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Why the Iran Talks Won’t End in Failure

Secretary of State John Kerry recently joined other foreign ministers of the P5+1 and Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister in Vienna, as the self-imposed deadline for a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program approaches. Sunday’s deadline will have huge ramifications for both Washington and Tehran. President Obama is already facing multiple crises in the Middle East: ISIS in Iraq, the ongoing civil war in Syria, and the recent clashes between Hamas and Israel in Gaza.

Not only would a deal and a potential détente with Iran give Obama the necessary breathing room from the criticism he has faced over his Middle East policy, it would be a major win over the long term for his foreign policy legacy. Failure to reach an agreement with Tehran would provide the hawks with an opportunity to call for additional sanctions or military strikes on Iranian nuclear sites.

President Obama was previously able to stave off Congressional calls for sanctions with the threat of a veto in his 2014 State of the Union address which was a defeat for AIPAC and pro-Israel hawks.

Should the talks fail, the White House would be forced back into the arms of Congress where additional sanctions on Iran would be called for and effectively end any future agreement with Tehran. As Sunday’s deadline approaches, the U.S. Congress hoped for the opportunity to kill the deal as evidenced by a harshly worded warning to the White House.

Congressional lawmakers warned the Obama administration, “Iran’s permanent and verifiable termination of all of these activities — not just some — is a prerequisite for permanently lifting most congressionally-mandated sanctions. This often unnoted reality necessitates extensive engagement with Congress before offers of relief are made to Iran, and requires Congressional action if sanctions are to be permanently lifted.”

Meanwhile, in Tehran, President Rouhani who was elected last year has already invested endless political capital in reaching a deal with Washington. Criticism from Iran’s hardliners has been quelled by Ayatollah Khamenei’s endorsement of the negotiations with the west. Most recently, some have been critical of Khamenei’s comments that Iran would need 190k functioning centrifuges –many more than Iran’s current 19,000 that the west is trying to reduce. This would be seen as a negotiating death wish.

However, there is a critical anecdote from his comments that his critics miss. He said Iran would need that many but not “this year or in two years or five years.” Who knows if Khamenei would change his mind in the future, or even if a new Supreme Leader would be in place then? The vague timeline is textbook political art by Khamenei, designed to allay any concerns from the hardliners at home of constraints that will likely be placed on Iran’s nuclear program. A rallying cry that really says: “We will do it! In like 5 years or so, who knows?”

Iranian youth gave Rouhani unprecedented domestic support last year because they wanted to end Iran’s economic isolation, desired for better relations with the west, and domestic freedoms. Rouhani cannot risk failure. Khamenei knows this as well and to preserve the longevity of the Islamic Republic, he also needs to see a successful conclusion to the nuclear negotiations currently ongoing in Vienna. Otherwise, domestic pressure will increase and quite possibly boil over later. Khamenei does not want to face this again.

Along with the domestic political benefits of a successful outcome, the economic benefits are also huge. The United States has already lost billions implementing sanctions on Iran. Under the pressure of sanctions, many lucrative opportunities for western companies in Iran have been impossible. However, after the interim deal with Iran last November, France sent a delegation of businessmen to Iran, a US energy company signed a preliminary agreement worth over a billion dollars as the energy opportunities of Iran’s vast natural gas and oil reserves remain unutilized. Not to mention Iran’s advantage in human capital compared to other US allies in the Middle East. Western businesses clearly would like to invest in an open Iran.

John Kerry announced before his arrival that “significant gaps” remain between the west and Iran. These are technical concerns that can be fixed. The benefits of a deal are huge for both Washington and Tehran both economically and geopolitically. The cost of failure? Both Obama and Rouhani would be disappointed and possibly embarrassed with a major hit on their respective political capital, with only sanctions and possible conflict on the horizon. This is something neither side can afford. For this reason, I cannot fathom talks failing on Sunday. At best a deal will pass. At worst the negotiations will be extended only to be completed down the line.