A Nuclear Deal, Now or Never

Like it or not, the calendar of voting — here and in Iran — is driving the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. A first, easy prediction: Don’t expect progress in the few days that remain until America’s Election Day. But then the tempo could ratchet up quickly. And it had better, if we are to expect a nuclear deal at all.

The clock begins ticking on Election Day because Nov. 24 is the target date for a comprehensive agreement. But until the next Congress is chosen on Nov. 4, the Americans can’t make politically risky promises and the Iranians can’t react, not knowing where the balance of power between Republicans and Democrats will lie.

Slightly more than a year from now, Iran will hold its own elections, which will ultimately decide who its next top leader will be. Given that the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has set the balance of power between reformists and hard-liners, that choice could well change the direction of Iranian policy making on any potential deal for a very long time.

These storm clouds will narrow the diplomats’ room to maneuver as each election approaches. But they will also part long enough, between election seasons, to perhaps allow for dramatic new proposals and agreements. It is a complicated game: The elections affect the talks, and the rate of progress in the talks determines how voters feel. Each side must calculate not just how a final deal would resonate at home, but also when it would strengthen the hand of its most desired partner on the other side.

Here is how this interwoven calendar is likely to play out:

2014: The United States pegged the negotiations to its political calendar when it fixed the deadline for a final deal after next month’s election. The calculation assumed that once the next Congress’s makeup was known, Iranian negotiators who sought a deal would be eager to consummate one in plenty of time to show voters a rising economy, based on sanctions relief. If the Republicans do as well as expected, the Obama administration would also want to consolidate a deal quickly, before the new Congress meets in January. In theory, then, the best chance for a deal is in the next few months, when both sides’ political motivations converge.

But there is a big problem: The sides remain far apart. The United States and its partners insist that Iran cut its enrichment capability enough to preclude a rapid breakout toward producing a nuclear weapon; Iran refuses to consider any cut that could seem to dismantle its nuclear program. Iran also seeks full and immediate relief from economic sanctions; its opponents reject that as imprudent and impractical. Any deal would require both sides to compromise. And even a signed deal would be attacked by hard-liners in both countries, especially if President Obama bypassed Congress and suspended most sanctions on his own. Iran would be skeptical, since the next president could restore them.

Does that mean a quick deal is not in the cards, forcing the talks to be extended well into next year? Not necessarily — even if the Republicans win big next month. In that case, Iran would question whether the next Congress would go along with any sanctions relief. And the weaker the Obama administration looked to Iranian negotiators, the more they would ask for broader sanctions relief up front.

That would in turn make it more difficult for the administration to sell such an agreement to the current Congress — unless, of course, the Iranians significantly changed course on their demands to keep their enrichment program. So a big Republican win would only increase pressure on Mr. Obama and Iran to settle now or never.

The other option — reset the clock and hope for a solid deal to emerge more slowly — is a poorer bet. The reason lies in the next election cycle.

2015: In December 2015, Iran will elect a new Parliament. Those legislators will choose a Council of Experts, who in turn will pick the next supreme religious leader. Knowing how large those stakes are, Iran’s negotiators already have their eyes on those parliamentary elections. So should the American negotiators, because the date of any agreement could decide that election.

At the moment, Parliament is controlled by hard-liners. To change that, President Hassan Rouhani needs the economic benefits that a nuclear deal can bring. And he needs them soon, if they are to impress voters. In other words, the longer it takes to get a deal, the less likely it is that it can help Mr. Rouhani. Iran’s conservatives know that: If a deal is reached at all, they want it later rather than sooner.

Put that calendar together, and a strategy for America is clear. While the United States and its allies must achieve their core goals — effectively and dependably blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb — in any compromises they make, they need to remember, too, that getting a deal itself could be a game-changer in Iranian politics. The bet they should be making is on offering one while they still can; their counterparts are, after all, Iranian politicians whose interests lie in both achieving a nuclear deal and opening up their country. If the talks don’t bear fruit soon, our narrow window of opportunity will shut, and the West will most likely have to contend with a far more recalcitrant Iran in an unstable Middle East.

The Iranian hard-liners are betting that a turn to the right in America would sink the talks, and that an end to talks would hand them a long-term victory in Iran. So even if Congress turns further rightward, we need to quicken the negotiations and achieve a deal as soon as possible. The longer it takes, the more likely it is that politics here and in Iran will ultimately coalesce to sink any deal at all.

Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.

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