Washington watch: On Iran, US bets everything in Vienna

The White House and Congress agree on one thing: If negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program fail in Vienna, America’s remaining options are terrible.

US Secretary of State John Kerry. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In Washington, an assumption has taken hold that a great partisan gap exists over how best to handle Iran and its nuclear program. That impression is false.
The disagreements are tactical, deep in the weeds in the implementation of a largely bipartisan policy: delaying an inflection in the crisis for as long as possible, hoping that, before such a point comes to pass, the Islamic Republic will capitulate under the pressure of economic sanctions. It is, first and foremost, a policy of hope.
The first problem with policy on Iran reliant on hope is that, in the foreseeable future, some parties— namely, Israel’s leadership— may well run out of patience tolerating Iran as a nuclear-threshold state.
The second problem concerns credibility— not just that of US President Barack Obama, but of the US as a strategic force in the world. Cutting through the politics and the assignment of blame, multiple “red lines” have been drawn both by Congress and the president on a nuclear Iran. And yet, all parties refuse to discuss the consequences of their red lines being crossed.
That is why everyone seems to agree on the importance of negotiations currently underway in Vienna, geared toward definitively ending Western concerns with Iran’s expansive nuclear program once and for all.
But what if those negotiations fail?
Since the January 20 implementation of the Joint Plan of Action— the interim deal temporarily delaying the crisis, granting world powers six months to negotiate—The Jerusalem Post has asked senior Obama administration officials, Senate leadership aides and foreign policy experts across party lines just that question.
More specifically, they have been asked the following: What is the logic behind revisiting sanctions as policy, should diplomacy definitively fail during the JPOA, if the purpose of sanctions thus far has been to compel Iran to negotiate in the first place?
Realistically, would the goal be a future, second round of talks? Would the US seek another pause in Iran’s nuclear work?
Reflecting unity on this issue already well-established – and widely denied – responses have been virtually the same across party lines: nobody likes the question, because nobody has a good answer. Washington is at a loss for words on what happens next if negotiations fail.
That eventuality is not just a potentiality, but a likelihood: the president himself, with a vested interest in the outcome, puts the odds of success at less than 50 percent.
“The administration has made it additionally more complicated by positing only two futures: negotiations succeed, or war,” David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said.
In actuality, the administration has posited multiple futures that come very close to contradicting one another.
Sanctions have brought Iran to the table, officials say, providing the world not with its “last,” but with its “best” chance at a peaceful resolution to the crisis. In this regard, sanctions have purportedly succeeded.
“For the sake of our national security and the peace and security of the world,” Obama has said of the stakes in Vienna, “now is the time to give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”
And yet, in dissuading Congress from passing a bill that would trigger new sanctions tools against Iran if talks fail, Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry have promised to support the new penalties without hesitation, should the JPOA expire without a comprehensive deal.
In other words: if negotiations do not succeed this year, the current plan is to revert back to a policy that might further entice Iran to negotiate, yet again, hopefully with better results.
While the White House says it will not engage publicly in hypotheticals, in practice, the administration has planned far enough ahead to have the confidence to proclaim this to Congress. That declarative was not issued subtly; the president said it in his fifth State of the Union address last month.
“I think sanctions are still central to this issue,” said Nicholas Burns, undersecretary for political affairs in the Bush administration and currently a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
“Effective diplomatic strategy on Iran cannot succeed without continuous pressure on the Iranian government, and that includes the prospect of future sanctions.”
“The threat of further sanctions is to serve a larger strategic purpose,” Burns added, “and that is to convince the Iranians that there are real red lines in place here.”
What are those red lines? Obama has said he will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon during his presidency.
Foreign policy leaders in Congress, alternatively, have adopted Israel’s red line: that Iran cannot retain nuclear weapons capacity, a higher bar requiring greater dismantling of their program’s infrastructure.
Entering talks in Vienna with the P5+1 world powers – the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany— Iranian officials publicly ruled out the dismantlement of “any” of its nuclear facilities.
“There’s only a few scenarios that come out of this: either we resolve it diplomatically, or we resolve it a different way,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said on February 1. “And it’s just common sense that that different way could involve– is likely to involve – military action.”
Harf said failure in Vienna would leave the US with “less durable and, quite frankly, riskier” options.
“If in six months this doesn’t work, yes, we will ask for more sanctions,” she added. “I’m not predicting that we would take military action right away.”
Surprised by the frank assessment provided by Harf, Dennis Ross, a veteran diplomat of the George H. W. Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said a blunt threat of force might ultimately be necessary at the tail end of talks.
“That’s actually what I think the position should be, because its the best way to ensure that you obtain a diplomatic outcome,” Ross said. “For me, the irony is: if you want the diplomacy to succeed, you need that coercive element to it.”
The administration’s harshest critics in the Republican Party charge the president with weak leadership; they do not believe he will order a strike against Iran under any circumstances. And yet those same members are advocating a policy almost identical to their Democratic counterparts: they consider their options limited to sanctions. The only question left for them is one of timing.
In private, senior Republican aides say their members believe change will only come from Tehran when change comes to the Iranian regime. And yet no Senate Republican is publicly discussing a trigger bill authorizing the use of force when the JPOA expires.
“There’s a good reason to believe that sanctions are what brought the Iranians to the table in the first place,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said on Wednesday, echoing the White House. “So it just stands to reason if the Iranians break the interim deal, they should get tougher sanctions. If nothing happens, we should send a message: you can’t just keep talking forever.”
“That’s especially true given the fact that we’re running out of tools here,” McConnell conceded, “short of the use of force.”
Irking Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who wrote the trigger sanctions bill and has pushed for its passage during the negotiations period, the White House suggested last month that, “if certain members of Congress want the US to take military action, they should be upfront with the American public and say so.”
And yet the administration’s warning has an unintended effect. It shows that the White House recognizes the steep political cost of even appearing amenable to military action against Iran. And the reaction of many senators, demanding apologies for being labeled warmongers, reveals their concerns over that reputation as well.
If the JPOA expires without a comprehensive deal, “the sanctions would be increased, and there would also be an effort to truly cripple the Iranian economy,” Albright said. “In that, you’d be showing them that they’ve made a big mistake.”
“It would be pretty gloves-off,” he added, “and at that point, I would expect talk of regime change.”
Ross expects an extension of the Vienna negotiations from six to 12 months, which is allowed by the JPOA if all parties agree – and perhaps a second extension, if world powers feel they are close to reaching a deal.
“I think there’s a certain tension when they say, ‘This is a march to war,’ when they are also saying there might be another shot at this,” Ross said. “The real hard question is, if we impose more sanctions, presumably the Iranians will ratchet up their program. And then we have to decide whether they’re shortening their breakout time so dramatically that we have to act.”
Administration officials tell this paper that their actions, and their words, are in no small part an effort to maintain international consensus on pressuring Iran. Should the crisis come to a point of conflict, that unity will be of great value to the US when the administration has to make a case for action.
“We took the initiative and led the effort to try to figure out if, before we go to war, there actually might be a peaceful solution,” Kerry said on Wednesday, insisting the US would “exhaust all the remedies available” before taking such moves.
Officials also take from their standoff with Syria over the use of chemical weapons a lesson in brinksmanship: that only at the last moment, under the rare but viscerally authentic threat of American force, might Iran be prepared to make the concessions required of their program’s harshest critics. If that is the case, expect sharp rhetoric from the White House in the heat of summer.
If it is not – if the debate over Iran is simply a game of hot potato over who wants war least– it should be clear to all that no one is truly prepared for that eventuality, and that the probable outcome of the conflict is something between war and peace, satisfactory to few, conclusive to none.