The Wall Street Journal reports: “Iran hasn’t given the U.S. and Europe a clear signal that it is prepared to accept a major cut in its future enrichment capacity. The duration of a deal and how much research work Iran can do on its nuclear technology continue to be sticking points.” That seems like a huge deal, since the central point of the negotiations is to see if there is a way short of military action to force Iran to end its illicit nuclear enrichment program.


US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (L) shake hands as Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs Yussef bin Alawi (2nd R) and former EU top diplomat Catherine Ashton watch in Muscat on November 9, 2014. ( AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM/Getty Images)

For years we have been negotiating and Iran still will not agree to any meaningful prohibitions on enrichment. You would think by now the administration would have figured out the lay of the land. But of course by denying the obvious, that Iran isn’t giving up anything, President Obama can resist pleas for more robust action and claim his policy is still viable.

Even worse, there are signs we are lobbing concessions at Iran faster than they can scoop them up for another day and another president. Mark Dubowitz, a sanctions expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, tells me, “Iran continues to engage in a range of illicit and dangerous activities including, in the past few months, procuring parts for its nuclear, ballistic missile, and chemical weapons programs and recently violating the terms of the JPOA by engaging in prohibited advanced centrifuge research and development work.” He observes, ” These illicit activities — and the absence of punishment for Iranian violations — are a sign of coming attractions and a warning about an approach that relies on precipitously unwinding the sanctions regime and relying on ‘snapbacks’ to re-impose economic pressure.”

Indeed, as Iran gets more belligerent in some respects, we keep making concessions. A Reuters report relates that “an IAEA report on Nov. 7 said Iran was failing to address suspicions it may have worked on designing an atomic bomb. Iran says it has no such aim and that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful. ‘We’ve been disappointed in their failure thus far to constructively engage on this issue,’ Ambassador Laura Kennedy, the U.S. envoy to the Vienna-based IAEA, told reporters.” That sure is a feeble response — “disappointed,” not even “deeply disappointed” — to Iran’s continuous flouting of existing  obligations; a building permit for a apartment complex in Jerusalem provokes harsher langeuage from the administration than that.

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen a powerful example of firmness and unwillingness to budge from stated red lines in these negotiations. Unfortunately it has come from the Ayatollah Khamenei rather than from our side,” says former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams.  “We’ve moved on time lines, numbers of centrifuges, ability to enrich uranium, insistence that Iran account for past military work on warheads, and other key matters. When students at places like the Kennedy School study these negotiations, they will be looking at Iran’s successful negotiating tactics– not our own.”

The Wall Street Journal report goes on to suggest that this is precisely what is happening:

In some cases, gaps seem to have widened. Western diplomats say Iran has ramped up pressure for the West to guarantee quick action to suspend or lift U.S., European and United Nations Security Council sanctions.

The latter is particularly problematic, officials say. Any move on U.N. sanctions would be very hard to reverse if Iran didn’t stick by its promises because of the veto power of the U.N.’s five permanent Security Council members.

The U.S. and Europe have offered flexibility on some of the Security Council’s economic sanctions, diplomats say. But they insist Iran must show a track record of compliance before they can lift other restrictions, like those on the supply of dual-use goods that can be used in a nuclear program.

“As everyone has begun to acknowledge, there’s virtually no prospect of a complete deal being reached by the 24th,” said Robert Einhorn, formerly one of the Obama administration’s top officials at the Iran talks. “I think their near-term goal…is to try and get agreement on some of the key parameters of the deal.”

Mr. Einhorn said he believes the talks could be extended for several months.

But to what end? The longer we talk the more we give away. More times means more research Iran does on advanced centrifuges and ICBMs. As a result, Iran enjoys protection against an Israeli attack. Israel is unlikely to bomb Iran so long as Obama can claim “progress” in the talks.

The White House would like to believe that Republicans want talks to fail. In reality both Democrats and Republicans, not to mention Israel and our Sunni allies, are afraid the administration is only inclined to give more and more ground to Iran. The faint hope that additional sanctions will alter the Iranian’s posture is also fading. Obama keeps promising to veto them and keeps conceding more at the bargaining table so why, to the extent the mullahs understand our political system, should the Iranians listen to Congress? Given the president’s lack of credibility, Dubowitz suggests, “Congress should assert and act on its prerogative to provide oversight on what would constitute a material breach of the agreement and vigorously defend the sanctions architecture it has built. The worse the deal, the more important it will be for Congress to ensure that strong economic leverage remains to punish Iranian non-compliance.”

In addition to passing additional sanctions and laying out the bare minimum terms that would be approved by Congress, lawmakers would be wise to demand disclosure (behind closed doors if need be to key members of Congress) of the progress of the bargaining to date. It is necessary to assess how much Obama has given up before our allies so that Congress can assess what the next steps may be. Surely if the administration has been holding firm on key points that should not be a problem, right? In the new Congress, serious bipartisan oversight will be necessary to prevent Iran from winning diplomatic legitimacy for its weapons programs. If Congress does not act, that is precisely where we are heading.