The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How can the Iran deal fall apart? Let me count the ways.

Everyone is talking about the framework agreement as if it's a done deal. It's not.

The framework announcement regarding Iran’s nuclear deal is less than 24 hours old, and I’m already sick of it.

For some, this is the Greatest Inspections Regime Ever. For others, it’s an Existential Threat to Their Way of Life. But the one implicit assumption I do see in a lot, though not all, of the instant analysis is the assumption that the hard work has been done, the train has left the station, and that there will be a finished deal come June 30 — or Sept. 30, when the inevitable three-month extension is added. This is likely based on the fact that relative to expectations, the joint announcement was surprisingly detailed.

I’m not a nuclear nonproliferation expert, so I’m not going to comment on the specifics of the deal. But based on the actual joint statement, the administration’s fact sheet, Obama’s White House statement and all the reactions, however, I can see at least five ways that this framework crumbles before it gets implemented.

1) Disagreement over the sanctions timetable. Well, the euphoria didn’t last long. As the Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo noted, the Iranians reacted strongly and negatively after Obama’s statement and the release of the fact sheet, because those documents/statements indicated that U.S./E.U. sanctions would not be removed immediately:

The source of the disagreement is over the precise timetable of the sanctions removal. As Kredo writes:

Zarif went on to push back against claims by Kerry that the sanctions relief would be implemented in a phased fashion — and only after Iran verifies that it is not conducting any work on the nuclear weapons front.
Zarif, echoing previous comments, said the United States has promised an immediate termination of sanctions.
“Iran/5+1 Statement: ‘US will cease the application of ALL nuclear-related secondary economic and financial sanctions.’ Is this gradual?” he wrote on Twitter.

All the pre-announcement reports indicated that the sanctions timetable was a sticking point. This is the least clear portion of the joint announcement, which is the text that matters the most at this point. To be fair, this is a reprise of the backbiting that occurred after the Fall 2013 interim deal was reached. So it’s possible that a sanctions timetable can still be hammered out. Which leads us to…

2) Each side sabotages the other with its domestic sales pitch. There are pretty powerful constituencies in both Iran and the United States that do not want any deal to be reached with the other side. In this two-level game, the leaders of both countries will have to make hard sells that any negotiated deal gives them an edge going forward. But that act of making the sales pitch is going to be observed by the other side. Any substantive difference in interpretation of the actual text that emerges during the sales pitch will trigger a crisis in implementation.

Frankly, this is going to be more of a problem on the American side. It’s not that the Iranian hardliners don’t want to sabotage the deal. It’s that the U.S. system is more open and thus better geared toward veto players being able to exercise their veto. And we’ve already seen some pretty desperate attempts by members of Congress to exercise a veto.

Still, if you look at the actual body of sanctions law, it’s conceivable that the administration will be able to execute a deal and thwart any congressional attempt to override the agreement. Which leads us to…

3) The regional situation melts down further. I explained why the Middle East maelstrom created an optics problem earlier in the week. Obviously, ongoing wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq are intrinsically bad, but it also makes the administration argument of “this deal or war!” seem slightly less scary.

The more substantive issue is that if, say, the situation in Yemen deteriorates further, it will be easy to see Republicans switch from claiming that this nuclear deal is meaningless to saying that any deal should be put on hold as a way to punish the Iranians.

Or, think of it this way. Even if Congress is deterred from sanctioning Iran over the nuclear question, it will be easy to envisage broad bipartisan support for new sanctions against Iran for their support of regional proxies.

Which leads us to…

4) The Sunni Arab states remain unconvinced. The strongest foreign policy argument in favor of a nuclear deal is that it strengthens the nonproliferation regime.  An Iran with nuclear weapons could trigger a cascade effect across the region in which the Sunni Arab states decide they need their own nuclear deterrent. Earlier this month the Saudis did some throat clearing that highlighted this possibility. So an Iran with a constrained nuclear program should lessen the worries of Sunni Arab partners in the region.

It’s not an accident that in his statement Obama said that he’d already spoken with the new Saudi king, and then said:

I am inviting the leaders of the six countries who make up the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain to meet me at Camp David this spring to discuss how we can further strengthen our security cooperation while resolving the multiple conflicts that have caused so much hardship and instability throughout the Middle East.

All of this before he’d spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This suggests that: a) the White House is still super mad at Netanyahu; and b) Obama knows that the Sunni Arab states are the pivotal constituency. Because even if an agreement is signed and sealed, it won’t matter much if Saudi Arabia or Egypt or the UAE decide they need a weaponizable nuclear program.

The fact that the White House is aware of this problem and is going to go all out to sell this agreement to these countries is encouraging. But Obama won’t be president after January 2017. Which brings us to the final wild card:

5) Scott Walker (R) is elected president. It’s no surprise that Republican presidential contenders pretty much hate the deal. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio already made statements to that effect.

At the same time, Rubio’s and Bush’s statements are confined to general disapproval. As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has noted, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s rhetoric goes way beyond that. In an interview with Wisconsin radio host Charlie Sykes, the following exchange happened:

SYKES: You have said that you would cancel any Iranian deal the Obama administration makes. Now would you cancel that even if our trading partners did not want to reimpose the sanctions?
WALKER: Absolutely. If I ultimately choose to run, and if I’m honored to be elected by the people of this country, I will pull back on that on January 20, 2017, because the last thing — not just for the region but for this world — we need is a nuclear-armed Iran. It leaves not only problems for Israel, because they want to annihilate Israel, it leaves the problems in the sense that the Saudis, the Jordanians and others are gonna want to have access to their own nuclear weapons…

The foreign policy pledges that candidates make during the early primary season are not worth a whole hell of a lot (See: NAFTA, renegotiation of after 2008 election). Still, that was a pretty damn specific question to Walker, and his answer was pretty damn unequivocal.

Maybe as the tutoring proceeds, Walker will learn what a God-awful mess that would create. But since this is consistent with the Wisconsin governor’s other inane foreign policy statements, there’s a possibility that no amount of tutoring is going to matter.

If it looks like Walker will be the next president, the key players mentioned above are going to have more doubts that this deal will be implemented. Which would erode the odds of its successful implementation even more.

So, yes, there’s a framework in place. Whether that framework leads to what it says it’s going to lead to is another question entirely.