Will America’s political discord torpedo the Iran talks?

Continued Republican efforts to force further sanctions on Iran threaten the fragile coalition making progress on nuclear negotiations, which already show wear from an outdated zero-sum approach.


Battle lines have been drawn in Washington over negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme, as diplomats meet again in Geneva on Thursday for a three-day negotiating session. Their new deadline is July 1st, but concrete progress is essential before then if the process is to be successful, and they have agreed to reach a political arrangement by March.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already claimed that he (with the assistance of the French) was able to “prevent a bad deal” in last November at the final hour. Leading members in the new Republican-majority Congress are promising to take control of the agenda and impose additional sanctions on Iran, already looking to gather sufficient support from right-wing democrats in Congress for the required 2/3 majority to override a presidential veto. For them, sanctions have worked to ‘bring Iran to the table’ and temporary extensions of limited sanctions relief have given Iran some breathing space, so therefore more sanctions will strengthen Iran’s incentives to cooperate and close the deal. More importantly, it ensures that Congress is seen as in control in the agenda, to contrast Obama’s approach as weak and counter-productive.

This image is reinforced by comments within Iran. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has been accusing the United States of arrogance by not offering to lift sanctions if Iran were to make concessions. By highlighting the limitations of Obama’s hand, he is seeking some further concessions from the US, or weaker demands of Iran in the first instance. But Khamenei knows full well that it is simply not possible for the US president to deliver on any promise to lift sanctions imposed by Congress, and that Congress has no intention of allowing the president to do so.

Meanwhile a debate is raging within Iran between compromising in the interests of prosperity and global integration, a position taken by Rouhani, or taking an isolationist stance, much like that promoted by Khamenei. Khamenei terms his the ‘resistance economy’, an idea he floated in 2010 when I was still hosting a weekly peak-time talk show on domestic Iranian TV based upon the idea that countries under siege, like Britain in the second world war, can pull together and use austerity to triumph.

Whilst the shared interests on both sides in reaching a deal are very potent, mutual game-playing under-values them and reinforces a pervasive and deep level of suspicion. Given the political reality, the only hope Iran has of lifting the sanctions is weakening hard-liners both sides–but particularly in Washington– but this is only possible by cooperation and concessions in an effort to build trust within the respective elites and the populations.

The additional US sanctions currently being considered on Capitol Hill would violate the Joint Plan of Action established in November 2013 by Iran and the P5+1, when the IAEA has confirmed that Iran has kept its side of the agreement by freezing its stockpile of low enriched uranium and rolling back its more sensitive operations. This would be seen universally as violating the terms of the agreement, and would strengthen those forces hostile to agreement within Iran while halting all international progress made to this point. But it could also fracture the sensitive international coalition that has only recently come together around the negotiations with Iran, and ensure that the United States is seen as an unreasonable negotiating partner, interested only in playing games for maximum benefit and willing to renege on agreements. It would harm the institution of the president and weaken trust in the US government.

This is crucial for the future of the Iran negotiations. Wrong turns at this stage could close the current–and only–window of opportunity, and lead to deeper conflict and demands within Iran for more radical positions. But it goes beyond that; there are severe risks more broadly for global security. We open the year at a new low point in trust with Russia, which already commands significant implications for nuclear diplomacy and the international capacity to manage nuclear dangers, a theme that will likely dominate this column in the coming months. Russia appears to believe that reports of crisis within the NPT are exaggerated, part of a strategy to neutralize one of their few remaining assets–their nuclear arsenal. So far this has not impacted Russia’s willingness to cooperate on Iran’s nuclear file, but this would probably change were the US Congress to press home an aggressive line with Iran that breaks the agreed approach.

It would also leave the Europeans in an embarrassing situation. They are important partners within the Joint Plan of Action. Were the US government, under duress from Congress, to take an unreasonable line by imposing additional sanctions–in which direction would they jump?

The approach taken over these talks by all sides is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in international politics, one in which the established elite continue to think these are games of zero-sum competition conducted through a series of confrontations, whether in battle, through the markets or at the negotiating table. Success is in weakening an opponent and going in strong. To do otherwise is weakness.

The reality is that we all suffer when these games are played, because they directly harm the capacity of governments to cooperate to overcome the regional and global challenges faced jointly by our societies, and encourage others, whether states or terrorist groups, to muster their resources in destructive ways to challenge the injustice that emerges. Cooperation requires a different approach, based upon measured moves that build trust and confidence, based upon shared understandings of justice and sustainable society.

This article was originally featured on a regular column by Paul on Open Security, a section of OpenDemocracy.net.

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