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Now Is Not the Time to Let Up on Iran

In addition to pledges to assist the Iraqi government in fighting Sunni militants it is also now being reported the Iranians have made overtures to Washington about cooperating on preventing the further disintegration of the Iraqi state. But no one should for a moment imagine that the Iranians are doing any of this out of the goodness of their hearts. For one thing, it makes sense for Iran to bolster Iraq’s Shia-backed leader Nouri al-Maliki. But more than that, ever since the fall of Saddam the Iranians have been seeking ways to martial Iraq’s Shia majority in such a way that would be advantageous to the interests of Tehran.

In a sense, events in Iraq have mirrored those in Syria, and to some degree Lebanon. It has been argued that this is really all part of a proxy war being fought out between the Gulf states and Iran, with financial assistance flowing to Sunni groups from the monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, while the Iranians back the Shia and Alawite factions in these places. Yet, Iran’s offer of cooperation in with the U.S. in Iraq is concerning when viewed in light of the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

There is every reason to be skeptical about the progress of these talks. The conferences between Iran and the P5+1 countries come and go, diplomats file in and out of elegant hotels, enjoying a few days Vienna or Geneva. But it’s not at all clear that the parties are any closer to a satisfactory deal than when they started. And now it appears that the Iranians are attempting a divide-and-conquer strategy. Of the six nations negotiating with Iran, the Iranians have struck up separate dialogue tracks with four: America, France, Germany, and Russia. No doubt the hope on the part of the Iranians is that one of these will begin to soften in its line, thus undermining the stance taken by the others and making it impossible for the P5+1 group to maintain a united front in the negotiations.

It is hard to imagine that the parties will have put together a workable agreement by the July 20 deadline. Secretary of State John Kerry is fond of repeating his mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” but given what little has been achieved so far it seems that by July 20 we will have either a bad deal or no deal, both of which are thoroughly bad options.

It’s not surprising, then, that diplomats have been warning that they may “regretfully” have to extend their stay on the negotiation circuit for another six months. Clearly this is precisely what the Iranians have been playing for. Keeping the negotiation process going allows them to keep the sanctions concessions they’ve already gained, the opportunity of winning more along the way, protection from the threat of a military strike, and all the time they can quietly tip-toe closer toward nuclear breakout beneath the cover of negotiations. In the meantime Iran is seeking to rebuild some of its standing on the world stage, which may well strengthen its hand in winning further concessions. It simply has to play for time, wait for something to happen–a major conflagration in Iraq perhaps, more conflict in Ukraine or the Baltics–and then it can slip over the threshold when the time is right.

Speaking in Rome recently, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Aragachi told listeners that negotiations are now in a very “critical stage.” He went on, “There are still gaps. We need wisdom and creativity to bridge the gaps …. a deal is within reach.” What does all of that amount to? The message is clear: stick with negotiations, it’s going to take a lot more time, but you’ll get what you want in the end, we promise. But if the promise of a carrot wasn’t enough, the Iranians are also threatening a stick. Aragachi warned that abandoning the talks without an agreement would be “disastrous for all” and said that in that event the Iranians would resume enriching uranium at 20 percent–just a quick and easy step away from weapons-grade levels.

Yet it’s strange that Iran should expect the West to be more afraid of its enrichment program than it should be of Western sanctions or air strikes. Under a different administration perhaps such Iranian threats would sound as ludicrous as they ought to. But with Obama having taken both the military and sanctions options off the table, the West’s last pitiful line of defense against Iranian tyrants is to keep them talking.


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