THE BLOG

Undercutting the Iran Nuclear Talks

04/07/2014 01:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2014

The Obama administration is toughening its stance on the terms of a prospective nuclear accord with Iran. As the talks move into a critical phase that will make or break this historic engagement, reports are circulating that Washington is raising its demands and stiffening its resistance to further compromise, e.g. Robert Einhorn's much publicized policy study for Brookings. This turn bodes ill for what rightly has been hailed as the most promising opportunity to end the confrontation over Iranian nuclear activities, and perhaps to clear the way for a modus vivendi between the two antagonists.

The reports indicate that the prevailing line of thinking within the White House is that the United States must achieve what amounts to a hermetically sealed containment vessel around all Iranian facilities that could play any role, now or in the foreseeable future, in a weapons program. That includes all projects dealing with systems that conceivably could carry a nuclear arm even if designed for conventional explosives. In thereby tightening the screws, Obama may well be sounding the death knell for these negotiations.

The principal inference is that the American side's ratcheting up, and rigidifying the terms of what it defines as an acceptable accord, reflects a readiness to risk seeing the talks collapse. The American demands include, inter alia: strict international controls on Iranian missile programs; a drastic scaling back of nearly all activities at all nuclear facilities; unprecedentedly tight monitoring of those nuclear activities; automatic penalties -- including possible military action -- decreed in advance by the UNSC and the Congress were a conjectured accord's stipulations to be violated. Such violation would be determined by the UNSC in one instance; the United States government unilaterally in the other. In addition, there is heavy pressure to insist that the Iranian government make a public admission of an alleged past effort to develop a nuclear arms -- something which Iran had denied and for which there is no credible evidence.

Let's be blunt. No accord that includes these elements will ever be signed by the IRI. Iranians in general, as well as its leaders, would interpret acceptance of these terms as a national humiliation -- committing themselves to a set of concessions that compromise the country's sovereignty and dignity. They will not permit themselves to be placed in the dock and then be placed on indefinite probation as a ward of the United Nations cum United States. No such concessions have ever been imposed on a country outside of its total defeat in war.

These proposed provisions to be incorporated in an eventual accord, therefore, are not about the treaty's modalities or bargaining tactics. Rather, it is about whether the United States and its partners want an agreement or not. Admittedly, there are sensitive American domestic political issues that impinge on the negotiations. They involve a Congress that already has come close to forcing conditions on the administration that would have torpedoed the talks. They involve lobbying by the Israeli government which has mobilized its supporters in the United States. It involves, as well, the largest slice of the national media. Acceding to these pressures, though, does not constitute a resolution of the White House's dilemma- that is, if the administration is still serious about reaching a diplomatic agreement. For these more stringent conditions are in fact a poison pill.

Some of those inside the administration, as well as outside it, who have been promoting the hard line do not share Obama's avowed interest in a positive conclusion of the negotiations. They welcome a confrontation unless Tehran offers what amounts to its unconditional surrender. That is the clear preference of the Israeli government, of many in Congress and of a wide swath of the Washington/New York based foreign policy community. Moreover, they are well aware that President Rouhani and Ayatollah Khameini have their own domestic constituencies who are as chary of an accord as are the American hawks. By hardening American demands, the American confrontationists are in effect entering into a tacit alliance with their Iranian counterparts to prevent an agreement.

That is why it is imperative that President Obama shake off his typical diffidence and seize control of the issue directly - and do so immediately. He must resist the pressure to take an unbending stance, and he must do so by forcefully arguing the case for an accord that serves American interests along with Iranian ones - and that thereby serves the cause of stability in a highly flammable Middle East. Unless he does so, he likely will find himself back in the box where he placed himself before the Rouhani initiative opened a diplomatic path out of it. For were the talks to fail, he would be hoist on the petard of his own rhetoric that has painted the Iranians in vivid colors as an ominous threat while keeping ostentatiously on the table the military option. That is the position he had been pushed into by his long deference to advisers, Israel and the Congressional hawks for whom co-existence with the IRI is not a goal.

Obama clearly has no stomach for war; yet, he may leave himself no other options if he closes off the diplomatic route since we now know that economic sanctions will not work. Indeed, it likely is impossible to return to sanctions status quo ante the November breakthrough since many states are keen to engage with Iran in energy commerce and other trade or investment endeavors.

Finally, the support previously received from Russia (and perhaps China, too) no longer is to be expected. The energy for equipment barter deal between Moscow and Tehran just initialed is a concrete omen of what is to come. On Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has exposed Obama as a rank amateur in the arena of hardball world politics. The advantage is now his and he has the instincts to take full advantage of it. He clearly is not inclined to "reset" them by yielding to contentious American proposals on Iran.

The nuclear talks hold open the only way out of the dilemma. To close it off by taking the advice of those who have been wrong about almost every Middle East matter of consequence would be tragic.

The United States cannot rule the affairs of the globe through diktat and ukase. Success is not a creature of American will alone. That simple but basic truth seemingly cannot penetrate the minds of people too long addicted to a mythic view of American identity and mission. This despite an unbroken skein of foreign policy failures over the past 15 years.

In the "Planet Of The Apes" saga, the turning point occurs when the legendary servile ape first says "No" to his human masters. Now we have been told "No" by Hamid Karzai, by the Pakistanis, by al-Maliki, by al-Sisi, by Mursi before him, by the House of Saud, by Tayyip Erdogan, by Dilma Rousseff and even that epitome of servile obedience, Mahmoud Abbas - leaving aside Putin. We should heed the warning signs; the handwriting is on the wall.

* Robert Einhorn, Preventing a Nuclear-Armed Iran: Requirements for a Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement - March 31, 2014.