Just Don't Upset the Iranians

Why is the White House lashing out at Congress, but barely responding to Iran's nuclear moves and the regime's bad-mouthing of Israel and the U.S. itself?

Seven weeks have gone by since the P5+1-Iran interim deal was announced in late November 2013. Although it was generally understood at the time that a deal had indeed been concluded in Geneva – an “historic achievement” lauded by the negotiators – by early December, it emerged that nothing had actually been signed, and implementation had not yet begun.

Over the course of December additional meetings were held at the expert/technical level in order to hammer out the remaining issues in dispute, and decide on a formula for implementation. But while progress has been reported – most recently following the Geneva meeting held late last week – the two sides have yet to announce an agreed-upon interpretation of the interim deal, or set a date for implementation.

What this means is that the six month period for negotiating the comprehensive deal has not yet begun. Moreover, because implementation has not commenced, Iran is under no constraints as far as its nuclear program goes, even though the international community has already refrained from putting any new sanctions in place. Iran’s foreign minister proclaimed that Iran will continue construction work at Arak, and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization announced that Iran is continuing to test new-generation centrifuges, raising concern that it may be conducting research into an even more advanced model.

From the start, the challenge of dealing with Iran’s nuclear program has critically hinged on the thorny issue of interpretation. This goes back to the NPT, with its gaping loophole regarding civilian nuclear programs based on dual-use technologies. Unfortunately, the interim deal – or Joint Plan of Action (JPA) – continues this trend. Although the deal was intended to merely freeze Iran’s nuclear advances, with some very limited sanctions relief, it appears that in order to get the deal, the parties consciously allowed for a degree of fuzziness in its provisions. Not surprisingly, the battle of interpretations began almost immediately – with two versions of the deal released the very next day.

Iran has also continued with well-known tactics geared to deflecting attention from its own behavior while loudly accusing the other side of lack of good faith and cheating. So while Iran pushed the envelope with its nuclear pronouncements, it also stormed out of the negotiating room in December when the US targeted 19 companies and individuals in the context of existing sanctions. And Foreign Minister Zarif said that if Congressional legislation regarding new sanctions (that would go into effect only if Iran breaches the interim deal or fails to strike a comprehensive deal) is adopted, it will kill diplomacy.

Iran continues ‘turning tables’ on the P5+1, hoping to further weaken international leverage by underscoring that any demands made of it will be answered immediately in kind, with Iran resisting being singled out for condemnation. So in direct response to pending U.S. sanctions legislation, Iranian lawmakers drafted a bill that would force the government to enrich uranium to 60% if new sanctions are imposed.

While these moves are perhaps understandable from Iran’s bargaining perspective, what is less comprehensible is why the Obama administration is buying into Iran’s narrative, thereby weakening its own bargaining position. The White House has lashed out at Congress for contemplating sanctions legislation, threatening a veto, and has sternly warned senators that supporting this legislation brings the U.S. closer to war. At the same time, the administration has not pushed back against Iran’s nuclear moves, nor has it reacted harshly to Iran’s extreme bad-mouthing of Israel and the U.S. itself. It is rather projecting the sense that the worst thing possible would be to upset the Iranians.

The situation on the sanctions front is of equal, if not greater concern, because the pressure of sanctions is the only leverage that the P5+1 have in this most difficult negotiation – the only reason why the Iranians stay at the table. They cannot get desperately needed sanctions relief without cooperating.

But what if Iran’s economy starts improving without the interim deal even going into effect? Recent reports indicate that this is exactly what is happening: Thanks to expectations that sanctions will be eased, Western energy companies are already flocking to Iran, Dubai is back in business transporting goods to Iran, Iran’s oil sales are up, and according to recent reports, Iran and Russia are on the verge of inking an oil-for-goods deal that – if implemented – would give Iran a monthly $1.5 billion in Russian goods and equipment, severely undercutting the sanctions leverage. This is telling evidence that sanctions relief simply cannot be fine-tuned and controlled in the manner that the Obama administration has been advocating.

In theory, the logic of the interim deal is sound. In practice, however, it just doesn’t work that way. Until the pressure on Iran is enough to make it decide to truly reverse course in the nuclear realm, everything that is going on is part of Iran’s tactical game to get maximum sanctions relief while maintaining and advancing the critical components of its nuclear program.

Dr. Emily B. Landau is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). She is the author of "Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation" (2012).

AP