The Iran Talks’ Nuclear Schizophrenia
The problem in Lausanne, where negotiations have gone far past the deadline, is not only that neither side trusts the other, it’s that neither side trusts itself.
The Iranian and American negotiators in Switzerland apparently have decided to kick the nuclear can a little farther down the road and hope like hell that sometime soon—at least before the end of June—they can finally hold it up like a trophy and declare there will be peace in our time.
That’s not going to happen.
It’s not just that deadlines have come and gone, and come and gone. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif one-on-one more than he has met with any other foreign minister in the world (even though the U.S. and Iran do not have diplomatic relations), huddled up with Zarif again on Wednesday morning.
But as of Wednesday afternoon the negotiators were still talking and still … not … quite … agreeing on what they should tell the world about the deal they haven’t … quite … reached.
The French, Russian, and Chinese ministers who had been in Lausanne over the weekend decided to take off. And, of course, the negotiators already have made it clear that when or if they do make a statement, even if they claim everything is going well, they won’t inflict the devilish details on the general public. Which is why, if the talks do not break down completely, they will drag on through June in fits and starts before we know if they’ve come definitively to an end. And whatever that ending is, it will likely be an anticlimax.
In fact, events on the ground in the Middle East have overtaken diplomacy. When the opening of serious and substantive discussions between Iran and six of the world’s biggest powers became public in the summer of 2013, regional peace looked like a difficult goal, but something achievable.
Now, civil wars and chaotic insurgencies are raging in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq—and in the last three countries Iran is a major player. In 2013, the so-called Islamic State was still regarded by the White House as the “junior varsity” in the world of international terrorism, not an existential threat to the regional order. In 2013, Syrian President Bashar al Assad was on the defensive, and looked like he’d overplayed his hand by using chemical weapons, risking U.S. retaliation and further international isolation. In 2013, the idea that the Saudis and other Gulf Arab states would band together to launch a war, as they did in Yemen last month, seemed unlikely, if not inconceivable.
In 2015 the complexities of the Mideast conflicts, alliances and enmities are positively kaleidoscopic as the players realize the enemy of their enemy is their enemy even when, sometimes, he’s their friend.
And with every passing day there’s also a growing realization on both sides of the nuclear negotiating table that even if the problematic questions about numbers of centrifuges, disposal of nuclear materials and the sanction-lifting calendar can finally be resolved, neither side can be trusted to keep the deal because—crucially—neither government can trust itself.
It’s increasingly obvious that both the American and the Iranian governments have what used to be called split personalities or popularly, if erroneously, schizophrenia. And it is no longer clear on either side of the table which personality is dominant.
This was always true to some extent. The question of who’s really in charge in Iran—who’s the go-to mullah or power player who can really deliver a deal—has plagued American efforts to reach understandings with Tehran since the earliest days of the revolution. It led to the humiliation of the Carter administration during the Iran hostage crisis from 1979 to 1981, and the scandalous performance of the Reagan administration in the Iran-Contra intrigues of the mid-1980s. And on the American side the reflexive defense of Israel’s interests, as perceived by the U.S. Congress, dating back to the Clinton administration, has torpedoed one attempt after another to find rapprochement with Iran.
Today the treacherous divide between Tehran and Washington is not just a question of moderates and hardliners. Nor is it about good-cop-bad-cop negotiating tactics. The divisions in Tehran and in Washington are much more extreme than that: something more akin to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—the ineffectual apostles of sweet reason on the one hand and the monstrous advocates of confrontation and violence on the other.
One is tempted, yet again, to quote William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Or, more prosaically, there’s Karim Sadjapour’s dictum: “A perennial challenge in dealing with Iran,” said the scholar at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, “is that Iran’s most powerful officials are inaccessible, while Iran’s most accessible officials aren’t powerful.”
But Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror story and morality tale is a particularly useful paradigm for understanding the unsubtle schisms in the political personalities of both countries.
The reasonable and brilliant, but weak, Dr. Jekylls of Iran are President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who have made it their mission to charm the West in order to get sanctions lifted and open up a place for their country among the great nations of the modern world.
