Opinion

The Great Debate

In Iran talks, ‘no deal’ bests ‘bad deal’ for U.S.

By Joseph I. Lieberman
July 18, 2014

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program in Vienna

With only days to go before the original July 20 deadline for negotiations over the future Iran’s nuclear program, there is scant sign that a breakthrough is imminent. The reason is simple: Iranian leaders’ refusal to move from what a senior Obama administration official recently described as “unworkable and inadequate positions that would not in fact assure that their program is exclusively peaceful.”

The stakes of the Vienna nuclear talks could not be higher. Although the past months have witnessed the proliferation of alarming new threats in the Middle East, including the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant across Iraq and Syria, these dangers are not equal to the catastrophic, transformational consequences of the Iranian regime, the world’s No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, acquiring nuclear weapons.

If an agreement with Iran fails to materialize by Sunday, some will likely criticize it as a foreign-policy setback for the Obama administration, raising the specter of an additional national security crisis at a time when Washington is already stretched thin by many other challenges. For that reason, despite the administration’s oft-stated insistence that “no deal” is preferable to a “bad deal,” these critics will urge greater flexibility on key terms and conditions with Tehran going forward.

British Foreign Secretary Hague meets with U.S. Secretary of State Kerry at talks of Iran's nuclear program in ViennaThat course is profoundly mistaken.

Rather than being a defeat for the United States, a refusal to accept a bad deal in Vienna could strengthen the Obama administration at home and abroad. It would help rebuild its bruised credibility and influence in the Middle East and hopefully increase the odds that the administration can ultimately achieve the goal of peacefully, verifiably bolting the door on Iran’s illicit nuclear ambitions.

If the talks in Vienna end in failure because of Iranian intransigence, it should be seen as a foreign policy success for the Obama administration on multiple levels.

First, by holding firm on key issues under dispute, the administration can start to unwind a corrosive narrative about its global leadership. A perception has built up over the past year among many of our friends and partners — especially in the Middle East – that the White House is so averse to the prospect of foreign entanglements that it is willing to shirk both historic U.S. security commitments and its own explicit policy pledges.

This suspicion has been fed by administration missteps elsewhere, in particular the last- minute shift against the use of military force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after he used chemical weapons against his own people. In the case of Iran, these suspicions have led many to fear that the Obama administration’s declaration that “no deal is better than a bad deal” will prove no more enduring than its “red line” against Assad.

European Union foreign policy chief Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif address a news conference after talks in ViennaBy sticking to its principles at Vienna, the White House can counter this belief — and reestablish that it means what it says.

Second, the White House has said the only reason the Iranians have come to the negotiating table is because of crippling economic pressure imposed on them. Much of the credit for that pressure goes to Congress, which repeatedly pushed the previous two administrations to accept more severe sanctions, more quickly, than the executive branch wanted.

The Obama administration made critical contributions to making sanctions work and has shown unambiguously, through its persistent diplomacy, that responsibility for the confrontation rests exclusively with leaders in Tehran, not Washington. This has made it far harder for ambivalent countries to oppose sanctions.

In the wake of a deadlock in Vienna, the Obama administration should seize on this dynamic. This would mean determining quickly if a new United Nations Security Council resolution is achievable, which would impose tangible costs on Tehran for its refusal to accept the good-faith offers made by the international community. It also would mean working in parallel with our key allies and partners in Europe and Asia-Pacific to prepare multilateral measures that could be deployed against Tehran, as we have done successfully before. And it would mean that the Obama administration should make clear its readiness to embrace congressional legislation imposing a new level of sanctions.

If the negotiators fail to reach an agreement Sunday, there will surely be people urging the Obama administration to extend the talks. In fact, Secretary of State John Kerry himself has suggested this.

The talks should only be continued, however, if the White House concludes that the Iranian government has actually moved far enough in the negotiations to justify the assumption that more time will probably produce a good agreement. Otherwise, the talks should be broken off until the Iranians make clear that they are willing to accept an end to their nuclear activities in return for an end to economic sanctions. A reflexive extension of the negotiations without justification will unsettle our allies and encourage Iran.

In these circumstances, congressional action would be critical as a spur to U.S. diplomacy. The more credible, broad-based and crippling the next round of sanctions, the greater the prospect that the Iranians might come around to accept the necessary terms for a good deal.

We should remember that one way Iran wins is if it is able to divide the diverse coalition of countries and interests that has mobilized against it — to drive a wedge between the United States and its foreign partners; between Democrats and Republicans in Washington, and between Congress and the executive branch. Conversely, the way to defeat Iran’s nuclear ambitions is by standing united, both at home and abroad.

What may seem like a diplomatic defeat in Vienna could prove to be a stepping stone to a successful conclusion — an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

 

PHOTO (TOP): Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with Secretary of State John Kerry (R) at talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program in Vienna, July 13, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

PHOTO (INSERT 1): British Foreign Secretary William Hague (L) meets with Secretary of State John Kerry (R) at talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program in Vienna, July 13, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Bourg 

PHOTO (INSERT 2): European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif address a news conference after talks in Vienna, April 9, 2014. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •