It is clear we’re approaching an end game in nuclear negotiations between six world powers — the P5+1 — and Iran. Final negotiating maneuvers have commenced. Secretary of State John Kerry has said there will not be another extension beyond March 31 unless a political framework is in place. Reports from Iran hold that President Hassan Rouhani’s position will be precarious if there is no agreement. And the word from Israel is that the country will use its full strength to prevent any agreement that does not meet its unreasonable demands — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial address to the Congress on March 3.
If there is a negotiated agreement that is rejected, either in Congress or in Iran, it will be clear who bears the responsibility. But if no agreement is reached, it will matter greatly who is seen to be responsible. There is a good argument to be made that it is in the U.S. interest for any breakdown in negotiations to appear to be caused by Iranian intransigence.
If Iran walks away from the talks, Rouhani can claim to have stood up to “The Great Satan” and protected Iran’s civil nuclear energy program. That may be enough for Iran’s new president to keep his job, and hold the IRGC and other hardliners at bay, and live to negotiate another day.
If the U.S. is seen as the cause of the negotiations failure, say, because Congress passes a bill requiring a contentious up-or-down vote on the agreement, the results are likely to be very different. Russia and China would surely move to increase commercial, and perhaps military, ties with Tehran. And our European partners, already planning trade ties, might soon follow suit. In short, the carefully constructed international sanctions regime would almost certainly weaken and possibly collapse. Severe strains might well develop within NATO at the same time unity on Ukraine is needed.
This would be even more true if Israeli objections were seen as the root cause, or if Congress was seen as acting on Israel’s behalf. Make no mistake — this issue goes beyond any perceived slight on the part of the Obama administration. Netanyahu’s proposed speech is dangerous.
And then what? In the aftermath of a failed deal, both sides will take a period of reassessment. Iran is unlikely to continue to accede to the current enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency inspections regime, so transparency will suffer immediately. Iran already retains the capability to develop nuclear weapons. In the event of a breakdown in negotiations, Iran’s nuclear program could shift from its current restrained state, to unfettered advancement. Limits on enrichment, centrifuges, and additional research and development would disappear. And without the support of our international partners, Iran would be free to move forward, to build a bomb if it so chooses, without the heavy burden of sanctions on its shoulders.
The path after a rejection of an Iranian nuclear agreement or of a failure to reach one is likely to be difficult, but just how difficult may depend largely on who is seen to have been responsible. The U.S. must hold strong with its negotiating partners, and should, under no circumstances, put itself in a position to have to argue against its own intransigence.
Retired Col. Richard Klass, is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the National War College and Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He flew more than 200 combat missions in Vietnam and served in the executive office of the president as a White House fellow. He wrote this for CQ Roll Call.
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