Last week’s nuclear talks between Western negotiators and representatives of Iran concluded on Friday with no discernable sign of progress toward an agreement that would end the standoff over Tehran’s quest for a nuclear weapon. Though sources in Vienna were predicting that the whole point of this latest session and those to follow would be to draft another agreement to follow up on the weak nuclear deal signed last November, the talks yielded no sign that a successful conclusion to the diplomatic effort was anywhere in sight, either before the July deadline or after it. Both sides spoke of large gaps between their respective positions on how much of a nuclear infrastructure Iran will be allowed in the future. With Iran demanding that it be allowed to keep 50,000 functioning centrifuges for enriching uranium—a number that would make a mockery of any safeguards to ensure against a “breakout” to a bomb after the deal is struck—the chances of an accord seem remote unless either side substantially alters their positions.
Those pondering what the next step is for both parties must understand that the interim deal fundamentally altered the dynamic of the negotiations in Iran’s favor. With the sanctions regime weakened, Iran is more confident than ever. Tehran is currently negotiating as if both the potential use of force by the West and the impact of sanctions are not major factors. By standing their ground and refusing to agree to terms that would already give them the chance to build a bomb and insisting on being granted a far larger nuclear infrastructure, the ayatollahs are gambling that the West is bluffing about both the use of force and reinstating, let alone strengthening, sanctions. Given the circumstances, that seems prudent.
It must be understood that what the two sides have been negotiating about in Vienna is not whether the Iranians will have the capacity to build a bomb. That was already substantially conceded in the November interim deal when the West tacitly granted Iran the “right” to enrich uranium. With that point no longer in question and with the Iranians possessing the ability to reactivate their stockpile of nuclear fuel any time they like, the only variable in the bomb equation is how long such a breakout will take. The Obama administration’s goal in the talks is apparently to lengthen the current time for a breakout from a few weeks to a few months. That’s not insubstantial, but it also isn’t anything like a guarantee that Iran won’t get a bomb, especially when you realize that Western intelligence about the nuclear program is, at best, fragmentary.
Any idea that the West could parlay their sanctions or a failed diplomatic initiative into justification for the kind of pressure that could really bring Iran to its knees was thrown away in the interim deal. While the talks are reportedly being conducted in a congenial manner and in English, the negotiators seem to be quite comfortable with the process. But the problem with the West’s position is that no one seriously believes they have any more leverage over Iran. The notion that after the process of loosening sanctions has begun the U.S. can cajole a reluctant Europe to tighten the noose on Iran in the event of a diplomatic breakdown is risible. It can’t and won’t be done and the Iranians know it. Just as important is that Tehran knows President Obama will not order a strike on their nuclear facilities no matter what happens in the talks.
Thus, Iran’s seemingly “unrealistic” position on the centrifuges, as one Western negotiator described it to the New York Times, is actually nothing of the sort. Iran knows the only two possible outcomes of the talks is a breakdown that will let them get to a bomb but won’t produce a devastating response from the West or an agreement that will allow them to get to their nuclear ambition a bit more slowly.
Given the possible impact of sanctions on the Iranian economy as well as the danger from an attack, either from the West or from Israel, that would appear to be quite a gamble. But Iran seems to think that the West is bluffing and that Israel is unlikely to contradict President Obama’s demand that they stand down or is too weak to achieve a military task that perhaps only the U.S. can accomplish.
Since President Obama has already shown that he can sell the American people on the virtues of a weak Iran deal, Tehran figures that he can be pushed harder. Rather than come away from the upcoming rounds of talks with nothing and be forced to confront a foe that he would rather engage, the Iranians are of the opinion that he will give in and give them what they want. That might be a miscalculation that could lead to more suffering from the Iranian people. But this is what happens when tyrants negotiate with a democracy led by a weak leader. Even if Obama comes to his senses now and refuses to provide a diplomatic fig leaf to cover an Iranian arms push, it may be too late to convince Tehran’s leaders that he means business. If Iran is gambling that it can force another weak deal, it is hard to argue with their assessment of Obama. Right now it looks like their gamble is the safest possible bet.