Iran Nuclear Talks: The Price of Failure

by Mitchell Plitnick

Once upon a time, it seemed that the Obama administration had held off opponents in Congress as well as pressure from Israel in order to press forward with negotiations with Iran. It seemed that President Barack Obama’s penchant for diplomacy was finally bearing fruit and that the United States and Iran were coming to the table with a sense of determination and an understanding that a compromise needed to be reached over Iran’s nuclear program.

These days, the story is different. Almost halfway through the four-month extension period the parties agreed to in July, the possibility of failure is more prominently on people’s minds, despite the fact that significant progress has been made in the talks. Right now, both sides have dug in their heels over the question of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities. Iran wants sufficient latitude to build and power more nuclear reactors on their own, while the United States wants a much more restrictive regime.

Part of the calculus on each side is the cost to the other of the failure of talks. Iran is certainly aware that, along with escalating tensions with Russia, the U.S. is heading into what is sure to be a drawn-out conflict with the Islamic State (IS). The U.S. and its partners would clearly prefer to avoid a new crisis with the Islamic Republic, especially when the they need to work with Iran on battling IS forces, however independently and/or covertly they may do it.

The U.S. certainly recognizes that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani staked a good deal of his political life on eliminating the sanctions that have been crippling the Iranian economy. But both sides would be wise to avoid a game of chicken here, where they are gambling that the other side will ultimately be forced to blink first.

On the U.S. side, there are many in Washington who would not be satisfied with anything less than a total Iranian surrender, something the Obama administration is not seeking. Those forces are present in both parties, and, indeed, even if Democrats hold the Senate and win the White House in 2016, those voices are likely to become more prominent as time goes on.

But many believe that on the Iranian side, this is a life-or-death issue politically for the reform-minded Rouhani, and that may not be the case. It is certainly true that conservative forces in Iran, which had been ascendant under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are lying in wait to pounce on Rouhani if he doesn’t manage to work out a deal that removes U.S.-led sanctions against Iran. It is also true that Rouhani deals with a Supreme Leader who is highly skeptical not only of Washington’s sincerity,  but of the kind program Rouhani’s reform-minded allies wish to pursue on the domestic front. Rouhani’s support derives most reliably from an Iranian public  fed up with the failure of the conservatives to improve their lives. He dare not disappoint them.

But if Washington policy-makers believe that this amounts to a political gun to Rouhani’s head, they are mistaken.  In a just-released paper published by the Wilson Center. Farideh Farhi,  the widely quoted Iran expert at the University of Hawaii Manoa (and LobeLog contributor), points out that Rouhani does have options if the negotiations fall apart.

“To be sure, Rouhani will be weakened, in similar ways presidents in other countries with contested political terrains suffer when unable to deliver on key promised policies,”  according to Farhi.

But he will continue to be president for at least another three, if not seven, years. The hardliners will still not have their men at the helm of the executive branch and key cabinet ministries. Given their limited political base for electoral purposes, they will still have to find a way to organize and form coalitions to face a determined alliance of centrists, reformists, and moderate conservatives—the same alliance that helped bring Rouhani to power—in the parliamentary election slotted for early 2016. And, most importantly, Rouhani will still have the vast resources of the Iranian state at his disposal to make economic and social policy and will work with allies to make sure that the next parliament will be more approving of his policies.

Farhi’s point is important. Rouhani has options and he need not accept a deal that can be easily depicted by conservatives as surrendering Iran’s independent nuclear program. As pointed out in a recent survey of Iranian public opinion we covered earlier in the week, this issue is particularly fraught in Iran. It has been a point of national pride that Iran has refused to bend to Western diktats on its nuclear program, diktats that are seen as hypocritical and biased by most Iranians. That estimate is not an unfair one, given previous demands by the U.S. (and one still insisted upon by Israel and its U.S. supporters) that Iran forgo all uranium enrichment. Such a position would force Iran to depend on the goodwill and cooperation of other countries — Russia, in the first instance — whose reliability in fulfilling commitments may depend on how they perceive their national interest at any given moment.  Other countries are not held to such a standard, a source of considerable resentment across the Iranian political spectrum.

Rouhani has wisely chosen not to challenge the public on this point, but rather commit himself to finding an agreement that would end sanctions while maintaining Iran’s nuclear independence, albeit under a strict international inspection regime. This is far from an impossible dream. The Arms Control Association published a policy brief last month with a very reasonable outline for how just such a plan which would satisfy the needs of both Iran and the P5+1.

In principle, both sides could live with such an outcome if they can put domestic politics aside. But of course, they cannot.

Still, the consequences of failure must not be ignored. With Barack Obama heading into his final two years as President, it is quite possible, if not probable, that his successor — regardless of party affiliation — will be much less favorable toward a deal with Iran. In that case, we go back to Israeli pressure for a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran and escalating tensions as Iran feels more and more besieged by the Washington and its western allies.

Rouhani, for his part, may be able to continue his path of reform and re-engagement with the West, but the failure of these talks would be an unwelcome obstacle, according to Farhi.

Rouhani and his nuclear team have had sufficient domestic support to conduct serious negotiations within the frame of P5+1. But as the nuclear negotiations have made clear, the tortured history of U.S.-Iran relations as well as the history of progress in Iran’s nuclear program itself will not allow the acceptance of just any deal. Failure of talks will kill neither Rouhani’s presidency nor the ‘moderation and prudence’ path he has promised. But it will make his path much more difficult to navigate.

