Nuclear talks between Iran and world powers will almost certainly be extended past the July 20 deadline. This would be a welcome development. Over the past six months, enough progress has been made to justify giving negotiators more time to reach an agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program. For the most part, both sides have held up their end of an interim agreement. Iran has reduced its stockpile of enriched uranium by more than 80 percent, in return for about $7 billion worth of sanctions relief. These are small and reversible steps, but historic nonetheless.
Still, it’s become increasingly clear that the barrier to a deal isn’t whether international negotiators can put together an enforceable agreement that lifts tough sanctions while constraining Iran to peaceful nuclear uses; it’s whether Iranian leaders, and the country’s domestic politics, are capable of accepting such a deal.
For 35 years, Iran’s theocratic regime has built its self-image on what it sees as lonely resistance to American imperial power, and a generation of Iranian officials have built professional reputations on opposing what they continue to call the “Great Satan.” That’s why face-to-face meetings between US and Iranian diplomats during the current negotiations have been an achievement on their own. For decades, direct contact was out of the question for both sides. President Obama himself broke a long taboo by speaking with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the phone. Unfortunately, resistance to breaking that taboo too swiftly may end up dooming an agreement that would benefit everyone.
Modern Iran views itself as the heir to an ancient, powerful civilization, and leaders who appeal to that pride also recognize the country can’t reclaim past glory without escaping the yoke of sanctions. That’s why Iran’s nuclear negotiators, who represent the country’s diplomatic elite, are seeking a path that might allow Iran to remove its pariah status.
But that task became infinitely more difficult last week, when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave a rare and detailed speech urging the negotiators to remain faithful to the resistance. Khamenei predicted that the United States would not follow through on its promise to lift sanctions, even if Iran agrees to a deal — an astute analysis of recent statements coming out of Capitol Hill. Khamenei also suggested that US threats of a military strike were empty as well.
Dishearteningly, Khamenei also revealed, and sought to spin, details of the negotiations that, until now, have been tightly held by all parties. “The other side has offered us two options: death or fever,” he announced. “It wants to force us into accepting the latter.” He indicated that Iran could freeze its nuclear program at its current level for a period of about five years, but argued that eventually the country will need to ratchet it back up — to an industrial scale far beyond what the United States and its allies consider acceptable.
Some analysts see a silver lining: The speech, posted in English on Khamenei’s website, could be a bargaining tactic — a simple effort to seek better terms. Others view his remarks as a pragmatic reference to the fact that Iran’s contract with Russia to supply nuclear fuel to its civilian reactor expires in 2021. Iran wants to be able to produce its own supply, partly because of past US efforts to persuade other countries not to provide Iran with nuclear fuel.
If Iran can be convinced to extend the Russian contract, and forgo domestic production of enriched uranium, then a deal could be within reach. Indeed, a group of experts at Princeton recently suggested that the deal should be broken into phases. If the question of how much enriched uranium Iran can produce were delayed years into the future, it would give experts more time to broker an agreement on supplying Iran’s reactor. This is the kind of creative solution that deserves to be explored in coming weeks.
Still, US negotiators can only do so much. They can offer terms that address Iranian concerns, and they must emphasize that, without a nuclear deal, crippling sanctions will stay in place. But ultimately, the outcome will depend on whether Iranian leaders can accept the notion of making a deal with the United States. Henry Kissinger once declared that Iran must decide whether it is “a nation or a cause.” Unfortunately, that decision is out of the hands of even the most skillful US diplomat.