Iran and U.S. still no where near a nuclear deal

With another deadline to reach a framework nuclear agreement with Iran having come and gone, it appears that both sides of the negotiations remain much farther apart than was previously understood. Both sides now agree that March 31 represents the date at which a framework deal must be fully ironed out. A June deadline for a final agreement with all the terms cemented has now become an even more pressing closing date for the conclusion of a nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1.

According to The New York Times, American negotiators are holding out hope for a specific arrangement that contains concrete goals and verification mechanisms. For Iran, however, negotiators only want to secure a general “understanding,” leaving the sticking points to be addressed over the spring.

There is a lot to quantify, from the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges that would remain spinning to exactly how Iran would change the design of a reactor that is under construction to limit the production of plutonium, another pathway to a bomb. But Iran says it will not agree to such specifics, at least for now.

“This is one of the biggest challenges we face,” one European diplomat involved in the talks said in recent days. “The politics in America demand specificity, and an Iranian commitment. And the politics in Iran demand vagueness” and no commitment until a possible final deal — with all its technical annexes — is reached in June.

The European official added, “All of us are in agreement that you don’t make oral deals with Iran.”

The administration faces an even tougher negotiating partner at home in the form of a Congress comprised of bipartisan majorities who disapprove of the direction in which nuclear talks are headed. Many in both the House and the Senate want to pass new sanctions against Iran that would compel the Islamic Republic to abide by the terms agreed to in Lausanne. For an Iranian regime that is now demanding the lifting of all sanctions, that’s going to be a problem.

“Iran will insist that all sanctions against it are lifted as a condition for a nuclear deal, the foreign minister said on Wednesday, showing no sign of compromise on a major sticking point in its talks with world powers set to resume this week,” Reuters reported on Wednesday. “Western officials have consistently rejected that demand, and a senior European negotiator last week said the immediate lifting of all sanctions was ‘out of the question.’”

In order to mollify nuclear negotiations opponents both in the United States and in Switzerland, apparently, the administration has taken to issuing apocalyptic warnings about what will follow the collapse of these talks. A Wednesday report in Politico revealed that American officials fear that Iranian troops might attack the 3,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq if March 31 passes without a deal.

“Two scenarios are of particular concern, officials say. One is that a collapse of the nuclear talks could escalate tensions between Iran and the U.S., emboldening Iranian hard-liners and potentially leading to attacks on Americans in Iraq,” Politico reported. “The other is that increased U.S. efforts to oust Syrian president Bashar Assad, a close ally of Tehran, could provoke retaliation from Iran. White House officials who oppose greater involvement in Syria’s civil war often cite concern for the safety of Americans in Iraq as a reason for caution, sources said.”

One military official said there is no imminent Iranian threat to Americans in Iraq, who operate from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and from joint command centers with Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

But sources said the potential danger is factored into U.S. military planning. Debates about troop levels in Iraq, for instance, are shaped in part by concerns that a larger force creates a bigger potential target for Iran.

The deterrent that should compel Iran to decline to mount a surprise attack on American troops, be it a covert or overt assault, is the threat posed by the overwhelming and disproportionate retaliatory response from the United States. But that threat is neutralized by the administration’s apparent unwillingness to use the threat of military force as a negotiating tool in nuclear negotiations. Rhetorically, administration officials routinely warn that the failure of nuclear talks could mean war, but few believe that the administration is willing to make good on this implied threat.