One of the most unfortunate pieces of White House spinning over the Iran nuclear negotiations is that those who supported new sanctions legislation – including several Democrat senators – were effectively “voting for war”.
They weren’t. What they were voting for was an alternative way of dealing with Iran. A more results-driven and fact-based approach, that clashes with several of the premises that underpin the current Kerry-Obama approach to the negotiations.
The new Senate sanctions bill (now successfully stalled, it seems) didn’t call for new sanctions straight away. What it did was seek to put a hard floor under the negotiations process: if no deal was reached within 12 months – the six months of the “interim deal” plus six months grace – then the sanctions would kick in.
There was good reason for this approach. Sceptics – or perhaps better, pragmatists – didn’t want Tehran to keep endlessly rebooting the negotiations. Their fear was that Iran would simply wait while their economy picked up as sanctions started to unravel under the weight of market expectations and then cut a deal from a position of strength.
Mr Obama always vigorously refuted this analysis as scaremongering, saying sanctions were “limited” and “reversible”, and that Iran’s feet would held to the fire to ensure they did actually cut a meaningful deal.
Already, however, there are signs that the pragmatist’s analysis has turned out to be correct. First it emerged last month that Russia was engaged in negotiating a $1.5 billion-a-month backdoor trade/barter deal.
Then, this week, a group 116 of France’s top businessmen, including representatives from companies like Renault, Total and Airbus, visited Tehran on a trade mission offering further evidence that market expectation is picking up: when German CEO’s see their French counterparts racing to Tehran to get first dibs on any deals, you can bet they won’t be far behind.
In both of these cases the White House and State Department has officially cried foul, describing the French delegations and Russian deals as “unhelpful” and of “serious concern”.
Perhaps they really are concerned, fearing that their negotiating leverage is visibly ebbing away, since it’s hard to drive a bargain with Tehran to give up its nuclear programme when Iran is getting what they want (economic relief) anyway.
But there is another theory – that this is precisely what the White House wants. Look at this quotation from Wendy Sherman, the US’s top Iran negotiator, giving evidence to a senate committee this week in response to the French trade gambit.
We hope people don’t go to Tehran. That is our preference. But those who go raise hopes that the Rouhani administration’s going to have to deliver on. And the only way they can deliver on those hopes is a comprehensive agreement that we will agree to, and that means a verifiable assurance that they are not developing, creating, will have – obtaining a nuclear weapon.
And so although we don’t want people to go, because we think it does send the wrong message, if they do go, it puts pressure, perversely, on the Rouhani administration. Because as far as we have seen to date, there are not deals getting done, but rather people getting first in line in the hope that someday there will be a deal.
It does make you wonder if the White House is perfectly happy with what is happening. The strategy would seem to be to try and buy Tehran off with the promise of trade/money even before the deal is done.
Is this really wise? We should be careful of dangling too juicy a carrot, too close to the horse’s mouth, or we might find that the horse just gobbles the carrot, and then – belly full – cannot be coaxed in the right direction?
At that point, to stretch the horse analogy, you have to resort to wielding a big stick. But in the Obama administration’s case, the debacle over Syria has already taken that option off the table. The public won’t wear it, and it probably wouldn’t work anyway.
It is – genuinely, no cop out here – too early to say if the White House strategy will work, but make no mistake, it is highly risky.
In a good negotiation, you start by advertising your top line and then negotiation downwards to a compromise.
The P5+1 have started these negotiations by constantly advertising their bottom line, to the point that people like Jack Straw are sent to Tehran to warn sceptics on the his own side about the risk of Tehran walking away if we drive too hard a bargain.
This is like playing poker and warning your fellow players in advance just how big a bet they need to make in order to bluff you into folding your hand.
Iran wants economic relief – it’s why they came to the table – and the best time to have asked for something substantial in return was when they were at their most needy, probably when the Omani back-channel was open last year.
Since then leverage – which is what actually gets results in negotiations – has been seeping away. With the threat of military action so remote, the onus on sanctions as a real driver of change has never been heavier.
But to listen to Wendy Sherman, the White House is already constructing rationales for the benefit of weakening that lever too, as officials from both sides privately soften the ground for the talks running over the initial six months.
At the time of the interim agreement negotiations in Geneva, senior diplomats selling the deal hard behind closed doors to journalists and senators in Washington, were adamant that a deal could be done in that time.
Now people like David Ignatius, the Washington Post columnist who – it is often said – you should read if you want to know what Obama really thinks, writes that:
Both Iranians and Americans privately doubt a final pact can be reached in that time frame, but if good-faith bargaining continues, Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers may agree to extend the interim freeze another six months. The United States has officially been mum on any such extension.
It is pretty clear the game that is being played here. On sanctions, on time frames the goalposts are shifting as many sceptics predicted they would.
Let’s hope their predictions don’t keep coming true.