ANALYSIS: US slowdown on Iran talks has dark side
President Barack Obama decided this week against achieving a final agreement before the expiration of the 10 July deadline, which would have limited the period of Congressional consideration of the agreement.
The motivation for the decision was the desire to neutralise criticism that he and Secretary of State John Kerry were too eager for an agreement.
Obama’s move marks a new low in his administration’s unwillingness to stand up to the Israeli lobby-controlled Congressional opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. That doesn’t mean that the chance for an agreement has necessarily been lost, but it will certainly make it more difficult.
More importantly, it poses a serious question about whether Iran hardliners in the Obama administration, led by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, have undermined Kerry’s position in determining the pace and direction of US negotiating policy in the talks.
The evidence strongly suggests that the White House unexpectedly imposed on the US negotiating team a new strategy in regards to the arms embargo issue.
Along with Middle East Eye, several other newspapers last Monday and Tuesday reported that some of the issues that had been considered most contentious had been resolved in the preceding days.
Those issues include the “possible military dimensions,” access for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the timing and processes for lifting sanctions and verification of Iran’s implementation of its nuclear obligations. In a briefing for Western journalists in Vienna on Monday, a “senior administration official” said: “We’re certainly making progress; there is no doubt about that.”
The briefing contained no hint that the US was about to make a major push to link the issue of language on the arms embargo issue in a new Security Council resolution to regional politics or slow down the negotiations dramatically so that they would not meet the deadline.
In fact, in response to a question about a video by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggesting that the nuclear agreement could lead to addressing “common challenges” in the region, the senior official denied that the negotiations were linked in any way to the Islamic State threat to the Middle East. That line implied that the US delegation had the political space needed to negotiate a formula and resolve the Security Council arms embargo issue.
Of all the remaining issues when the Vienna round began, the arms embargo was certainly the one that should have been the easiest to resolve. It was obviously an extraneous political issue that had nothing to do with insuring against a nuclear weapons programme in Iran and, as Iranian officials argued in Vienna, it should never have been part of a Security Council resolution on the nuclear issue in the first place.
Furthermore, like the language in past Security Council resolutions on the arms embargo and also forbidding Iran from continuing to work on ballistic missiles, it was based on the fundamentally false premise that the Security Council resolution actually had an actual effect on either Iranian policy.
In fact, Iran has been almost completely self-sufficient in regard to conventional arms for many years, and the Security Council resolution had never prevented Iran from providing arms to Hezbollah or Hamas, much less to its Shia allies in Iraq.
The real point of a US policy of reinstating the arms embargo in a new resolution was, in fact, to demonstrate US support for Israel and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies who wanted such language and to curry favour with hawkish Senate Democrats who had been exposed to propaganda on the issue from the Israeli lobby.
Those political motives were certainly behind a series of moves on Monday and Tuesday to adopt a tougher US negotiating stance in the talks and to deliberately slow them down so that the 10 July deadline would be missed.
At 1pm (5pm GMT) in Washington on Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested in a press briefing that the administration could increase its bargaining leverage by continuing the talks indefinitely until it was satisfied with Iran’s concessions. He cited the fact that the Joint Plan of Action under which Iran had agreed to temporary restraints on enrichment could be kept in place, implying that the US didn’t really need an agreement any time in the near future.
Earnest claimed the administration had “some bipartisan agreement that this is an available approach that could benefit the United States and our negotiating position in a way that continues to keep the pressure on Iran to reach a final agreement”.
That was a rather heavy-handed way of conveying the administration’s intention to play hard to get in Vienna. The consequences of that strategy were apparent at a Monday night meeting in Vienna of the five permanent members of the Security Council and Iran.
The purpose was to discuss the text of the new Security Council resolution - especially on the arms embargo issue. At that meeting, Russia and China declared flatly that they would not support an effort to reinstitute the arms embargo, according to a European diplomatic source familiar with the meeting.
Nevertheless, the US, Britain and France accused Iran of making trouble in the region through conventional arms transfers, according to an account of the meeting published by the official Iranian news agency IRNA based on a background briefing by Zarif that was not supposed to have been for publication. Zarif reportedly shot back that he could have taken every one of the countries making the accusation to international court for supplying weapons of mass destruction capabilities to Iraq with which to attack Iran.
EU foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini told Iran that if it was not prepared to accept the renewal of the embargo, they all might as well “go home,” to which Zarif responded by warning her “never to threaten an Iranian”. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov immediately added, “Nor a Russian.”
The outcome of the meeting clearly indicated that the Obama administration policy of pushing a hard line on the arms embargo issue had no chance whatever of being accepted even by the P5+1 (the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany) itself.
When negotiations resumed on Wednesday, it soon became clear to Iranian officials that the Obama administration was deliberately slowing progress in the talks so as to miss the 10 June Congressional deadline, which had previously seemed important to it.
They revealed in briefings for this writer and other journalists that the US was suddenly spending far more time “coordinating” with their P5+1 partners than negotiating with Iran on the remaining issues. Suddenly, all the other members of the six-power group, which had been almost entirely silent during the Vienna round up to that time, were said to have their own “red lines” complicating the negotiations.
That cumbersome process coincided with a new revised package of proposals on the unresolved issues that had been approved by the White House. It was more uncompromising than the previous one that the US delegation had provided, according to Iranian officials who spoke with this writer last week.
They recalled that the same combination of more extreme US proposals and a slowdown in negotiations had occurred in the talks at the same hotel in Vienna in November 2014.
The implications of the deliberate Obama administration decision to postpone any agreement to blunt domestic criticism from the right and, apparently, to try to wrest more diplomatic leverage in doing so, are far-reaching and very serious.
Obama will presumably complete the negotiations soon. But the slowdown manoeuvre implies that the administration will present the final agreement as a clear triumph over Iran achieved by its tough negotiating stance - even though that line will be the opposite of the truth.
Stay informed with MEE's newsletters
Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.