round of talks between Iran and the P5+1, made up of the five permanent members
of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, came and went last week with
optimistic pronouncements but little tangible progress toward a comprehensive
nuclear settlement. The six-month interim accord, which took effect on Jan. 20,
may well be extended for six additional months, and more. Rather than a
stepping stone to a comprehensive agreement, the interim deal risks hardening
into a stopping point. All the while, as the head of Iran's nuclear agency
ominously declared, "The iceberg of sanctions
is melting while our centrifuges are also still working."
some of the world's best business negotiators critique U.S. strategy? While the
Obama team deserves high marks for launching the interim talks, their
approach doesn't sell the upside of a comprehensive deal persuasively enough to
transform more Iranian skeptics into active supporters. Moreover, no credible
enforcement mechanism is in place to worsen the downside of failure and help
Iranian advocates prevail over deal blockers.
There is no certainty that a deal is even possible or that Iranian President Hasan
Rouhani is negotiating in good faith. Assuming he is, however, a winning
negotiation strategy must help him handle both skeptics and blockers. (Obama, of
course, has his own skeptics and blockers.)
and his political supporters have largely provided the backing for the interim
agreement. By themselves, however, they cannot provide sufficient support for a
fuller deal. To succeed, they must attract part of a larger group of what you
might term "persuadable skeptics" -- tired of isolation and Ahmadinejad-induced
confrontation, hoping for an economic upturn, but suspicious of the P5+1 -- who
are at least open to a more comprehensive deal that offers real benefits
relative to a costly impasse.
blockers," by contrast, are unconditional opponents who sought to prevent the
interim deal and will fight virtually any larger accord, in part by recruiting
allies from the ranks of deal skeptics. Much of the Revolutionary Guard and
many conservative clerics -- already staging a rearguard action against the interim deal -- want
to put a stop to Rouhani and his allies. If Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei, ends up firmly in this group, he would serve as a one-man
blocking coalition, and no deal would be possible. The more skeptics Rouhani
can win over, however, the less likely this is to happen.
these factional cross-currents, the United States and the P5+1 should address
both groups separately. First, they should target skeptics with a
persuasive campaign for an agreement. Second, they should try to thwart
blockers, whose activities may lead to indefinite extensions of the interim
agreement, by means of a hard deadline with teeth.
years with no official communication between the two capitals, hardliners in
Tehran have portrayed the United States and its allies as implacable,
interested only in sanctions and threats. As a result, skeptics and
blockers easily sow doubt that the U.S.-led coalition would ever deliver
meaningful benefits as part of a nuclear deal.
this hostile narrative, the United States should orchestrate a far more
persuasive campaign that targets potentially persuadable Iranian skeptics,
helping to build the largest possible constituency for a deal. The current
interim deal offers modest sanctions relief, doled out in carefully calibrated
increments. But U.S. negotiators should do more to emphasize the much
larger potential benefits that would accrue to Iran with -- but only
with -- a larger deal.
example, during the next round of nuclear talks, scheduled for April, the P5+1
should encourage international oil companies and other businesses to send
well-publicized missions to Iran to demonstrate advanced technology and
investment willingness. Similar efforts could be made to highlight the
potential benefits of increased commerce, finance, and access to the Western
agriculture, civil aviation, and telecommunication sectors. U.S. and European
scientific teams could likewise be dispatched to explore potential areas of cooperation
with Iranian scientists in non-nuclear fields.
most part, the Obama administration has opposed such initiatives -- notably by
French and German companies -- concerned that they would weaken the sanctions
regime. (In a notable exception, the administration authorized U.S. academic exchanges with
Iranian universities on March 19.) But a coordinated campaign for Western
companies and scientists to more visibly tout their wares could potently
counter the hardline Tehran narrative, demonstrating that, given a deal, no
Western agenda exists to frustrate Iran's scientific progress or economic
development. Targeting skeptics in this way would help mobilize potential supporters
and isolate hardliners. It would also help persuade allies that the United
States is serious about diplomacy, something that will be important if
negotiations fail and allied support is needed for tougher measures.
campaign need not undermine the sanctions regime. Without a final nuclear deal,
none of these tantalizing benefits for Iran would be realized. In Obama's words, governments could still come
down "like a ton of bricks" on sanctions violators.
addition to wooing skeptics, a winning strategy must thwart determined Iranian
blockers who seek a nuclear capability and will try to prevent meaningful
concessions. After six months of talks, there could easily be positive
atmospherics but little real progress (as with the talks that just ended).
