November 28, 2014 | Business Insider

Why The US Shouldn’t Be So Afraid Of The Nuclear Negotiations With Iran Collapsing

A year after signing an interim agreement with Iran, the US administration has discovered the hard way that a comprehensive nuclear accord remains elusive.

President Obama thought the interim deal was a calculated risk, but one that was worth taking to test Iran’s readiness to reach a deal.  But a year of marathon talks failed to yield a breakthrough. The only tangible result is a gradual erosion of Western red lines in an effort to keep Iranian negotiators at the bargaining table — an loss in leverage which can only get worse as time goes on.

Meanwhile, Iran’s economy is gradually recovering from earlier international sanctions. As time goes by, pressure from the global business community will further undermine an already-fragile sanctions’ architecture.

So why has the Obama administration chosen to prolong the interim deal for another seven months, with the possibility that further extensions may be needed?

The reason is that President Obama has become a prisoner of his own arguments against critics of the interim deal.

The administration has called these critics warmongers from the start. As is becoming apparent now that talks will be extended, the White House will have us believe that the only alternative to the current framework is war.

Rhetorically, President Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, have consistently said that no deal is better than a bad deal.But during the year-long negotiations under the terms of the interim agreement, it has become increasingly obvious that the White House now believes that no deal is a worse option than a bad deal.  

That this rhetoric has successfully hit the mark was evident in media reports and commentary, as news of an extension started trickling in. BBC’s Jeremy Bowen noted that negotiators “will keep talking because the alternative could turn out to be war.” Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg echoed this sentiment: “The collapse of negotiations could move Iran and the west quickly towards confrontation that could end in disaster, and could set Iran on the fast and steady path to the nuclear threshold.”

The terrible choice between the current diplomatic framework and war is a false dichotomy. It's based on the assumption that there were no negotiations before and there can be no negotiations after the interim agreement.

The truth is that the international community has been negotiating with Iran since late 2003. 

Eleven years of talks offer some useful counterpoints to the notion that failure is a prelude to war. For example, the idea, currently under consideration in the nuclear talks, that much of Iran’s enriched uranium could make its way to Russia for fuel production, is an updated version of an interim deal offered to Iran in October 2009.

Iran’s then-ambassador to the International Atomic Energy in Vienna, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, initialled it and took it home for final approval – only to be rebuffed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, who killed the compromise.

Turkish and Brazilian attempts to salvage the deal by repackaging it for Tehran’s liking eventually failed and led to the passing of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929 – the strongest UN sanctions to date against Iran and the basis for European Union autonomous sanctions.

That was diplomacy’s failure on a grand scale – yet it did not beget war. Eventually, negotiations resumed and continued, on and off, until the November 24, 2013 interim agreement. What made it possible to bring Iran back to the negotiating table, each time, was the pain the West inflicted on Tehran through additional sanctions backed by the threat of credible military action.

That is why it is silly to suggest that the collapse of the interim deal would lead to war.

More likely, its expiry on November 24 would have led to a restoration of the status quo ante – with the Obama administration and its European allies free to slap new sanctions on Iran if Tehran sought to reverse course.

There have always been talks since Iran’s clandestine nuclear program first came to light. There is every reason to believe that, had the P5+1 told their Iranian counterparts that the interim deal was now over and there would be no further cash injections into Iran’s economy, Tehran would have found a way, eventually, to swallow its pride. After all, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif,reportedly said to journalists that Iran “never left the negotiating table and never will.”

What kept Iran negotiating in the past was Tehran's fear that, absent negotiations, Iran’s nuclear sites would be destroyed and that absent an agreement, sanctions would keep coming. But since President Obama has made it clear that negotiations at all costs are better than the alternative, Iran will keep negotiating for the opposite reasons – because it no longer fears the consequences of inconclusive diplomacy.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Mr Saeed Ghasseminejad is an associate fellow.


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