Objectively, the deal being offered to Iran in the talks in Geneva is a very good one, for Iran. Iran already, preemptively, has either announced delays in disputed activities like starting up new centrifuge arrays and continuing construction at the Arak plutonium reactor, or has actually suspended them. As regards those points of negotiation, Iran wouldn’t even have to change her reported plans over the next six months to comply with the six-month interim deal on offer.
The only real concession Iran would make is to agree to “down-blend” some of her existing stock of 20%-enriched uranium, rather than retaining all of it in its current, rapidly weaponizable state. And “agreeing to” do that isn’t the same thing as actually doing it. Iran could “agree to” do that and a lot of other things, and then slow-roll the inspection process while still getting sanctions loosened: still getting frozen Iranian assets unlocked abroad, and getting trade sanctions lifted.
Iran has done that before: made an agreement, reaped the up-front benefits from it, failed to comply with it, slow-rolled inspections, and been closer to a bomb by the time the West and the UN decided to do something about it.
Charles Krauthammer, joining France and others, calls the deal under negotiation a “sucker’s deal” (for the rest of the world). So why hasn’t Iran taken it? Why are John Kerry and his foreign-ministry counterparts having to flock to Geneva to twist the Iranians’ reluctant arms?
Because the West’s whole premise for the negotiations is flawed. Keep the following simple points in mind, and you can keep it all straight in your head.
1. Iran doesn’t need a deal. Iran needs time. For Iran, time is better than a deal.
2. A deal that’s too bad for the West will be too bad for Israel to live with.
3. Israel is the only player in all this who might interfere with Iran’s time. Accepting a deal that Israel can’t live with would be Iran’s worst move at this point.
4. All things being equal, therefore, Iran will keep stringing negotiations out as long as she can. That keeps everyone else frozen in place, and gives her time.
Iran’s eyes are fixed on Israel, and how the Israelis might act against the Iranian nuclear program. That’s who the mullahs are worried about. If, at some point, they do accept a deal, it will be because they’ve calculated that it’s necessary to do so, to blunt Israel’s purpose and play for more time. But the signs seem to indicate that right now, Iran doesn’t see a deal as the best guarantor of time.
The 2003 deal with the EU-3 (see Legal Insurrection link above) did give Iran time. It made sense to take that deal in late 2003, when the U.S. had invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq, and George W. Bush had Iran sandwiched between two massive occupation forces.
But that was a one-time situation. Stalling and delaying negotiations, and holding inconclusive talks, has always given Iran even more time than she got from the 2003 deal. Moreover, Barack Obama is in the White House today, and Benjamin Netanyahu is the prime minister in Jerusalem. For the moment, Tehran’s most effective strategy to gain time is to string the P5+1 along in negotiations that don’t produce a deal.