U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, and their delegates have held hours upon hours of meetings over the past two days with one objective in mind: striking a nuclear agreement before June 9 that everyone around the table can live with. The U.S. and its negotiating partners in the P5+1 coalition have been talking with the Iranians for nearly two years in the hope of finding a resolution to the nuclear issue. During those two years, multiple deadlines have been missed, talks have been extended for an additional several months o end, interim accords have been signed, and skeptics in both Washington and Tehran have tried their best to highlight why the deal under consideration is a bad one. The debate in Washington has been particularly intense, where outright mistrust of Iran's intentions crosses party lines.
For those in the U.S. Congress who are outright opposed to negotiating with the Iranians over its nuclear program (think Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton), any concession provided by the United States is seen as a dangerous capitulation to a radical, terrorist-sponsoring, Islamist-fascist regime that would like nothing more than to annihilate Israel as soon as it had the capability to do so. For others who have taken a more realist approach to the talks, like Sens. Bob Corker and Ben Cardin (the respective chairman and ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee), the concern lies less on whether Iran would actually launch a nuclear attack against Israel than with the amount of money that Tehran would receive in exchange for curbs on its nuclear enrichment capabilities. Chairman Corker, who's committee will be responsible for overseeing any Iranian nuclear agreement signed in Vienna, is registering his growing concerns directly with the White House and the State Department on how much U.S. negotiators are giving up -- first in a letter to President Barack Obama, in a Saturday phone call with Secretary Kerry, and in a Sunday appearance on the CBS program Face the Nation.
As someone who has been a persistent supporter of trying to find a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue, I have tried to take these criticisms with a grain of salt. Some of them, like Tom Cotton's call for Tehran to completely dismantle their entire nuclear infrastructure or risk a U.S. military attack on their facilities, is simply unworkable. After tens of billions of dollars in investment and hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenue due to a stringent economic sanctions regime, asking the Iranians to surrender after a decade of expanding their nuclear capacity is like asking a car salesman to give you a free vehicle: it's simply not going to happen. It is also highly doubtful that walking away from the table and slapping an even stronger sanctions regime in place -- hoping that the Iranians will buckle in the process and agree to terms less advantageous than in the past -- would work as intended. Tehran's economy, after all, was severely hit for years by the current sanctions and refused to limit their enrichment activity.
Yet there are certainly scenarios that one can dream up that would compel Secretary Kerry to throw his hands up and walk away from the negotiating table. The "no deal is better than a bad deal" slogan that the administration has used ever since the first meeting with the Iranians is more important than ever. Pro-diplomacy people like me would much rather have an agreement than a breakdown. But, if Iran persists in pushing demands that are either politically unsustainable in Washington or unneeded for a good, verifiable agreement, then the United States should indeed call it quits.
U.S. negotiators should pack up their bags and leave if Iran insists on the following:
1 - Limitations on where IAEA inspectors can go, constraints on which nuclear facilities they can visit, and constraints on the amount of time inspectors have to do their work. "Any-time, anywhere access" is absolutely critical if the United States, the P5+1, and the international community can ensure that the Iranians are complying by the deal in full and not trying to build a new covert uranium enrichment facility somewhere in the country. If Ayatollah Ali Khamenei doesn't sign off on these kinds of inspections, the agreement will not gain the necessary support in the U.S. Congress.
2 - Anything more than gradual sanctions relief timed with Iranian compliance to the agreement is unacceptable and unwise from the standpoint of the P5+1 powers. There is a decent indication that Tehran is willing to submit to this scheme -- one that is reasonable, logical, and provides everyone with an incentive to remain true to any agreement.
3 - Caving to the Iranians on sanctions outside of the nuclear portfolio would be a terrible mistake. Unfortunately, Iran has brought up the idea of removing the U.N. Security Council arms embargo and ballistic missile import ban during the last two days of the talks. According to the Los Angeles Times, "Iranian officials said...that they would like to see a quick lifting of the missile and arms embargoes" as part of a final, comprehensive joint plan of action. Restrictions on arms imports were first imposed by the Security Council in 2007, and they've remained on the books since then. There is no reason why they shouldn't remain on the books after July 9: not only would a concession like this go against the April 2 framework, but it would reward Iran on an issue that Tehran insisted should not be part of the talks in the first place (ballistic missiles).
4 - The IAEA investigation of Iran's past work on nuclear weapons development (what negotiators call "Past Military Dimensions" of Iran's program) are certainly important and should be addressed. But it shouldn't be a deal-breaker. Full cooperation from Iran up-front is probably too much to ask for. But cooperation with the IAEA over time -- joint work that can be expedited by holding some sanctions relief back -- is a perfectly appropriate thing to ask for.
Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif have both said that tough political decisions need to be made for this crisis to be resolved. If Zarif doesn't budge on these four elements, then the U.S. should come to the conclusion that Ayatollah Khamenei is simply unwilling or unable to make those tough choices.