The latest round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 ended yesterday much as every other round has ended, with vague talk of “productive” and “good” talks and little to no apparent progress toward a deal.
In fact, the comments that were coming out of the Iranian delegation on Saturday suggest that this round of negotiations was discouragingly difficult:
However, Zarif was negative on Saturday: “The policies of pressure and dialog are mutually exclusive….If Western countries intend to negotiate with Iran, they should make a political decision, which might be difficult for some, and cease applying pressure.”
The lead Iranian negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, has said that the talks have been “tense” and “difficult”, with significant points of dispute remaining. On Saturday, he tried to maintain some possibility of resolution, while putting the burden on the 5+1: “We still hope and think that reaching an agreement is possible if the other side has the necessary determination and goodwill.”
However, Araqchi said “problems” and “difficulties” remained in the negotiations: “The distances are very wide over certain cases and in some other cases the gaps are very narrow, and we are trying to narrow down the distances between the two sides.”
Of course, contentious negotiations often involve tension and retrenching the closer you get to a deadline, but there are two problems with that view as it applies to this last round of talks. On the one hand, the self-imposed deadlines that the two sides have set for each other over the course of these talks have clearly meant nothing, as both times the deadlines have been reached the sides have simply extended them. And on the other hand, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that, March 1 be damned, these talks have just hit their final deadline.
There will be another round of meetings at some unspecified date next month, but what distinguishes yesterday’s failure to reach a deal with past failures is that Congress is likely to seriously threaten to derail the talks before the next round can begin. The Senate Banking Committee is planning a January 22 vote on a package of conditional new sanctions against Iran, co-authored by Israel lobby darlings Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). President Obama has pledged to veto any new sanctions bill, conditional or not, out of the very real concern that such a bill will be taken as a provocation by the Iranians, who could then abandon the talks and argue (credibly) that it was American bad faith that forced their hand. If that argument sticks, the international consensus that’s been so important to maintaining the sanctions against Iran could easily collapse. Congressional hawks are hoping to pass new sanctions with a veto-proof majority, which would render Obama’s objections moot, and it may be that concern over this possibility is contributing to the Iranians’ apparent discouragement over where things stand.
In order to try to affect that veto-proof margin, Kirk-Menendez has been weakened considerably from what it was a year ago. It has reduced Congressional demands about the contours of a final deal to a “sense of the Senate” clause that has no legally binding authority behind it. It holds off levying any new sanctions until the second major deadline for a deal, July 1, is reached, and then it allows Obama to waive the new sanctions by certifying to Congress that the talks are heading toward a positive outcome. If you want to see the talks continue, then this is a better bill than the one Kirk and Menendez were peddling last year, but that’s like saying you’d rather come down with Marburg disease than a prion disease, since Marburg only kills 85% of the people who get it while prion diseases are 100% fatal. Even the new version of Kirk-Menendez can and very well may be taken by Iran as a pretext for ditching the talks.
The new, heavily watered-down version of the bill also raises an uncomfortable questions about its sponsors. They’re insisting that the bill is now written so as to have no impact on the talks at all, and they’ve constructed it so that Obama can presumably render it completely null and void without much difficulty. This was done in order to secure enough votes from undecided Democrats to override a veto. But if the bill is really that toothless, then, you know, why the hell do we need it at all? Well, in fact the bill is not entirely toothless. From the perspective of somebody looking to derail the talks, the key clause is still in there: a clause that blocks Obama from waiving any current sanctions on Iran without getting Congressional approval (which he most certainly will not get). That restriction on Obama’s ability to actually follow through with the terms of a deal will be game over for the Iranians and the talks, which, as new Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) so helpfully pointed out last week, is precisely the point.