Folks, today was a long day, and tomorrow promises to be more of the same, so I hope you’ll forgive the lack of posting today and tomorrow.
Before I pour myself a big glass of chocolate milk and put on a Simpsons DVD, though, I’ve got enough mental space for a short update about the Iran talks, which after all is probably the number one topic on this here web log. Simply put, the chances for getting a deal done this week aren’t so hot. After delaying the deadline until Tuesday, then Thursday, then Friday, thereby blowing past the one physical constraint left on the talks (the extension of Congress’s review window to 60 days, which kicks in tomorrow), it’s not surprising that, at least according to The Wall Street Journal (which is paywalled, so try this The Times of Israel version instead), the Obama administration is considering once again extending the Joint Plan of Action, this time maybe indefinitely. The administration doesn’t want to give up on the work that’s already gone into the talks, and it definitely doesn’t want to be the party that the rest of the world blames for breaking up the talks, but it seems that no agreement on a comprehensive plan is actually in sight so we’re getting these trial balloons instead.
The thing is, it’s hard to imagine Iran, which didn’t plan on freezing its nuclear program indefinitely when it agreed to the temporary Joint Plan of Action, and Russia, which frankly might actually benefit from the talks breaking up, going along with indefinitely extending the talks under the current terms. The Iranians are saying that they’re happy to keep going as long as it takes to get a good deal, but then they don’t want to be blamed as the party that walked away either. They may be counting on another member of the P5+1, presumably either Russia or a fed-up France, to be the catalyst for ending the talks altogether. The outlook in the event that the talks do break down is bleak to say the least; here’s RAND’s Dalia Dassa Kaye:
The first and most dangerous scenario is that Tehran could break out of the interim nuclear agreement, the Joint Plan of Action, which has essentially frozen Iran’s nuclear program for nearly two years. With no promise of lasting and more significant sanctions relief, Iran may decide to resume its nuclear enrichment program at levels that reduce the time it would need to weaponize its nuclear program. Iran could still remain in the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and come dangerously close to developing the capabilities to quickly break out if there is no international agreement placing further restrictions and inspections on its activities.
To make matters worse, unless it is clear that Iran is at fault for the breakdown in nuclear talks, the current broad international support for sanctions against Iran could weaken. U.S. sanctions against Iran have proven effective because of the backing they have garnered among key oil-importing countries such as China, India, South Korea, and Japan. International sanctions have, by some estimates, cut Iran’s oil exports by more than half in recent years, costing Iran up to $40 billion in revenue annually. Continued unilateral American sanctions and secondary U.S. sanctions on countries and institutions doing business with Iran following the breakdown of a deal would likely continue to keep U.S. and European companies away from Iran. But other key international powers, and even some in Europe, may tire of self-imposed restrictions, especially if Iran appeared to have negotiated in good faith. So, Iran could find itself less isolated over time, especially if Congress rejected the deal, leaving the United States to blame for the failure. Indeed, this is the worst-of-both-worlds outcome—few constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and dissipating international pressure on Iran.
Next comes military escalation, between Iran and the US and/or Israel, and the vindication of hardline anti-Western forces inside Iran’s political system, the ones who have been telling the Iranian people all along that you just can’t trust those Americans. And while a deal doesn’t guarantee that Iran will suddenly, say, modify its regional behavior or improve its domestic human rights situation, no deal does pretty well guarantee that none of those things will happen.
Or maybe the talks really will continue indefinitely. It’s not out of the question.
Sanctions relief seems to still be the big sticking point, but the issue of the UN arms embargo seems to have added a new and unwelcome complication to the whole situation. At Brookings’s “Markaz” blog, outlines the five issues at the core of the talks: extending Iran’s “breakout” time, lifting sanctions on Iran, a deal’s implications for the Middle East as a whole, a deal’s implications for Iran’s domestic politics, and a deal’s implications for US domestic politics and the 2016 election. It’s well worth your time as a summary of why everybody is talking about this story so much.
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