WASHINGTON -- As international talks with Iran over its nuclear program enter the eleventh -- and twelfth and thirteenth -- hour, the Obama administration is refusing to heed calls to leave the negotiating table, for two reasons. One is substantive: The administration believes a nuclear deal remains possible. The other is political: the White House is wary that if negotiations falter and it ends up with the blame, there could be serious diplomatic and geopolitical consequences.
“We have managed the Iranian nuclear issue over the last several years by finding ways to try and put constraints on the Iranians while mobilizing public opinion internationally to our side,” one White House official explained to reporters last Thursday.
“I think we would be in a stronger position if, and only if, the perception is that the Iranians are the reason why there is no deal,” the official continued, referring to the possibility that negotiators fail to reach an agreement by their self-imposed deadline, which has been extended to July 10.
In an effort to avoid being blamed for the potential failure of the talks currently taking place in Vienna, the administration increasingly finds itself operating on two simultaneous, sometimes competing, fronts: inviting criticism at home and in Israel for its perceived acquiescence to Iran, while also earning potential kudos from world actors for its patience.
As the White House sees it, there are three potential outcomes for the negotiations. The first, and most preferable, is that a deal is struck that curbs Iran’s nuclear program, opening the country up for inspections while providing sanctions relief in return. During a working cocktail party at the White House with Senate Democrats on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama estimated the odds of reaching such an agreement at “less than 50/50.”
The second is that a deal falls apart and the blame is placed on Iran. In that scenario, the administration still holds out hope that the international community, including countries such as Russia and China that are not always friendly to the U.S., would rally with escalated sanctions that could potentially bring Iran “back to the table.”
That is all lost in the third, and most disastrous, scenario, in which talks fall apart and the U.S. is perceived to be at fault. In that case, American officials fear international support for the negotiation effort would diminish, and the future sanctions regime and the likelihood of resuscitating talks would be imperiled, if not eliminated entirely. Russia and China would feel less prohibited in providing economic relief to Iran, while Iran would likely restart its largely frozen nuclear program. Neighboring countries would have to recalibrate their strategies, and the prospect of military action would grow more likely.
Such an outcome would, the White House official argued, "precipitate the very crisis in the region that people warn about 15 years from now if there is a deal."
"We would be in a scenario whereby we were to blame for the collapse of talks," the official added. "Therefore we lose the sanctions which has been the brake on their activities and you have a nuclear crisis potentially on top of the already complex regional dynamics."
On Capitol Hill, a good number of senators, though probably not the majority, seem to share this view. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has said publicly that he's comfortable giving the president space and time to finalize the deal, even if it means blasting through self-imposed deadlines. Others have similarly argued that time and space are a necessary insurance policy to keep the the talks from failing.
"It is so naive to argue for the administration to walk away from the table today because [if they do] the blame will be on our shoulders rather than the Iranians' shoulders. It's an invitation for the sanctions regime to fall apart," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told The Huffington Post. "There is a school of thought that if the negotiations break down you will get a second bite at the apple, that the Iranians will come back to the table later on and negotiate again. That only happens if we are able to reimpose international sanctions. And it is important to remember how long it took us to put together a set of truly international sanctions."
Former members of the U.S. negotiating team attest that in the event of a no-deal outcome, it would be an uphill battle for the administration to maintain and escalate the international sanctions regime against Iran.
Richard Nephew, who previously served as a sanctions expert on the U.S. negotiating team, recalled that the process of convincing the international community to cut economic ties with Iran was "nightmarish in some respects." And it wasn’t just Russia and China that made things tough.
“Frankly, everyone was difficult to bring along, because at the end of the day, we were asking them to sacrifice their economic interests when we had none. We gave up our economic interests in Iran in 1995," Nephew said, referring to the year that the U.S. severed all trade relations with Iran.
But the administration's efforts to avoid blame in the event of a failed deal aren’t without cost. For every deadline missed or reported concession given, domestic support for the talks weakens. Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), has called for U.S. negotiators to walk away entirely, saying the stakes are too high "for this diplomatic charade to continue." Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) has accused the administration of believing that "any deal is better than no deal."
And privately, foreign policy aides scoff at the administration's seemingly never-ending patience. If the White House wants to ensure it won't be blamed for the talks devolving, "they've already met that threshold," said one Democratic Hill staffer.
Despite the worst assumptions of its critics, the administration insists that there are conditions it simply will not give up in the talks, such as intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the ability to quickly re-impose sanctions in the event of an Iranian violation of the deal. The White House has calculated that it can afford to bleed congressional support in the short term if it means positioning itself better for a post-negotiations public relations fallout. Though lawmakers will be granted the opportunity to review and vote on any deal that is reached, it seems very likely that the president will have the congressional support to sustain a veto of a disapproval vote.
In a strange way, the more the White House resists calls to leave the negotiating table, the better its hand gets for the future blame-game wars if no deal is reached, since it will be difficult for critics to pin the failure of negotiations on a party that rigidly defied political pressure to call those negotiations off.
This story has been updated to include Obama's Tuesday comments about the odds of reaching an agreement.