The Iran Nuclear Interregnum: From Framework to Final Deal

This post is the latest installment of our “Monday Reflections” feature, in which a different Just Security editor examines the big stories from the previous week or looks ahead to key developments on the horizon.

Last week the negotiations between the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany), the European Union, and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program resulted in a framework for a deal to be finalized between now and the June 30 deadline. Now we are in the interregnum period in which the devil is not only in the details, but also in the domestic politics of the United States and Iran and the geopolitics of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It is an important time to take stock of where we were at the outset of this process, where we are now, and what influences will likely shape this period from framework to final agreement deadline.

Because of U.S. good faith in negotiations, the U.S. hand will be stronger regardless of the final position on June 30. Unless Congress acts recklessly over the next three months, the U.S. position will be stronger whether the path leads to a diplomatic deal, a sanctions confrontation, or military conflict.

Where We Were

The benefits and risks of negotiation must be evaluated in terms of recent historical context. At the end of President George W. Bush’s term there was a debate about his administration’s policy devoted to Iranian regime change, due to critics who believed it was time to shift our focus to behavior change. Regime change purists like John Bolton argued that talking to an unworthy Iranian regime legitimizes it, and therefore behavior change may only be effected by economic or military force. Some regime change purists also subscribed to a version of American exceptionalism that values unilateralism and disfavors multilateral pressure as ineffective. 

First, critics argued that ruling out diplomatic negotiation with Iran had the perverse effect of allowing Iran to portray to vital third-party countries that the United States was unreasonable, and gave Russia and China political space to oppose or frustrate U.S. sanctions measures. Further, to critics, regime change purism could create counterproductive incentives for Iranian decision makers. Specifically, it could promote dead-end thinking in Iran’s leadership. If the United States will stop at nothing to replace (i.e., kill) Iranian leaders, then why change behavior? Those leaders come from a regime whose identity was forged in the idea of standing up to the United States. In that context, economic pain and military threats have some deterrent effect, but that effect is diluted in the Iranian governing psyche.

As a candidate, Barack Obama picked up the mantle of the critics, calling for overtures to Iran in order to test its willingness to engage in good faith negotiations. Sen. Obama said he would do anything in his power to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but he argued the Bush administration’s unwillingness to negotiate was a mistake. However, as then-Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) noted in late 2009: “Nearly a year after President Obama extended a hand to Iran in his inaugural address, we have yet to see Iran unclench its fist.”

In the intervening period, several factors moved Iran toward the bargaining table. One factor was the galvanization of the international community once President Obama’s offers to engage made Iran’s arguments about U.S. intransigence look shrill. Moreover, tumbling oil prices have put a significant strain on Iran’s fiscal health, especially its domestic subsidies that are critical to national tranquility. These factors led to an enhanced sanctions regime, both in terms of scope and effectiveness. Another factor occurred at Iran’s ballot box. President Rouhani succeeded President Ahmadinejad in 2013 and, with it, Iranian tone shifted in constructive ways.

While there have been important benefits to negotiations, it has also come with three chief costs. First, the negotiations took time, which Iran could use to further its drive toward nuclear weapon capability. This concern seems to assume some other decisive actions (including military ones) could have eliminated the Iranian nuclear program in the absence of the diplomatic effort, but it is difficult to conceive what would have been reliably effective.

Second, negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have been a driver of the frosty turn in relations between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel has significant, and immediate, security concerns about a nuclear Iran. While both the United States and Israel share the goal of denying Iran a nuclear weapon, the fight over the best means to achieve that goal has come at a heavy price.

Third, a number of U.S. allies in the region, like Saudi Arabia, have significant concerns about any thaw in U.S.-Iran relations that they perceive would come at the expense of Sunni sectarian interests. There are sure to be many sidebar conversations with U.S. officials designed to calm Saudi and others’ nerves in light of this diplomatic breakthrough.

Where We Are

The negotiations were arduous, and it went into two-days of overtime after the initial deadline expired. Then, on the morning of April 2, the parties announced the breakthrough. Later on Thursday, Marty posted links to the U.S. delegation’s description of key parameters of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the final details of which are the subject of the interregnum. It contains provisions covering enrichment limits, facility closures, timelines, and verification. It also provides that: “Iran will receive sanctions relief, if it verifiably abides by its commitments.”

Paths Forward

President Obama indicated he is “confident” that the final deal will be reached by the June deadline. Five broad categories will shape the Iran framework interregnum.

First, there is a delta between the framework and the finished product. Therefore, there is more work to be done at translating broad framework principles into an administrable and effective agreement.

Further, there may be a delta between the respective understandings of the parties. For example, Dan Joyner believes there may be a split as to the White House Fact Sheet representations regarding IAEA access rights and the actual JCPOA parameters. Harvard’s Belfer Center translated the Iranian Fact Sheet, which indicate a bit about potentially differing conceptions of the framework as well as a glimpse into the way the deal is being presented to Iran’s domestic audience. Moreover, the timing and nature of sanctions relief appears to be a critical unresolved issue.

