The importance of getting to 'yes' on a nuclear deal with Iran

Nov. 24 is the deadline for ongoing international negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. The talks, already extended from an original July deadline, are between Iran and the so-called P5-plus-1. (The latter are the five permanent United Nations Security Council members — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China — and Germany.) The negotiations, which focus on constraining Iran's capacity to develop nuclear weapons, are an effort to replace a temporary limited deal concluded late last year with a more comprehensive and permanent arrangement.

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The Obama administration has placed a high priority on reaching an accord; it sees an agreement with Tehran as an important part of the president's foreign policy legacy. All questions of President Obama's place in history books aside, the merits of a reasonable — if not perfect — deal are compelling in terms of U.S. national interests. At a minimum, an accord would substantially increase the time necessary for Tehran to "go nuclear" should it choose to do so. Should the talks fail, moreover, the administration will face increased pressure at home and abroad to launch airstrikes at Iran's nuclear facilities. The administration has never been enthusiastic about attacking Iran. And for good reason: Airstrikes will in all likelihood merely delay development of an "Iranian bomb" and serve only to kindle Tehran's desire to acquire one. (A U.S. attack would also increase Iranian public support for its government.) With much of the Middle East in turmoil, a drift toward an attack on Iran risks further destabilizing a region already plunged into crisis. Given the fact that Iran and the United States are de facto partners in the struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a sharp rise in tensions between the two countries — much less armed conflict — could undermine our efforts to contain the group's alarming expansion in Syria and Iraq.

Tehran's stakes in successful talks are also clear. An agreement would pave the way for relief from the economic sanctions that have severely crippled the Iranian economy. It could also — at least potentially — mark a first, if tentative, step in Iran's return to international respectability.

By all accounts, there remain substantial differences between the two sides mere weeks from the Nov. 24 deadline. Outstanding issues reportedly include the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges that Iran will be permitted to keep in operation; the disposition of a planned heavy-water reactor that would produce plutonium; the intrusiveness of international inspection of Iranian facilities, declared and undeclared; the schedule for sanctions relief; and the duration of the agreement itself.

There may be recent good news for the talks. Russia has offered to convert substantial amounts of Iranian enriched uranium into fuel rods that are far more difficult to use in the development of nuclear weapons.

Still, crafting a deal by the deadline faces major technical obstacles.

The political hurdles may be even higher.

In the Middle East, both Israel and Saudi Arabia are highly suspicious of any nuclear deal with Iran. They would likely prefer a U.S. military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities than an agreement that leaves Iran with any significant enrichment capacity. To date, the Obama administration has held firm despite this opposition. But the administration may face harsh Saudi and Israeli criticism when the details of a deal become public.

Moreover, hardliners in both Washington and Tehran will also rally to resist an agreement. Major actors in Iran's establishment view a deal, rightly or wrongly, as an egregious infringement of Iran's right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program; they also decry what they see as the West's hypocrisy in attempting to keep Iran from going nuclear even as it ignores Israel's substantial, if undeclared, nuclear arsenal. In addition, there are clearly those in Tehran who want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons for any number of reasons: as a symbol of the country's international stature, as a boost to Iran's regional clout and, not least, as a guarantee against any future U.S. effort at regime change.

Any agreement will also face bipartisan opposition in the U.S. Congress. The Obama administration has hinted strongly that it is prepared, if necessary, to forgo congressional approval of sanctions relief. It can do so by suspending sanctions against Iran, rather than seeking formal legislation lifting them. Still, the administration can expect a firestorm of criticism for any plausible agreement the P5-plus-1 might strike with Tehran. If passed, legislation undermining such a deal could — and likely would — be vetoed by the president. But even a veto would send a message both to Iran and to our P5-plus-1 partners that the United States could simply renege on any agreement depending on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Given the stakes for all parties to the talk, negotiations may simply be extended again. Both Tehran and Washington are publically reluctant to agree to an extension. But they may change their views should the prospect of an outright collapse of negotiations loom larger as the deadline approaches. Failure to reach an accord will make the Middle East an even more uncertain and dangerous place than it is today.

Barnes is the Bonner Means Baker Research Fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

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