Win-Win on Iran Talks

I admit to being pleasantly surprised when I saw the initial reports on the outcome of yesterday’s talks on the Iran nuclear program. To be sure, this is not a sufficient step to any stable resolution of the conflict. But it was a necessary one, in that any further progress would have been impossible without first passing through this gate.

One thing to keep in mind, though, to understand why yesterday’s outcome avoided the worst and does not guarantee future success, is that this was a so-far-isolated instance in this ongoing standoff where a positive outcome was in everyone’s interests. President Barack Obama needed one to validate his policy of engagement. Russia needed one to avoid being put on the spot on another round of sanctions. And Iran needed one to avoid finding itself fatally isolated on the issue.

In that light, yesterday’s outcome is decidedly win-win. Obama takes away a much-needed, if modest and not-yet-decisive, diplomatic success. The Russians maintain their ability to both advance and obstruct a resolution to the standoff. And the Iranian regime gained much-needed legitimacy.

Of course, negotiations where interests converge usually yield positive outcomes. The challenge here is to lock in this dynamic over the series of discussions to follow. I suspect that whatever Undersecretary of State William Burns said to Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, was essentially an effort to do so, probably by conveying the Obama administration’s sincerity regarding changing the tone of relations between the two countries should the ongoing talks prove fruitful.

The agreement to send Iran’s already low enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment — to be used in an experimental reactor requiring a higher level of enrichment — is also promising, both for what it immediately achieves (reducing Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium for a potential “breakout” scenario), but also for its implications regarding future multilateral cooperation in Iran’s nuclear program. Both a multilateral enrichment consortium operating in Iran and a multilateral fuel bank have been previously advanced as potential compromise solutions to the standoff. The Russian deal would represent a first step, in principle, along that path.

As everyone acknowledges, much more still needs to be hammered out before the charges that Iran is just buying time are demonstrably false. Indeed, those charges might never be demonstrably false, meaning the resolution to this standoff could ultimately look more like Brazil’s nuclear status (opaquely civil but broadly trusted), than Japan’s (transparently civil and broadly trusted). Both of those would be preferable, of course, to Israel’s (opaquely military but begrudgingly trusted) or North Korea’s (opaquely military but not trusted).

One last thing, which occurred to me this morning as an afterthought: Of the six parties involved in these talks, the two essential principals — the U.S. and Iran — are the ones with the most institutionally unstable foreign policy mechanisms. It’s frequently said that the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the one calling the shots on Iran’s nuclear progam. But the events since June 11 have brought into clear relief the various and competing poles of power within the Iranian regime.

Meanwhile, the American system of government places an enormous amount of power and initiative for foreign policy in the hands of the executive. But Congress has its word to say when it so chooses, as evidenced by the sanctions legislation threatened on Capitol Hill as a response to Iran’s secret enrichment facility in Qom. The American electoral calendar also places pressures on Obama that could potentially limit his room for maneuver in the absence of demonstrable progress.

In other words, both the U.S. and Iran face the added challenge of not only finding a resolution that satisfies each other’s minimum requirements, but that is politically feasible on the domestic front as well. Yesterday, they managed to accomplish that. Stay tuned.