There is always more than one story in the Middle East. On Saturday, amidst news about flight MH17 and Israel’s operation against Gaza, the Obama administration agreed to a four-month extension of nuclear negotiations with Iran.
The administration’s other “P5+1” negotiating partners (China, Russia, France, the U.K., and Germany) support this move. Nevertheless, it was a terrible mistake.
At a basic level, the decision will greatly reinforce Iran’s perception of the P5+1’s negotiating malleability. After all, the rhetorical and functional meaning of a “deadline” is that it is unqualified and unmovable, and thus urgent. This extension trashes that understanding. It encourages Ayatollah Khamenei (who holds “supreme” authority over Iran’s foreign policy) to believe that he can play for more concessions and more time. And time is a big concern, because thousands of Iranian centrifuges are spinning — and those centrifuges are not pursuing medical isotopes. Instead, the Iranian enrichment program is about nuclear weapons, which the ayatollahs believe will guarantee their theological project in the Middle East.
Some will say that there was no alternative to this extension: that diplomacy must be given every chance. I have some sympathy for that position. Indeed, I supported the original six-month deadline for that very reason. But this extension isn’t strategic diplomacy; it’s simple delusion. Authoritarians centered in “ordained” absolutism, Iran’s hardliners make strategy with specific regard to what they can get away with (just consider Iran’s terrorism campaigns). Believing, as they now surely do, that the P5+1 are unwilling to introduce tougher sanctions, they’ll embrace their delaying tactics as far as possible. And Iran’s negotiators are superb manipulators: They’ve been playing this game since 2003.
Of course, many analysts also claim that new sanctions would simply empower the hardliners and weaken Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani. These arguments can’t just be ignored. As I’ve noted before, Obama’s outreach to Rouhani is partly designed to exploit regime factionalism — it’s an effort likely rooted in a judgment that Khamenei is vulnerable. In short, the administration’s policy is about a longer-term strategy toward a more conciliatory regime in Tehran.
On paper, very sensible. But in reality, the urgency of the nuclear issue means that the “long game” has its limitations. Although assessments of Iran’s nuclear program diverge, time is clearly running out. Ignoring this truth, the administration and its supporters are enabling Iran’s nuclear development.
This is not to say that there are easy alternatives. Any military operation against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would be profoundly complex and risky. Still, Khamenei is ultimately a thug. In order to facilitate his taste for the carrots of American diplomacy, he must feel the escalating pain of America’s stick. The present extension — with its echoes of America’s previous “red line” credibility crisis — will only foster Khamenei’s belief that he holds all the cards. Why concede, his advisers will ask him, when the only consequence of intransigence is a deadline without temporal character?
I continue to believe that diplomacy with Iran can succeed. But to achieve that result, we’ll first have to recognize reality. The six-month deal has failed. The time has come for a far tougher approach.