The first step toward an Iran deal: No new nuclear concessions

If only the United States negotiated as ruthlessly with Iran as it does with itself.

The interim nuclear accord — formally the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) — between Iran and the United States and its five negotiating partners (known as the P5+1) offers moderate benefits to both sides: It limits Iran’s nuclear activities in certain respects, while giving Iran time and space for economic recovery. Given these benefits, both sides appear to view the JPOA as essentially their second-best option — not as good as a final accord on terms they prefer but better than the escalating crisis it replaced.

Perversely, however, this makes a final accord less likely. Achieving one will require painful compromises, particularly for Iranian hard-liners who view any accommodation with the United States as contrary to the Islamic Republic’s core ideology. One might make those compromises if the alternative was dire. But the prospect of further extensions of the talks means that it is not.

This is the crux of the debate between the White House and Congress over sanctions legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill. Congress appears to believe that the threat of renewed sanctions is necessary to motivate the Iranian regime to agree to a final accord, just as sanctions played a role in persuading Iran to sign the JPOA, as even President Obama acknowl­edges.

The White House, on the other hand, seems to think new sanctions would have the opposite effect, reinforcing Iran’s view that the United States cannot be trusted, undercutting Iranian negotiators and prompting Tehran and perhaps even our negotiating partners to walk away from the talks. It is out of this conviction that Obama threatened to veto the legislation and has strenuously lobbied against it.

So who is correct?

When Iran has made significant foreign policy shifts — such as ending the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 and suspending elements of its nuclear program and engaging in diplomacy in 2003 — it has been because the cost of not doing so outweighed the benefits. If Iran consents to a nuclear accord, it will be because the cost of withholding that consent is unacceptably high, especially compared with the prospect of sanctions relief and removal of Iran’s pariah status.

A veto of sanctions legislation would indicate to Iran that no further pressure is forthcoming, reducing the incentive to compromise. Additionally, it would vitiate the JPOA’s negotiating deadline by signaling that an extension of the interim accord is the most likely alternative if no deal is inked. But it would also, by further souring relations between the White House and Congress, make it harder for the president to eventually gain Congress’s support and deliver whatever sanctions relief he promises Iran, thus undermining the negotiating credibility that the administration purports to be protecting.

Yet Obama’s veto threat also creates a conundrum for Congress, because it risks undercutting the very pressure that lawmakers are trying to increase. Even if Congress had the votes to override a veto, the effectiveness of the sanctions threat depends on the executive branch’s cooperation. If the White House indicates its refusal to implement sanctions, or rushes to make what Congress would consider an unacceptable deal to avert them, legislative action could have the opposite effect from what is intended.

Despite their disagreement over sanctions, however, there is enough commonality between the White House and Congress on Iran that the Obama administration should try negotiations with the Hill rather than scorched-earth tactics. Indeed, doing so could even make a good outcome more likely.

Given that Congress’s primary concern appears to be that the administration will make a bad deal, a good first step would be to stop offering Iran nuclear concessions — which have heightened congressional alarm without bringing Tehran around — and instead seek agreement with congressional leaders on what would constitute an acceptable deal.

This may, in fact, require toughening the U.S. negotiating stance on key issues such as Iran’s past weaponization research, monitoring and verification, Iran’s missile arsenal and the duration of an agreement. But it could also secure the congressional support required to empower the president to credibly offer sanctions relief, which Iran needs far more than it needs additional centrifuges.

At the same time, Iran must be convinced that the alternative is even greater pressure than it is experiencing now. To accomplish this, the United States and its negotiating partners should commit to no further extensions of the JPOA, warn that concessions will be rescinded and sanctions re-imposed if no deal is reached by a date certain, and counter rather than accommodate destabilizing Iranian activities in the Middle East.

The president is right that if we are going to negotiate, we should negotiate in good faith — but not forever. If Iranian leaders believe that the alternative to making a strategic choice to give up nuclear weapons is just more talks — and with them, more Western concessions — we should not be surprised if those talks stretch on inconclusively.

Michael Singh is managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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