Barack Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry might this week be forgiven for feeling a little like Geoffrey Howe in 1990, who famously described his European diplomacy as “rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”.
In diplomatic terms, the matches rarely come bigger than this. Today, officials from Iran will reconvene in Geneva after a two-week break with counterparts from the six countries to negotiate what might be the most important breakthrough in the nuclear dispute for a decade.
An agreement is tantalisingly close. But, in some quarters, the atmosphere is hysterical. Israeli and American politicians warn that the US is on the verge of “another Munich”. Others think that the US and Iran will strike a grand bargain – leaving traditional US allies, such as Israel and the Arab monarchies, discarded. The biggest risk to diplomacy is that the US Congress proceed with its threat to impose yet more sanctions on Iran. The team captain would be breaking Kerry’s bat in the middle of a fine over.
Although we don’t know all the details of what transpired in the last round of talks 10 days ago, we have a rough idea of the deal that was nearly done: Iran would freeze much of its nuclear expansion, including the particularly sensitive enrichment of uranium. The Western powers would offer in the region of $13bn of sanctions relief, a modest sum that would leave the truly crushing oil and banking sanctions in place. Importantly, this would only be an interim deal lasting for probably no more than six months. It would merely buy time for the two sides to reach a final settlement, as part of which Iran (and the West) would have to make deeper and tougher concessions.
In the first round of talks, the French intervened at a late stage to demand tougher conditions on a handful of issues. The US and other powers agreed to work these into a new draft. But Iran did not accept the new text as it was, and there was simply insufficient time to hammer out a compromise. Those talks did not therefore collapse, as some have suggested; they simply ran out of time. There is no reason to think that the remaining issues cannot be ironed out in the coming days.
The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has complained that this would be the “deal of the century” for Iran. But he is wrong. The deal offers only minimal and easily reversible sanctions relief to Iran, comes with an expiry date, and leaves the bulk of sanctions untouched. Above all, it could also double Iran’s so-called “breakout time” – how long it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for one bomb. If Iran cheats, the West loses almost nothing; if it doesn’t, then Iran is put further from a nuclear weapon and trust is built for a bigger deal. Like all good diplomacy, it hedges against its own failure. By contrast, Netanyahu, along with much of the US Congress, thinks a short-term deal distracts from the task of coercing Iran into complete surrender. This might sound reasonable. After all, various UN Security Council resolutions have made clear demands of Iran. Why ease the pressure now, when Iran is just beginning to sweat?
The problem is twofold. First, this approach is a repudiation of the very idea of diplomacy itself. Negotiation requires more than merely restating the terms on which you will accept your opponent’s surrender. The greatest sticking point is what Iran sees as its “right to enrichment”. Western diplomats acknowledge that Iran will never give up this right, and therefore seek a deal that would put limits on how it is exercised.
The second issue is that the timeline for economically strangling Iran is far longer than the timeline on which its nuclear programme is moving. Without the breathing space provided by an interim deal, Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium will grow, on present trends, to dangerous levels. That would force us into a terrible choice: watch Iran outrun sanctions or bomb its nuclear facilities without evidence that it had decided to build a nuclear weapon. Even then, bombs could roll back the programme for a while, but it would simply be rebuilt underground and without inspectors.
Those who insist that the Iranian nuclear threat is serious and imminent ought to be the first to recognise the value of a short-term agreement that reduces the temperature and tests Iran’s bona fides. Remember, no one is letting Iran off the hook. As part of a final settlement, it would have to agree to even more serious curbs on its nuclear programme and far greater co-operation with the IAEA. But those who reject everything short of Iranian capitulation will risk making Iran look like it is the reasonable party in this dispute.
Iran is a violator of human rights, a state sponsor of terrorism, and an enthusiastic ally of Bashar al-Assad’s bloodthirsty regime in Syria. But repudiating diplomacy at this delicate juncture does not fix any of these things. It only prolongs a nuclear stand-off that has festered for more than a decade and casts a shadow of war over the Middle East. What is increasingly worrying is that the obstacles to diplomacy appear to lie as much on Capitol Hill, in Washington, as in Tehran itself.