Drawn out negotiations will present a political problem for President Obama.
In the days since the P5+1 and Iran announced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) intended to deal with the issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, there has been much debate surrounding the agreed upon terms and efficacy of the agreement. Opponents in the U.S. and Israel, backed by assorted pundits and think tanks, fearing that agreement would lead to a rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran and concerned about a resulting change in the balance of power in the Middle East, began attacking the agreement before it was even finalized and announced. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pronounced it a “bad deal” even before he had an opportunity to read it. Following the announcement in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Obama administration began deploying its pundits and think tanks and created a fact sheet purporting to outline the agreed conditions in a concerted effort to mobilize public support and prevent a hostile Congress from taking steps to derail the agreement. Other international players including regional powers have for the most part remained silent.
As the various factions debate the pros and cons of the JCPOA, the more important issue is which agreement they are talking about. There appear to be three agreements in play: the original agreement announced in Lausanne by EU Foreign Policy and Security Chief, Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the U.S. “Fact Sheet” discussed by President Obama during the Rose Garden briefing and the “Fact Sheet” issued by Iran’s Foreign Ministry in response to the American document. On many of the outstanding issues: time frames, limitations on enrichment capacity, etc., the documents are similar and the differences would appear to be reconcilable. However, on the issue of sanctions relief, the differences appear to be wide and difficult to reconcile. The U.S claims that sanctions will be “suspended” and this will be done in a phased manner as Iran demonstrates that it is abiding by the agreement. The sanction architecture will remain in place so that sanctions can “snap back” if the IAEA does not certify Iran’s compliance. Iran’s position is that the agreement calls for sanctions to be “terminated,” not in a phased manner, but “immediately” upon signing the final agreement.
An important factor that contributed to the party’s ability to reach the “Framework Agreement” was the atmosphere of secrecy within which the negotiations took place. While there were some leaks, all parties refrained from commenting on the status of negotiations beyond general statements. At this point, however, both the U.S. and Iran have issued written public position papers that differ widely. While it is understandable that both parties have a need to appeal to their domestic constituencies, the effect of these public pronouncements has been to back each party into a corner and make it very difficult to modify the positions and reach a compromise. This situation will likely lead to another lengthy period of tough negotiations ahead of the self-imposed June 30 deadline.
Drawn out negotiations will present a political problem for President Obama. One lesson to be learned from Obama’s effort to normalize relations with Cuba is: speed helps. Following his initial announcement of the agreement with the Cubans to improve relations, Obama moved very quickly, taking unilateral executive actions to implement the agreed parameters and marginalize his Congressional opponents. These moves quickly changed the political landscape, putting Congressional opponents behind the curve, energizing his supporters and changing public perceptions of Cuba policy. Except for the occasional misstep, such as sanctioning several Venezuelan officials, a move that forced Raul Castro to make the obligatory anti-American speech, Obama’s policies and tactics appear to have made the change in Cuban relations a done deal. On the Iran question, the long period of public negotiations will give opponents of normalization time to mobilize opposition and find ways to torpedo any agreement. If no agreement can be reached, what then?