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Why the Iran Endgame is So Tortuous

Posted July 9th, 2015 at 2:39 pm (UTC-4)
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By Barbara Slavin

Successful diplomacy requires an astute mix of psychology and substance.

The past few days of Iran nuclear negotiations have featured plenty of both, with long sessions devoted to arcane technical issues interrupted by raised voices and threats to walk away rather than accept an agreement that does not meet respective bottom lines.

On Thursday, as negotiators neared a deadline for Congressional notification, a weary-looking Secretary of State John Kerry told equally weary reporters in Vienna that a deal was closer but not yet there.

While real progress had been made, “some of the tough issues remain unresolved,” Kerry said.

The reason the end game is proving so tortuous is because the stakes riding on an Iran agreement are so high.

For the past 18 months, top officials from the world’s major powers have been engaged in an unprecedented negotiating process with Iran that is unlikely to be repeated.

Iran, which has been a diplomatic outlier for most of the past 36 years, is trying to squeeze the maximum possible concrete benefits from the talks and gain a stamp of international legitimacy. This explains its efforts to achieve relief from international sanctions that are crimping not just its civilian economy but also its ability to import and export conventional arms.

The Obama administration insists that the talks are only about preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons for at least 15 years. While Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have occasionally spoken about other issues, the Obama administration says it is not counting on a nuclear deal to produce Iranian policies in additional areas that are more in tune with the views of the U.S. and its allies.

One of the final sticking points has been over whether to retain in a new U.N. Security Council resolution restrictions on Iran’s conventional arms trade that were imposed as part of the effort to slow the Iranian nuclear program. Mindful of both regional and domestic fallout, the U.S. is trying to minimize concerns that an Iran no longer shackled by sanctions will become a more destabilizing actor in the Middle East.

The problem with this logic is that regional dynamics are increasingly putting the U.S. and the Islamic Republic in the same boat fighting a mutual enemy – the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS).

Revelations this week by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter that the U.S. has managed to train only 60 vetted Syrians to battle IS – and fewer than 11,000 Iraqis of whom only 1,300 were Sunni Muslims – means that the majority of the ground troops fighting IS are Kurds and Iraqi Shiite Muslims who are also supported by Iran.

Traditional U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey have not provided soldiers to fight IS in either Iraq or Syria. Saudi Arabia is concentrating its airpower on an increasingly counterproductive war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthis while Turkey has threatened to intervene in Syria against local Kurds who have been among the most successful U.S. partners in the anti-IS struggle. Angry that the U.S. is not also targeting the Bashar al-Assad regime, Turkey is not even allowing bombing runs by U.S. forces based at Incirlik air base.

It is fair to ask who is a real ally in battling Sunni Muslim extremism.

At an event this week at the Atlantic Council, Richard Haass, a former senior U.S. official under the George W. Bush administration, underscored the dilemma for U.S. policymakers.

Because of Iran’s history of interfering in Arab countries and its closeness to the Iraqi government that replaced dictator Saddam Hussein, relying on Shiite forces against IS in Iraq “is like using gasoline to put out a fire,” Haass said.

At the same time, he acknowledged that “the Sunni states have been wildly disappointing” when it comes to providing ground forces to use against IS.

Ultimately, any solution to the conflicts tearing apart the Middle East will require Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, at a minimum, to discuss how to contain if not resolve the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The U.S. and other key members of the international community can facilitate these discussions and will be more empowered to do so if an Iran nuclear deal is reached and faithfully implemented.

Critics of the Iran negotiations who warn that Iran will become more dangerous after a deal need to suggest a viable alternative that prevents the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons while also containing the threat of Sunni extremism.

Iran needs allies, too, which is why it should muster the political courage to accept a long-term nuclear agreement that the Obama administration can successfully defend at home and abroad.

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