May 14

Michael Singh is managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From 2005 to 2008, he worked on Middle East issues at the National Security Council. He is on Twitter: @MichaelSinghDC

Nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 powers — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China — resume this week in an atmosphere that is at once hopeful and grave. Officials from both sides have been surprisingly optimistic about their chances of reaching a long-term accord. Yet serious differences reportedly remain, and failure to resolve them would leave both sides to weigh the unpalatable alternatives to a diplomatic resolution.

Failure would be easy to recognize; what success would look like is less clear. Despite U.S. officials’ insistence that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” they are also keenly aware that promising diplomatic openings with Iran have been few and far between in the past 35 years, and likely worry that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s ability to withstand domestic opposition to his economic and diplomatic initiatives may be fleeting.

Rouhani’s purported weakness is paradoxically a source of Iranian advantage in these negotiations. While no political reformer, he is widely perceived as someone who is serious about resolving the nuclear dispute so that Iran can recover economically. U.S. and European observers hope that a nuclear deal could lead to a broader easing of tensions — though whether this is true is unclear — and conversely worry that failure to reach a deal could fatally undermine that chance.

Rouhani has correspondingly engendered sympathy for his constraints. Indeed, a “good deal” these days is often framed more in terms of Rouhani’s capacity to deliver than our own requirements. Issues such as Syria and Iran’s missile programs are often dismissed by observers as off the table because they are in the purview not of Rouhani but of the Revolutionary Guards, implying that we are negotiating not with the Iranian regime but merely one faction of it. But softening our nuclear demands in the hope of strengthening Rouhani would be a mistake, for several reasons.

First, a deal must satisfy not only U.S. negotiators but skeptical partners who question the Rouhani narrative and are unwilling to stake their security on it. The most important is Congress, which may refuse to lift sanctions if it believes an agreement leaves Iran with too great a residual nuclear capacity.

The administration could circumvent sanctions through waivers, but banks and others may hesitate to resume business with Iran without regulatory clarity. The crisis would remain unresolved, harming both Rouhani and the United States.

To advance U.S. interests in the Middle East, a deal should also be acceptable to U.S. allies there, for whom Iran’s regional activities — which have continued apace under Rouhani — are of greater concern than its nuclear pursuits. If they deem a deal too lenient, these allies could respond both by confronting and accommodating Iran, perhaps simultaneously. They could ramp up sectarian activities or pursue their own nuclear capabilities, even as they cut side deals with Tehran inimical to U.S. desires.

Second, Rouhani may be eclipsed politically rather than strengthened once a nuclear accord is reached. Iranian presidents’ power rarely lasts long, and Rouhani’s utility to the regime — along with hopes of an easing of U.S.-Iran tensions — may fade once sanctions relief is obtained.

Even if Rouhani hangs on, one should not mistake his desire to ease Iran’s isolation for an eagerness to turn westward. Iran will more likely pursue partners it sees as rivals to the United States or as non-aligned. In recent weeks, Iranian officials have endorsed Russia’s position on Ukraine, visited Beijing to pursue deeper military ties and signed a transit agreement with India and Afghanistan as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from the latter. Combined with increased tensions in traditional U.S. alliances as a result of a nuclear deal with Iran, the effect could be a sharp blow to America’s position.

Thus, a weak agreement could prove a strategic setback in the guise of a tactical success. Any accord must be crafted to reassure skeptics and survive a change of leadership or of course in Tehran. Rouhani’s presence across the table may make an agreement possible, but it should not dictate the substance of the deal.

The surest way to avoid strategic failure is to insist on strict limits on Iran’s nuclear activities and intrusive inspections, and credibly threaten stiff penalties for cheating. But other steps are also important, even if such measures are negotiated.

First, a deal must not only bind Iran’s civilian nuclear authorities, but also its security apparatus, which is most likely to spearhead a covert nuclear effort. One way of doing this would be to insist that Iran curtail its missile activity and come clean about its weaponization research, ensuring that Iran’s entire nuclear program and not just one element of it is subject to the scrutiny of inspectors.

Second, sanctions relief can be phased so that one-off or reversible actions such as unfreezing assets are front-loaded, and less easily reversible steps such as lifting oil and financial sanctions are back-loaded. This would ensure Iran benefits from rolling back its nuclear program while guarding against a hardline resurgence and giving Congress time to judge Tehran’s adherence to the deal before voting to remove sanctions.

Finally, the United States should complement nuclear negotiating efforts with an equally energetic campaign to bolster cooperation with our regional allies and counter Iran’s support for terrorism and other destabilizing activities. This would ensure that Iran, and especially its hard-liners, continues to pay a high price for those activities, and signal to friends and foes alike that we remain committed to the region.