Second, domestic politics in the United States could derail the process during this delicate period. Republicans have undertaken extreme measures to try to derail the negotiations, including Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu and the 47-Senator letter to the Islamic Republic of Iran engineered by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Now that a deal is in the works, the Senate will return from Easter recess on April 13 at which time it is expected to immediately take up the “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act,” sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) that would subject the Iran agreement to 60-day congressional review.

Pre-breakthrough polling indicated that while nearly 60 percent of Americans support a deal along the lines so far announced, 62 percent want Congress to have final authority for approving any U.S.-Iran deal. The announcement of a framework, however, will have an appreciable effect on the political environment of the interregnum. It is a far easier argument that negotiation with Iran is a fool’s errand in the abstract than it is to be seen as spiking an agreement in progress that contains significant verification provisions.

Adding a touch of intrigue to the Corker-Menendez whip efforts is the indictment of Sen. Menendez, the leading Democratic fly in the President’s Iran policy ointment. Significant radioactivity could provide Democratic members a face-saving path to support the President.

Rob Howse cogently argues that a congressional effort to “kill the deal” will leave Congress will few policy options. He notes that the President largely has the ability to meet U.S. obligations to Iran with existing authorities. He also notes that even if a veto-proof majority were able to enact new authorities designed to restrict presidential action it would merely undermine U.S. leverage with the multilateral partners that make sanctions effective and would provide Iran an opportunity to seek a separate peace with Europe, Russia, and China.

In his speech on Friday, the President threw down a gauntlet to Congress: “If Congress kills this deal not based on expert analysis, and without offering any reasonable alternative, then it’s the United States that will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy.” The President is correct that the benefits we have accrued through good faith negotiations could be lost if Congress spikes the deal. The United States would be left in a post-failure world in which economic sanctions and military action become the only remaining options but the ability to rally allies and other necessary parties would be degraded.

Third, domestic politics in Iran will shape this period. Iran has had an irresponsible and inflammatory regime but it has not been irrational. Iran has acted very consciously to advance strategic interests as it defines them. It also has a complex political system. President George W. Bush’s first Special Envoy for Afghanistan described our general lack of understanding of Iranian politics:

Americans are fond of characterizing the Iranian regime as a fundamentalist theocracy. The truth is more complex. Iran isn’t Switzerland, but it is rather more democratic than Egypt and less fundamentalist than Saudi Arabia, two of America’s most important allies in the region. . . Iran’s parliament and president are popularly elected. Elections take place on schedule. The outcomes are not fore-ordained. The results do make a difference, perhaps not as much of a difference as we would like, but enough to make the process worth understanding a good deal better than we do.

Even the supreme leader is elected to a fixed, renewable term by a council of clerics who are in turn popularly elected by universal adult suffrage. . . Presidential elections produce even more meaningful swings as can those in the parliament. Yes, the system is rigged, but not to the point that it becomes a complete sham, as in the case with many other Middle Eastern elections when such are held at all.

Suzanne Maloney at the Brookings Institution notes some of the internal Iranian dynamics. “Opportunistic public posturing is to some extent inevitable, but Washington and its partners will watch closely how the deal is sold to key constituencies within the Iranian political elite, most importantly the players closest to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”

Fourth, another complication is worsening Sunni and Shia sectarian strife across the Middle East, viewed through a geopolitical lens of proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran. According to Nicholas Burns, “[w]hat we’re also witnessing is the Sunni world is in crisis.” There is no doubt that there has been, as Vali Nasr eloquently argued in The Shia Revival, an empowerment of Shia across the Middle East in the wake of the Iraq War, the destabilization of Egypt, and subsequent tumult in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The Islamic State is the ugliest manifestation of a destabilized sectarian countermeasure to Shia ascendancy. Iran shares interests with United States in fighting the Islamic State. However, Iran opposes U.S. efforts to depose the Assad regime in Syria as well as U.S. support of Saudi Arabia’s fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Fifth, another factors is the possibility that external events in, say, Ukraine, exacerbate geopolitical fault lines. It is worthy of note that the United States and Russia cooperated on the Iran agreement. notwithstanding our other tensions. However, given U.S.-Russian flashpoints, continued Russian cooperation is not wholly bankable.

As the President argued during the 2008 campaign, good faith negotiations allow us – regardless of outcome – to dismiss Iran’s argument that our refusal to engage amounted to bad faith rush to war. This has had the effect of galvanizing Europe, China, and other international actors for future enhanced sanctions or, God forbid, military action. Barring congressional recklessness or gross diplomatic incompetence during the interregnum, the United States will be in a better position to advance its interests vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program on July 1 whether or not ink ever dries on an agreement. 

About the Author(s)

Andy Wright

Senior Fellow and Founding Editor of Just Security, former Associate Counsel to the President in the White House Counsel’s Office. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyMcCanse.