WASHINGTON – In its delicate negotiations with Iran over freezing its nuclear program, the Obama administration is gambling that the gradual relaxation of punishing sanctions will whet Tehran’s appetite for greater economic relief, inducing the country’s leaders to negotiate a further deal to roll back its nuclear progress.
Yet President Obama’s biggest critics – in Congress, the Arab world and Israel – argue that he has the strategy entirely backward. By changing the psychology around the world, they argue, the roughly $100 billion in remaining sanctions will gradually be whittled away. Wily middlemen, Chinese eager for energy sources and Europeans looking for a way back to the old days, when Iran was a major source of trade, will see their chance to leap the barriers.
Secretary of State John Kerry took off for Geneva on Friday night for his second visit in two weeks, once again heightening expectations that negotiators are close to agreement on a pact to suspend Iran’s nuclear program for six months. With a deal seemingly in reach, the focus is shifting to the details, and particularly what sanctions would be reversed, in return for the freezing or dilution of Iran’s uranium stockpile. To some critics, almost any relief is too much.
“We know who we’re dealing with, and you know, we’ve watched this same type of activity occur in North Korea where you begin to alleviate sanctions,” said Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, invoking the example that many cite of a sanctions relaxation, begun in the Bush administration, that backfired.
“The concern is that whatever you do on an interim basis becomes the new norm,” Corker told reporters as he left the White House the other day, unconvinced by Obama’s counterarguments.
The Senate narrowly avoided a vote this week on new sanctions against Iran that the White House feared would blow up their chances of getting a preliminary agreement in Geneva this weekend, but Sen. Harry Reid, one of Obama’s greatest allies, has made it clear that a vote may well come soon after the Thanksgiving break.
At the heart of the dispute is a fundamental disagreement about how best to negotiate with a skilled adversary whose decision-making processes have long baffled U.S. intelligence agencies.
Obama and his aides have argued that unless they give President Hassan Rouhani and his Western-educated chief negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, something to go home and advertise as a win from the first round of negotiations, there is little chance that they will return to negotiate a second, permanent deal.
“Zarif says he has at most six months to get a deal before the hard-liners rise again,” one of the Obama administration’s strategist said recently. “And we believe him.”
The belief that Zarif’s warning was real triggered a lengthy debate among the United States and its fellow major powers – Britain, Germany, France, China and Russia – about how to give Iran a taste of relief without giving up too much. They settled on a portion of the long-frozen assets that Iran has hungered to tap – roughly $3.6 billion in oil revenue parked in foreign banks. A senior administration official said the money would be doled out in still-to-be-determined increments over the six months of the agreement.
Obama’s bet is that the need to restore Iran’s oil exports – which are down by well more than half from early 2011 – will bring Rouhani back for more.
“We’ll retain huge leverage – the leverage that comes from cutting into their oil sales,” says R. Nicholas Burns, the former undersecretary of state for policy who organized the first sanctions against Iran during the Bush administration. “No good negotiator is going to give that up, and Barack Obama and John Kerry are smart negotiators. But it’s in the American national interest to try to make this negotiation work. If it’s not in the Israeli interest or the Saudi interest, so be it.”