Obama and Iran: A rendezvous with history or failure?

Obama, IranBy: Joyce Karam

Looking back at 1979, former President Jimmy Carter recently said on CNBC: “I think I would have been re-elected easily if I had been able to rescue our hostages from the Iranians.” It was Iran that cut short the legacy of an American President with the hostage crisis and it is Iran today that could save Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy if a deal is reached Monday on the negotiations over its nuclear program.

But don’t hold your breath. The outcome of the 10th round of negotiations taking place in Vienna between Iran and the P5+1 is all but certain. The chances that a comprehensive deal will be reached by Monday range according to U.S. officials is between40 and 50%. Regional diplomatic sources in Washington put this number even lower, telling Al Arabiya News that a breakthrough with Iran is not imminent. The UK is already floating the prospect of an extension and U.S. officials are hinting at big gaps in the negotiations.

Gaps make deal unlikely

A comprehensive agreement with Iran preventing it from obtaining a nuclear weapon would make history and could be transformational for U.S.-Iranian relations and regional security. It might not promise Obama a grand moment like Richard Nixon’s in China in 1972, but it would be a key accomplishment for the 44th president at a time when his other regional goals from ending the military involvement in Iraq to achieving peace between Israelis and the Palestinians are in shambles. The devil is in the details, however, and those are not boding well for a breakthrough on Monday.

The gaps between the two camps remain too big to bridge in five days, and range from enrichment technicalities to duration and phases of implementation of any agreement. While the P5+1 would like the number of Iranian centrifuges to be reduced from 19,000 to 4000, Khamenei aspires to have that number at 190,000 in 2020. The U.S. is also eyeing a long-term agreement which would last for 15 years at least, while Iran prefers a shorter timeline that would not exceed ten years.

For Iran, a key demand is lifting sanctions including U.N. resolutions as soon as a deal is reached. That’s a big red flag for the U.S. Congress that Obama is unlikely to ignore and risk a backlash at home. Access to military sites, and verification of the agreement are also in contention between the negotiators. While these hurdles could be surpassed if a political decision is made in Tehran, it is looking less likely that this outcome will be achieved on Monday.

Not for lack of trying

A failure in the Vienna talks, however, won’t be for lack of trying. Obama and from the very early days of his Presidency in 2009 penned down letters to the Iranian Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, with a fourth one dispatched last month according to the Wall Street Journal. The U.S. administration fully understands that Khamenei holds the keys for a final deal. A senior U.S. official told reporters ahead of the talks in Vienna: “There are some fundamental decisions that have to get made, and I’m sure they can only be made by the supreme leader and the president of Iran.”

In essence, a deal with Iran is the one goal, other than counterterrorism, that has defined Obama’s efforts in the Middle East, softening his tone on Syria at times, and putting a lid on sanctions so as not to sabotage the nuclear negotiations. Obama also broke precedents in communicating with Tehran, with the four letters to Khamenei and a phone call last year to Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, the first at this level since 1979.

Obama’s approach while it helped the atmospherics of the negotiations and lowered the tension between what the hardliners on both sides label as “Great Satan” and “the axis of evil,” it might fall short of striking a full deal.

Status-quo and extension

In an event of not reaching a deal, it is in both Tehran’s and Washington’s interest to maintain the status-quo and not seek escalation. That is why an extension of the talks with a continued cap of enrichment, is the most likely alternative to a breakthrough, thus rolling over the prospect of an agreement to a later date and avoiding a dramatic collapse of the process.

A critical player in the event of extending the talks would be the U.S. Congress, which is transitioning to full Republican control on January 20. Both Iran and the Obama administration seem to be aware of this new reality, which weakens the U.S. president’s hand and makes Tehran more reluctant in trusting the prospect of sanctions relief later. Philip Gordon, Obama’s adviser on the Middle East, put it bluntly to JTA this week that an extension would “drastically” reduce the chances of a deal later.

The main rationale behind Gordon’s argument is that potential pressure from U.S. Congress and the ticking clock on enrichment makes it harder to compromise to Tehran. Ken Sofer, the Associate Director for National Security and International Policy at American Progress, tells Al Arabiya News that while ”a nuclear deal with Iran wouldn’t require Congressional approval right now but the bigger question is whether a Republican-controlled Senate would put up enough bureaucratic and legal hurdles to make it impossible for the U.S. to uphold its side of the deal.” The new Republican led Senate, Sofer adds, “could limit the president’s ability to suspend enforcement of U.S. sanctions passed into law by Congress.”

While President Obama could veto new Congressionally approved sanctions, Sofer warns that “the political cost would be extremely high, and it would significantly reduce Obama’s leverage on other legislative priorities such as immigration reform.”

The next five days in Vienna are crucial for Obama’s foreign policy legacy and for containing Iran’s nuclear ambition. A failure at a comprehensive and internationally accepted deal will be a setback for regional security, and one that promises a continuation of the current status-quo between a more nuclear Iran and the West.

* Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London.

Al Arabiya