trying to go over our heads on Iran, we will push you with unprecedented, unforgiving intensity on making peace with the Palestinians. This admonition probably wasn’t necessary since Israel has signaled that it doesn’t seek a confrontation with the U.S. by backing away from its impossible no enrichment demand. The administration knows Israel isn’t serious in its opposition and is protesting the deal for other reasons (like preventing a U.S.-Iran rapprochement) but thinks it better play it safe. By getting this message across, the administration can be absolutely sure that Israel won’t be getting any wacky ideas.

All Pressure on U.S. for Iran Deal

I know it’s next to impossible to stay abreast of every single new development on a given news topic but, as I’ve come to find out about the reporting on the P5+1 talks with Iran, the media clearly doesn’t read itself with much diligence. Whenever these negotiations are discussed, one invariably reads about the difficulties that have to be surmounted even though almost all of them have been resolved. Take, for instance, AFP writing that “Months of intense negotiations, including between Kerry and Zarif in mid-October in Vienna, have made some progress but appear deadlocked on the key issues of uranium enrichment and the pace of any sanctions relief.” But it was settled back in July that Iran was going to be understanding when it comes to the timing of sanctions relief and it was confirmed again just two weeks ago! As the New York Times reports, “the Iranians have signaled that they would accept, at least temporarily, a “suspension” of the stringent sanctions, according to American and Iranian officials.”

The media can’t be entirely blamed for this because they can only report what they are told by the tight-lipped participants of the talks, who repeat things like “sanctions relief is still an issue” to make the agreement sound harder to reach than it actually is even though they know better. The diplomats do this to keep hardliners from both sides in the dark and unable to effectively resist the deal if its progress always seems doubtful. Upholding this narrative is why Wendy Sherman, when she gave a speech to a symposium on the nuclear negotiations, was reticent—“I don’t and won’t want to say anything today that would jeopardize our chance to bring those deliberations to a successful close”–and, although she did say very encouraging things, stresses that “This negotiation is the very opposite of easy,” and “Despite the intense efforts of negotiators from seven countries and the European Union, we are still in that “difficult” stage.” Boilerplate language this, but Sherman did say something which caught my eye:

“But one area that has drawn much comment–in part because of Iran’s own public statements–concerns the size and scope of the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment capacity. Iran’s leaders would very much hope that the world would conclude that the status quo–at least on this pivotal subject–should be acceptable, but obviously, it is not. If it were, we would never have needed to begin this painstaking and difficult negotiation.”

Well, that’s the thing—these talks never should have been started. Iran has been taken to the woodshed over fictitious intelligence and therefore Iran can walk away. Here’s another reason why Iran has all the leverage over the U.S. Trita Parsi points out that Iran can easily handle no deal because “the Rouhani government appears to believe that the sanctions regime cannot be further ramped up–and may even collapse soon–regardless of whether or not a nuclear deal is reached.” The collapse of the sanctions regime, however, is not simply a matter of idle belief on Tehran’s part but will soon become an established fact.

Chas Freeman foresees that it will all come tumbling down, writing “US dollar hegemony, the basis for the effectiveness of the current sanctions regime, has begun to visibly erode.” “New trade settlement mechanisms that avoid the dollar are becoming available,” he continues, and concludes “The era in which the United States and/or Europe can effectively sanction other countries without the support of the UN Security Council and the great non-Western powers is drawing to a close.” The sanctions’ strength could also take a forceful hit in the short run because, as Barbara Slavin notes, “Even if the U.S. imposes new penalties on Iran should no deal be reached by Nov. 24, it is unlikely that other nations will follow—particularly if Iran is perceived to have put forward a reasonable solution to the nuclear crisis.”

Replacing the waning sanctions, which the world is tired of abiding, with a binding international accord is why the White House has to act fast and finish the deal by the deadline or not long thereafter. Too much dawdling and the U.S. risks losing the support of all the countries that are itching to do business with Iran.