All of this seems to amount to sufficient incentive for the two sides to bring themselves toward the reasonable compromise that both can surely envision. At least, one hopes so.

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.



  1. In 1991, President Bush I’s coalition to oust Saddam from Kuwait was bolstered by the surprise agreement of Hafez Assad’s Syria to join the coalition. Saddam was a common enemy and the two countries set their differences aside momentarily to work out a deal beneficial to both countries. Of course, the U.S. didn’t really need Assad to overwhelm Saddam’s forces but Bush I wanted a credible coalition. Fast forward to 2014 when a much more potent common enemy in ISIS has made the inclusion of Iran in an already weak and uncommitted coalition vital. The rest of the Arabs in the coalition as well as Turkey are so far only providing lip service. Not only are they not making much of a contribution, they may indeed be helping ISIS. Of all the parties involved, the two most committed to the destruction of ISIS happen to be Iran and Syria as they are the only ones who already have boots on the ground and fully at war with ISIS as they feel the most threatened by it. It’s doubtful that Western powers would put boots on the ground. Same is true for the rest of the Arabs. The U.S. strategy of relying on Iraqis to do the job with material and air cover from the U.S. is highly likely to fail as the Iraqis have shown little gut to fight a mortal enemy. That the U.S. is failing to strike a major strategic partnership with Iran (and Syria) as potentially its most important coalition partner is a case of wag the dog as it is the Israelis and Persian Gulf regimes who are pouting and along with their right wing cohorts in Congress exerting undue pressure on the U.S. to opt for it continuing hostility toward Iran. This attitude has already helped the U.S. lose one war (or rather, not win it conclusively) in Afghanistan and already the Talibans are on the rise again. It is the sort of self-destructive mindset that makes one question the competence of our foreign policy makers.

    In WWII, had it not been for the strategic alliance with the archenemy of the West, Soviet Union, it’s very likely that Hitler would not have been defeated in Europe as the U.S. did not have the will nor the public mandate to take the kind of horrendous casualties necessary to defeat Hitler. It was the willingness of Stalin to take tens of millions of Russian casualties that changed the course of the war, weakened Hitler enough to make the Normandy invasion a possibility. Can you imagine if a little client state such as Panama (I can’t use the Israel example because it wasn’t a country yet) had pouted and forced the U.S. to torpedo that alliance and go it alone, risking losing the war in the process? We’re looking at that scenario now. The Iranian dictators would like nothing more than watching a U.S. defeat in both Afghanistan and Iraq after investing so much in treasure and life in those two black holes, that is unless they can strike a deal with the U.S. and feel legitimized (the way Stalin felt legitimized after striking his deal with the West.) If the West thinks it’s going to get a deal in which Iran Mullahs surrender to the will of the West and follow orders it’s going to be in for a costly and unnecessary surprise.

  2. Yes, at least one hopes so. At what point is it going to take for these policy makers to see the light that we’re all in this together? If the politicians can’t shake themselves loose from the yoke that binds them to being obstacles to a peaceful solution, then when the chips are down, what are they going to do? Let’s be honest, just exactly what is it, that this government bows down to what Israel demands? What ever it is, it’s not going to work, though they may get their wish with scuttling the talks, but the victory will be short lived. No one is invincible, no matter how much they may think they are. If history has taught any lessons, being on top is short lived. Indeed, the world is in for a rude awakening, in more ways then imagined.

  3. It boggles the imagination how we can not mention Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei when it comes to any discussion about Iran’s nuclear program. The constitution vests in him final authority over international treaties so his opinion is really the only one that matters. His public comments over the summer denouncing the US and reiterating Iran’s commitment to beefing up its centrifuges and maintaining its missile technology was considered gospel and in fact was a primary reason for the most recent failure of nuclear talks. Rouhani is in many ways irrelevant to these talks, which only makes me wonder why we spend so much talking about him and the so-called moderate movement he leads when in fact, he’s not the decision maker. More thoughtful analysis and discusssion of Khamenei and his goals for Iran I think would be much more relevant.

  4. Wow, another great comment by ‘change Iran Now’ who really wants Iran as they like it. Just finished reading Gareth Porter’s Manufactured Crisis and CIN’s boss is there quite a bit.
    To their point, Khameni wants to get involved as little as possible and make as few decisions as he can. He is the one that wants to end his position with him. So Rohani is calling all the shots, but then there are so many committees and people who have to say yes, it is hard to get through the maze.

  5. I wonder if this gentleman, the writer been to Iran lately? Iran economy is not crippling any more than the United States economy is crippling. And Iranians will not give up their right to nuclear technology to Israelis with more than 300 nuclear weapons and Americans with over 5000 weapons for all the tea in China. Not after 7 of their scientists were brutally assassinated by Israel and US and not after the Worm and Stuxnet. ISIS is not Iranian problem it is an American creation which needs American involvement. Nothing will happen to Iran. America is bankrupt and will not be able to just print money after US dollar no longer will be the medium of exchange in the world. Iranians have achieved quite a lot and will continue. Who give a crap about America. Any way it is no longer Iran & 5+1 it is more like Iran and US and its superior Israel.

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