One of the big debates in Washington for the past several months have been the on-going negotiations with Iran. The neo-cons in the Republican Party oppose any deal and have managed to get the Administration to concede that any agreement with Iran will be submitted to Congress. The problem with this discussion on the news and in D.C. is the framing of this issue as a dispute between Iran on one side and the United States and Israel on the other side. This framing is completely false. While the rest of the world is willing to let the United States take the lead in negotiations, the negotiations are a global issue and that fact is key to understanding what options are on the table.
There are two basic facts underlying this dispute. First, the basic issue is a question of international law — the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and related documents. Either Iran is sufficiently complying with those terms or it isn’t. The second issue is that most of the major powers have imposed some degree of sanctions on Iran. Keeping pressure on Iran requires that everybody stays on board.
In the late 1960s, with the United States playing a key role, the major nuclear powers (excluding the People’s Republic of China which was then not recognized as the official government of China) and a significant number of non-nuclear powers adopted the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In short, the nuclear powers agree not to transfer nuclear weapons or component parts to non-nuclear states and the non-nuclear states agree not to obtain or develop nuclear weapons. However, the Treaty allows the non-nuclear states to develop nuclear power. To assure that non-nuclear states do not use otherwise legal nuclear facilities to covertly develop nuclear weapons, the non-nuclear states agreed to enter into agreements with the International Atomic Energy Association (and to abide by those agreements) for inspection and other verification of the proper use of their legal nuclear facilities. Iran was one of the original signatories of the treaty, and formally ratified it in 1970.
In 2003, the International Atomic Entergy Association determined that Iran was not in compliance with its agreements concerning the peaceful use of nuclear power. The U.S. (and others) believe that Iran was attempting to divert material from its legitimate civilian nuclear energy industry to a covert operation to develop a nuclear weapon. While the U.S. and Israel are particularly concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon, a significant part of the members of the Treaty (which now include the People’s Republic of China) are concerned about Iran’s non-compliance with the Treaty. At the present time, Russia, China, and the major Western nations have joined the U.S. in imposing sanctions on Iran to force Iran to comply with its obligations.
This brings us to the current situation. Technically, the current negotiations concern what steps Iran must take to return to compliance with its obligations to the IAEA under the NPT and the timing of the lifting of sanctions if Iran meets its obligations. Because the U.S. is not the IAEA and other nations have also imposed sanctions, it is possible that the rest of the nations that have imposed sanctions might change their minds and lift the sanctions even if the U.S. is not satisfied with Iran’s concessions. The reality is that for most things that Iran wants to buy and sell, the United States is not the only potential trading partner and it is not difficult for Iran to find a third party to serve as a middleman for any goods that it might want to purchase from the United States. As the fifty-plus years of unilateral U.S. sanctions on Cuba show, while such unilateral sanctions impose some pain on other countries, they are not quite crippling.
This background forms the competing bargaining positions of Iran and the U.S. Iran wants to concede as little as possible to convince the other major powers that it has done enough to come into compliance with its obligations under international law. The United States wants to get as strict limits on Iran’s nuclear power programs and as extensive a verification program as possible. The basic game is convincing Russia, China, and the European Union that each party is being reasonable and negotiating in good faith. To keep everybody else on board, the United States has to be willing to sit down at the table and actually discuss alternatives. To break up the sanctions regime, Iran has to be willing to make significant concessions.
Because the U.S. is part of a group negotiating with Iran (even though the U.S. is playing the lead role), it has to take into consideration what the feelings of the other members of the sanction coalition. If Iran makes concessions that are acceptable to the majority of the other nations (especially the United Kingdom, France, and Germany — the European Union members in these negotiations), and the U.S. turns down the agreement, the other nations might lift their sanctions which is enough for Iran.
From the U.S. perspective, the best result of the negotiations are either that Iran walks away from the talks or that the religious leadership in Iran vetoes any deal that might come out of the negotiations. Under those circumstances, the sanctions stay in place increasing the likelihood of unrest in Iran that could remove the religious leadership. A new deal could then be worked out with the new civilian regime that keeps Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
From the Iranian perspective, the best result is to reach an agreement that gets rejected by the U.S. Congress or that the next U.S. President fails to comply with the obligation to lift sanctions. The other nations will lift their sanctions, and Iran will be able to slowly renege on the terms of its agreement. As the other nations will be upset with the U.S. for killing the deal, they will not be likely to put the sanctions back in place. Eventually, Iran will gets its nuclear weapon giving it greater influence in the region, and the religious leadership retains its power.
In short, the worst thing that could happen is that Congress meddles in these negotiations. Unfortunately, the neo-cons are all ideology (The current Iranian government is evil, can’t be trusted, and must be destroyed) and no pragmatism (how do we achieve our goals). They seem determined to destroy the best opportunity for the U.S. to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons and for getting the religious leadership out of Iran because they simply do not understand that the U.S. can’t do this alone.