Eager to avoid escalation, the P5+1 and Iranian diplomats could conceivably
plead for more time. This possibility has led to predictions of a likely six-month extension
of the negotiations -- an option that's already built into the interim deal.
This could easily become a pattern, turning some version of the interim deal
into a de facto stopping point. Meanwhile, Western companies continue to
lobby their governments to permit Iranian contracts, the will of allies to
support sanctions erodes, diplomatic focus shifts, and Iran's nuclear program
mitigate this very real risk of deal drift, the United States and its allies
should set a realistic, hard deadline for reaching an acceptable
agreement. Setting a credible deadline will be difficult, however, since
warnings of "red lines" will doubtlessly ring hollow to an Iranian regime that
has already crossed so
its credibility -- and to help win over its own domestic and allied skeptics --
the administration should pre-negotiate a harsh new "contingency" sanctions
package with Congress and work to ensure buy-in from U.S. allies. But instead
of signing the sanctions bill immediately, Obama should -- at an appropriate
pause point in the ongoing talks -- publicly and forcefully commit to signing
it if there is no acceptable agreement by the end of a single six-month extension
of the interim deal. A contingent sanctions bill passed with deep
bipartisan support, coupled with a public presidential commitment to sign it by
a specific date, will enhance U.S. credibility, highlight the very real
downsides for Iran of no deal, and make it harder for blockers to gain traction
administration wisely opposed a recent sanctions bill sponsored by Sen. Robert
Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) that went well beyond nuclear
issues and included provisions that would have killed a final deal with Iran.
(See here and here for specifics.) By contrast, this
new contingent sanctions legislation should focus narrowly on the all-important
nuclear file. For years to come, the United States and its allies will be
dealing with issues like Iran's human rights record, support for Bashar
al-Assad's regime in Syria, and collaboration with the Shiite militant group
Hezbollah in Lebanon -- but doing so will be far more effective if Iran has no
the Menendez-Kirk bill, the contingency legislation should not hamper
diplomatic creativity with requirements that are overly detailed or specific.
Instead, it should establish one clear criterion: To avoid harsher sanctions, a
new deal must verifiably prevent Iran from developing what Harvard political
scientist Graham Allison characterizes as an "exercisable nuclear
triggering the new sanctions, Obama would have to certify that any new deal
meets this criterion; a bipartisan expert panel of former national security
officials could also be required to concur. The International Atomic
Energy Agency, meanwhile, could be required to declare that Iran has
satisfactorily answered all of its questions.
properly, such certifications -- coupled with the administration's likely
unexpected decision to work proactively with Congress on contingent sanctions
-- would help reassure U.S. and allied skeptics, who worry that the
administration is too soft. (Indeed, after the administration and its allies
defeated the Menendez-Kirk bill, 83 senators and 394 House members wrote the administration urging
tough conditions for any nuclear deal.)
Some fret that setting a specific
deadline with sharp teeth would sour the negotiating atmosphere. Iran will
surely protest and may even walk out of the negotiations temporarily. Yet
if strong, public threats would kill negotiations, the Obama administration
would have already blown it. For example, the president recently threatened to work with Congress to put in
place "even new and harsher sanctions" in the event that negotiations failed. The real problem is not
atmosphere-jeopardizing threats. Rather, it's their credibility, coupled with
the lack of any forcing mechanism.
with a positive campaign that makes the gains of a deal more apparent, setting
a hard deadline could well tip the internal Iranian balance in favor of a deal.
After all, as savvy business and financial dealmakers know from long
experience, bargaining in the shadow of a lawsuit, strike, or hostile takeover
often spurs results that would not have been possible without the credible
threat of consequences stemming from failure. A deadline with contingent
sanctions would amount to a milder version of Richard Holbrooke's "bomb and
talk" approach to ending the Bosnian war.
the campaign to win over Iranian skeptics and forestall the blockers is not
about capitulation and humiliation. Rather it highlights valuable mutual
gains to be had if Iran finally verifies the peaceful nature of its nuclear
program -- something the regime has long affirmed, along with its religiously-based opposition to obtaining nuclear weapons. But if Iran continues to stall
while its centrifuges spin, a hard deadline with sharp teeth awaits.
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