High-stakes negotiations may soon lead the United States and Iran out of the hostility in which they have been trapped for 35 years. But on Nov. 24, Iran and six world powers announced that they had failed to reach a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program. They agreed to extend negotiations for a framework to March and for a final agreement to July 2015.
No other diplomatic rapprochement would so decisively contribute to U.S. security as reconciliation with Iran. If that is within reach, a few months’ delay is a small price to pay. After all, as U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman noted in October, these talks are “a puzzle with many interlocking pieces.” Such a puzzle cannot be solved quickly.
Yet there is another, more worrying scenario. The extension will give opponents of U.S.-Iran reconciliation more time to organize. In Washington the anti-Iran chorus is already reaching a fever pitch. Emboldened by recent electoral gains, its choirmasters in the U.S. Congress are likely to promote measures designed to undermine talks with Iran. They were further encouraged by the failure to reach an accord by the November deadline.
Similarly, Iran’s conservative political factions, including the repressive Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, oppose reconciliation. Corps members have made fortunes in the sanction-busting trade by running speedboats full of iPhones and other goods across the Persian Gulf from Dubai. An end to sanctions against Iran would undoubtedly weaken them. The corps and its allies were just as pleased as their American counterparts by the lack of agreement.
Opposition in Washington, however, is far more threatening than that in Tehran. Militant members of Congress and pro-Israel lobbies compete to demonize Iran ever more colorfully. By contrast, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, still appears able and willing to keep a lid on malcontents in his government. For example, during a recent session of parliament, a minister who denounced the nuclear talks was repeatedly ruled out of order. When he continued his harangue, the lawmaker was escorted from the chamber — all of which was carried live via radio. Khamenei, through his allies in parliament, was making clear that he would brook no criticism of the talks.
U.S. participation in the talks with Iran has been vital, and President Barack Obama deserves credit for seeing the strategic wisdom of this initiative. Despite congressional opposition, he is pressing ahead, with the hope of bringing a considerable strategic gain for the United States. His foreign policy team, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, has embraced this challenge with evident enthusiasm.
A successful accord would guarantee that Iran does not become nuclear armed. It would also give Washington a much-needed partner in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Iran’s ability to influence events in large parts of Iraq and Afghanistan is now more urgently in the United States’ interests than ever before. There was a time when the U.S. sought help from the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Turkey or the Arab League. All of them, for different reasons, have faded from U.S. strategic radar. Iran remains an island of stability in an ever more turbulent region.
If a nuclear deal is reached and sanctions are eased, Tehran might feel less besieged and more willing to loosen political restrictions at home. It could then offer a valuable example of gradual change in a violent region. And not incidentally, Iran is world’s last mature but unexploited consumer market. It is the only the country where tens of millions of young, middle class, consumer-oriented people yearn for Western goods but have been cut off from legal access to them. From Google to Boeing, American companies are poised to grab this market — if European or Chinese competitors don’t arrive first.
A comprehensive deal would also be good for Iran. Easing of sanctions would be a crucial victory for the reform-minded president, Hassan Rouhani. That might open a host of possibilities in Iran, which has been struggling with the transition to democracy since adopting its first constitution more than a century ago.
History shows that Iranian presidencies mirror those in the United States. When Bill Clinton was elected in the U.S. and seemed open to dialogue with Iran, Iranians responded by electing a reformer, Mohammad Khatami. After Americans chose a thundering anti-Iran crusader, George W. Bush, Iranians produced a polarizing figure of their own, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Obama’s calmer approach was part of the reason for Rouhani’s decisive victory earlier this year.
These nuclear talks offer a rare chance to rearrange pieces on the global chessboard. These are always difficult moments. Political leaders are comfortable with yesterday’s certainties; they struggle to imagine tomorrow’s threats and opportunities. Too often, as in this case, domestic politics distorts understanding of long-term security interests.
The first round of nuclear talks with Iran gave us a new political cliché: No deal is better than a bad deal. Our consensus is shaped by this hollow phrase precisely because it is so devoid of meaning. Anyone and everyone would agree with it. Now we need a consensus around what a good deal would be. It would guarantee that Iran never develop nuclear weapons and offer Tehran a clear path back into the community of nations. Another half-year to reach such an accord is hardly too much. But the danger remains. Enemies of reconciliation will also be active during these months. The stakes are as high as the results are unpredictable.