Today ought to be a day to celebrate for the Obama administration. Nuclear talks with Iran set to begin in Vienna will begin the next stage of a diplomatic process by which the president will redeem his oft-repeated promise about stopping the Islamist regime’s drive for nuclear weapons. For months since the signing of the interim nuclear agreement with Iran in November, the president and his cheering section in the press have lauded the prospects of these negotiations as the only thing standing in the way of a rush to war. They have spoken about the willingness of the Iranians to listen to reason since the election of the “moderate” Hassan Rouhani as president last summer.
They have also cited the seriousness of the president’s resolve to get results even as he has tempered some of the optimism by saying the chances of success are only 50 percent. Most importantly, while shooting down the chances of passing a new Iran sanctions bill that would have gone into effect only if the next round of talks had concluded in failure, they claimed the administration would not allow itself to be stalled by the Iranians and that the president would hold Tehran accountable to a tough timetable that would preclude any delaying tactics.
But the atmosphere pervading the opening of the new talks provides a stark contrast to what we’ve been hearing from Washington lately. It’s not just that the Iranians are pouring cold water on any optimism about the negotiations, with their Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying they “will lead nowhere” in a speech yesterday or his representatives’ adamant refusal to even discuss the dismantling of any of their nuclear infrastructure. What is most distressing about the Iran talks is the blithe assumption on the part of the negotiators that they will drag on for as long as a year. That gives the lie to the president’s assurances that he wouldn’t let himself be suckered by the Iranians into allowing them to keep delaying while they continue to get closer to their nuclear goal. It also puts the administration’s adamant opposition to the proposed sanctions bill into a new and unflattering light. The reason to oppose the sanctions seems now to be not so much about protecting the diplomatic option as it does enabling the Iranians to stall the West for as long as they like.
It should be remembered that the deal Secretary of State John Kerry signed in Geneva on November 24 stipulated that the talks that would follow were to take place over a six-month period. While there was a clause that said the talks could be extended if necessary, Kerry and his boss President Obama stressed the six-month time frame in order to assure Americans and nervous Israelis the agreement couldn’t be used by Tehran to stall the West indefinitely. Yet even before the new talks began, we are now being assured by the administration’s faithful enablers at the New York Times that we should expect the negotiations to drag on until 2015 with little hope that they will end even then. With Iran’s economy showing signs of a revival in the wake of the West’s loosening of sanctions, there appears to be no reason to expect Tehran will ever give up its nuclear dream.
Thus, with this week’s first meeting to be only about the form of the talks that will follow, it’s now clear that what is happening is exactly what critics of the president’s attempt to engage with Iran always feared: a renewal of the same stalling tactics that has allowed Tehran to drag out this process over the last decade.
President Obama denounced the new sanctions bill that had the support of a bipartisan 59-member Senate coalition as both superfluous and dangerous since it could scare the Iranians away from the table. But what we now see is that the proposal’s worst feature in the eyes of the administration was that it took the Iran nuclear deal’s timetable seriously. If the new sanctions bill were signed into law it would strengthen President Obama’s hand in negotiations with the Iranians since it would convey the message that there would be serious consequences if they did not comply with Western demands to give up their nuclear ambition. But without the sanctions bill, the Iranians—and the administration—are free to draw out the talks as long as they like. The lack of a new sanctions option also allows both sides to ignore key questions about Iran’s ballistic missile technology and other pertinent questions about their behavior, such as support for terrorism.
Open-ended negotiations were exactly what the president promised he would not be drawn into, but that appears to be the situation that the United States finds itself in as the diplomats arrive in Vienna. For a decade, Iran has been able to engage in diplomatic tricks that have enabled it to stall the West indefinitely as they tried to run out the clock until their nuclear project was completed. The sanctions that were passed over Obama’s objections during his first term were supposed to bring them to the table and end this charade. But the glum outlook in Vienna makes it appear as if the West has thrown away that economic leverage.
Right now, faith in diplomacy with Iran seems to have more to do with a disinclination to pressure them than it does with any belief that the U.S. can achieve its objectives. While it may take a year or more for the administration to concede that the talks have failed, the only measure that might actually help them to succeed—the prospect of new sanctions that will shut down Iran’s oil sales—is now off the table. This is good news for the Iranians but very bad news for those in the West who hoped Obama meant what he said about averting the nuclear threat.