At the same time, to be sure, they want to preserve as much as they can of a nuclear program that gives them at least a theoretical deterrence against threats in their immediate neighborhood, whether from nuclear-armed Israel nearby or nuclear-armed Pakistan next door. (It is surprising how the often crucial Pakistani variable in the nuclear equation is ignored in Western reporting.) Those are not unreasonable goals and they are not necessarily dangerous—as long as Iran’s nuclear weapons remain theoretical and its stake in peace is greater than its desire for war, and as long as it’s the Dr. Jekylls in charge, and not the Mr. Hydes.
But, unfortunately, there are plenty of the latter in Iran these days, and they appear to be growing stronger all the time.
The Mr. Hydes among the mullahs are many, but they are best represented by Qasem Suleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. He is leading the efforts to establish and expand Iranian power far beyond his country’s borders.
The advisers Suleimani deploys and the militias they have helped to create include Hezbollah, which holds the balance of power in the government of Lebanon and has shored up the Assad dictatorship in Syria. The Iranian-trained-and-guided militias are playing a highly ambiguous role in Iraq, where they consider both the U.S. and ISIS as enemies. And the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen have provoked a war that now threatens to engulf the region.
If Iran were to get a nuclear arsenal, Suleimani, backed up by the Bomb, would be able to grow still more aggressive. And there is already talk of Suleimani running for president of Iran in 2017.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is supposed to have the final word on all this, and he has let Rouhani and Zarif try to reach a deal with the West to end draconian sanctions crippling the country’s economy. But Khamenei’s heart seems to be with those like Suleimani who believe force and fear are the best way to secure Iran’s borders.
In Washington, President Barack Obama is the Dr. Jekyll character, convinced that diplomacy and negotiation are superior to war, and that dialogue supported by an international coalition is the best way to contain whatever evil designs the Iranians might have. That Obama has been able to pull together and hold together the coalition of negotiating partners—Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany—is an extraordinary achievement. Getting them to agree to impose sanctions on Iran, and then keeping them on track during the long negotiations is, in itself, a diplomatic triumph. But that’s an academic victory and a temporary one. At the end of the day it may not be enough to seal a worthwhile accord.
Among the Mr. Hydes in Washington are the 47 Republican senators who signed a letter to Khamenei in March telling him that no deal coming out of the negotiations in Switzerland would be worth the paper it was written on anyway. But the most important Mr. Hyde in Washington is Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has shown an uncanny ability to sway American politicians, convincing them no compromise with Iran is worthwhile, and opening wide the door not only to tougher sanctions but to a war that Israel could begin, but the United States would have to try to finish.
So, the negotiators in Switzerland continue to talk about frameworks and details because, despite all the talk of self-imposed deadlines, they are playing for time. But that’s not on their side. The U.S. Senate will convene on April 13, and the presidential campaign of 2016 already is underway. The political sniping and second-guessing that will undermine negotiations at every stage will continue.
John Hannah, a foreign policy adviser to Jeb Bush, doesn’t like the outlines of an Iranian nuclear deal that he’s seen so far.
“If the leaks about the emerging deal prove true, this is a bad deal that should not go forward. It would pose unacceptably dangerous risks not only to U.S. security, but to the survival and wellbeing of our most important Middle East allies,” Hannah told The Daily Beast.
“Even while Iran has been engaged in high-stakes talks to convince the West to lift sanctions, it’s gone on a rampage across the Middle East, asserting control over at least four Arab capitals,” Hannah said. “It beggars the imagination to believe that a deal that leaves Iran with a large nuclear infrastructure and potentially hundreds of billions of dollars worth of sanctions relief is going to make Qasem Suleimani and the Quds Force less, rather than more, aggressive.”
In Iran, the war party is gathering its forces, ready to denounce any Rouhani accord with the Americans as a collection of unacceptable compromises with a government (as represented by the U.S. Congress) that wants nothing more or less than the destruction of the Iranian regime. All the while, the Iranian Hydes call for the destruction of Israel.
Thus on Wednesday, as the negotiators continued their struggle for sweet reason and diplomatic solutions, Netanyahu railed against their efforts.
“Yesterday an Iranian general brazenly declared and I quote: ‘Israel’s destruction is non-negotiable,’ but evidently giving Iran’s murderous regime a clear path to the bomb is negotiable,” said the recently reelected Netanyahu. As the talks went on, he said, “Iran is accelerating its campaign of terror, subjugation and conquest throughout the region, most recently in Yemen.”
All of which is true enough to make a final deal all but impossible. The Mr. Hydes are winning, and the rest of the world is losing.
—With additional reporting by Tim Mak