Thursday, April 2, 2015

At any price - What Washington is missing in a deal with Iran

The prolongation of nuclear talks with Iran has highlighted a flaw in the American approach to the issue. This was neatly summarized by Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, in a tweet: “We want a deal. They [Iran] need a deal. The tactics and the result of the negotiation should reflect this asymmetry.”

Yet the extension of negotiations has made it appear that the United States needs a nuclear deal. After all, President Barack Obama said he would “walk away” from a bad deal, and presumably the continued inability to finalize an accord signals precisely that. And yet the Americans are still at it, because Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, are desperate for an agreement.

What is disconcerting is that the administration has put on blinders, disassociating what is going on in Switzerland from the reality on the ground in the Middle East. Iran and the Sunni-majority Arab states are facing off in Yemen. In Syria, where a war that the United States has done its best to ignore rages on, Iran has tried to change the balance in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor. Yet it suffered major defeats last week with the losses of Busra al-Sham and Idlib to rebels. All this has not affected the nuclear talks. A coalition of mainly Sunni states, including Turkey and Pakistan, is today aligned against Iran, but Obama and Kerry seem blithely indifferent to this.

The American attitude is that the nuclear negotiations involve highly technical issues, with many parties participating, therefore factoring in regional politics only complicates an arrangement. The White House has time and again shot down American initiatives that might mar talks. In the American way of negotiating it is important always to display goodwill, eliminating moves that might indicate animosity and show less than an absolute commitment to improving relations.

The Iranians address political matters very differently. Even as they have negotiated with the Americans and the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council they have relentlessly pursued their agenda of expansionism in the Middle East. To them the nuclear issue is part and parcel of a broader strategy of regional hegemony, and has nothing to do with warm feelings and photo ops, in the way Americans have viewed the talks.

While a nuclear deal would undoubtedly be good for the Middle East, a bad deal in which Washington ignores the regional impact of an accord would be a waste of time. If the Obama administration won’t participate in containment of Iran’s destabilizing ventures in the region, then what is the value of a nuclear accord? Iran’s nuclear program transcends proliferation. It is really about Iran’s political power. But Obama and Kerry are focused on proliferation risks.

If a deal is not reached, the Americans should take a serious look at the regional response to Iran. The main fear in Washington is that no accord will mean a nuclear arms race. Yet the only real way to avert this is to take the lead against Iran. Only if Arab countries feel the United States is seriously engaged in curtailing Iran’s regional sway will they hold off on building their own nuclear weapons.

That would mean devising a strategy that makes it infinitely more costly for the Islamic Republic to pursue its regional political agenda. Syria is a bottomless pit for Tehran, and Iraq is a draining one if the Iranian strategy of isolating the Sunnis is pursued. The Houthis can be isolated by land and sea, making Iran’s support ineffective. Tying Iran up in countless wars while sanctions are maintained may be the best method to push it to the edge financially so that it alters its ways.

Yet how realistic is such an expectation? Obama has so invested in disengagement from the Middle East that his embracing a contrary policy seems almost impossible to conceive. Therein lies the fundamental problem with the American approach to Iran. It is the Iranians who seem to hold the stronger cards by virtue of the fact that Barack Obama has systematically limited his own options.

But Araud is right. It is Tehran that is in a weaker position, even if the dynamics of the negotiations have repeatedly shown that it is Obama and Kerry who are the supplicants, simply because they want America out of the Middle East at any price. But a sloppy deal, negotiated by an administration that has made its antipathy for the region so obvious, will ensure precisely the contrary.

Obama and Kerry, running after an elusive legacy, refuse to see what is plain. The region is going in one direction, toward all-out confrontation with Iran, while the United States is going in the other, toward reconciliation. Reconciliation is not a bad thing, but it has a Pollyannaish quality to it when the Middle East is in the midst of a new cold war and the United States refuses to take any position.

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