The P5+1 and Iran met Monday for the first time since talks were once again extended. The decision to punt the deadline for the final deal was suggested by France and embraced by the White House but don’t tell that to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last week he boasted that “Even though Israel isn’t part of the P5+1 our voice and our concerns played a critical role in preventing a bad deal.” It’s a flattering thought for Netanyahu but I can’t imagine him saying anything in the process of his lobbying that would have been capable of swaying the P5+1 nations. The only clout the Israelis have ever had in the Iran nuclear brabble was to be found in their threats to bomb Iran’s enrichment facilities. The Obama administration, however, lately poured cold water all over that notion sending as strong a signal as any that the White House deeply disapproves of an Israeli attack.
But if Netanyahu was just crazy enough to start a war with Iran over President Obama’s objections, what then? Well, thankfully there’s no chance of that happening. Netanyahu wouldn’t dare do it if America wasn’t on board because he knows Israel would need us to deal with many years of fallout. As Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military head of intelligence, wrote “Unfortunately, what Israeli leaders may not fully grasp is that while they can attack alone, Israel will need the United States both the day after and the decade after a strike to ensure that Iran does not reconstitute its program.” In short, Israel can’t finish what it starts by a long shot and would need the U.S. to clean up their mess so a rogue strike is out of the question.
Being in this bind suits Netanyahu fine because he—and like-minded U.S. Congressional hawks–doesn’t seek war with Iran or even a return to the status quo ante and the undoing of all diplomatic progress but that negotiations go no further. Ryan Costello, relating what transpired at a hearing on the Iran negotiations convened by Senator Robert Menendez, wrote “The third witness at the hearing, the neoconservative Michael Doran, did not support scrapping the agreement when pressed by [Senator Tim] Kaine, but instead claimed that the US should walk away from negotiations while asking Iran to stay within the JPOA.” Achieving this delicate maneuver seems farfetched since many expect the Iranian response to the imposition of the hawks’ favored additional sanctions to be a rapid escalation of their civilian nuclear activities but there is a possibility Iran could stop talking but continue honoring the interim agreement, according to AFP:
“If Congress does pass new sanctions, Iran could react in two ways, said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.”Possibility number one is that Iran says ‘we are going to leave negotiations but we are not going to recommence our activities’. Possibility number 2, which I think is the more likely one, is that they say ‘we are going to recommence our activities but we are going to remain in the negotiation.’ I think that is the most likely option,” he said.”
I have come across the suggestion that a number of interim agreements could take the place of a permanent one before. Here is Sven Eric-Fikenscher and Robert Rearden arguing the merits of that position:
“The United States should avoid making the perfect deal the enemy of a good one. Rather than continuing with the current objective of a comprehensive grand bargain, the United States and its partners in the P5+1 should instead work toward a series of interim agreements using the JPOA as a model, with each successive accord building on the last. Such a gradual, incremental approach offers a better chance of ultimately resolving the nuclear dispute, at a lower risk of the existing deal falling apart. It would also make it easier for the White House to offer Iran sanctions relief, as additional relief from oil and other sanctions can be provided by presidential waiver.”
Gary Samore had this to say in an interview with Jonathan Shainin: “At this point, I think the fundamental dispute between the U.S. and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program has not been resolved, but it may be possible to have a series of interim agreements that reduces tension over time and creates opportunities for improved relations.”
Using several interim agreements to create a period of confidence-building could work as well as cinching the final deal now and letting relations improve during its time frame. Stringing along the interim agreement is a nifty Plan B but I very much doubt it will be necessary. Although if negotiations are extended in March it may signify that President Obama, for whatever his reasons, has decided it would be easier to go this route. This could be the understanding that Obama was offering to supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini in his latest letter: let’s all be patient as we gain more and more trust in your intentions over time by your nation’s consistent keeping of the JPOA’s terms, which would obviate the need for a final deal as it becomes increasingly obvious to even the most doubting of doubting Thomases in the West that Tehran has no interest whatsoever in nukes. At that point, the P5+1 will come together and annul the restrictions of the interim agreements and all sanctions.