We are counting down the days not only to the midterm election but to the Nov. 24 deadline in the P5+1 Iran talks. The latter seem to be stalled — and that’s the good news.

Iran is publicly repudiating the basis of any deal that would be acceptable to the West, which would require dismantling of its nuclear weapons program:

Iran will not accept any “backward steps” on its nuclear program, specifically on the enrichment of uranium, a top official said Saturday, dismissing US calls for more curbs. “Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, a member of Iran’s nuclear talks team, was responding to comments by the lead US negotiator Wendy Sherman who called on Iran to “finish the job.”
Sherman’s remarks came in a speech given Thursday at a Washington think-tank where she cited the “size and scope” of Iran’s enrichment as a barrier to a deal. Iran’s leaders would very much hope that the world would conclude that the status quo — at least on this pivotal subject — should be acceptable, but obviously it is not,” she said. Araqchi rejected Sherman’s suggestion. “We will not back down on our nuclear rights but we are ready to take transparency and confidence-building measures,” the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying.

It is a measure of how little leverage we have deployed and how little Iran fears the consequences of refusing to dismantle its program that Iranian officials sound the same as they did more than a year ago. Although the Obama team insists no deal is better than a bad deal, it is seems the team is panic-stricken at the thought they might reach the deadline with no “final agreement.” Iran has so spooked our negotiators that the administration now believes it has more to lose than Iran (who, one would think, would face even more damaging sanctions).

Whatever leverage sanctions afforded us is wasted if the president is in a mindset that his job is prevent the failure of negotiations rather than to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

A new deal is not out of the question. “Iran may not be willing to take ‘backward steps’ but one shouldn’t discount the possibility that there are cascade of US concessions before Nov. 24 that concede to Iran a higher starting enrichment cap than currently on the table followed by multi-phased and escalating enrichment capacity over a period of time, says Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “This technical compromise may permit the Iranians to argue that they haven’t taken any steps backward since they have increased their latent enrichment capacity while the administration argues that it will take Iran some years to get back their actual enrichment levels to where they are today.”

That of course would never pass muster with Congress but Obama might be long gone by the time any deal would require a permanent suspension of sanctions. And that brings us to the better news. There is still a good chance the administration can’t make enough concessions to satisfy the mullahs. If so, Iran will claim success in defying the Great Satan. But by the same token Iran will not have the protective cover of agreement as its illicit weapons program continues, nor will it enjoy the suspension of sanctions the president has promised. That seems to leave either no deal or yet another extension, which is becoming the new status quo (i.e. Iran dismantles nothing and we dole out measured relief from sanctions). The latter seems increasingly likely, according to news reports:

With talks nearly deadlocked and their deadline one month away, six world powers seeking a nuclear deal with Iran have begun discussing whether to again extend negotiations, according to Western officials. Officials say they believe a deal is still possible by the Nov. 24 deadline, but recognize that the odds are long and want to avoid a collapse of talks that could heighten tension.

Notice how the administration thinks: The threat of enhanced sanctions on Iran is subsumed to our fear of heightened tension (i.e. the president might have to do something).

Perpetuating the status quo tells Iran it has nothing to fear from remaining in defiance of the West. But, to be honest, that very well may be the case under President Obama, who doesn’t mention the military option anymore and has promised to veto new sanctions. Iran knows this, honest Western observers know it and Israel and our Sunni allies know it.

For now then, with the president we have, the best outcome possible would be an extension of the interim deal (which saves Obama the trouble of erasing another red line) and passage of new sanctions by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the current or new Congress. Perhaps new sanctions, some more unexplained explosions in Iran’s nuclear facilities and the threat of Israeli military action can hold Iran at bay until a more capable president arrives. We should dearly hope so.

A new president might deploy sanctions more expertly, stop chasing a deal, make the military option more credible and enhance the threat of Israeli action. That would make it possible to reach a deal that attains the current president’s stated objective. That a Bush or a Clinton might do so only adds to the irony.