Dealing with Iran: Get ready for a wild ride

If you like happy Hollywood endings, go to the movies. The Obama administration's effort to negotiate a deal on the nuclear issue with Iran's mullahs is going to be a wild and unpredictable ride. And for a lot of reasons, reaching a happy conclusion will be tough.

A deal on Iran's nuclear program is partly about shutting down centrifuges, exporting uranium stocks, capping enrichment activities. It will require inspections, safeguards and the dismantling of sanctions.

But at its heart, the deal will involve politics. Iran will feel a need to demonstrate to its people and the world that it will not allow the West, and the United States in particular, to dictate its future. And the U.S. has a lot invested politically too, with three administrations having committed themselves to stopping Iran from acquiring a bomb. Any deal will need to acknowledge the politics on both sides.

We can insist all day long that this is a morality play that pits the good Americans against the bad Iranians (why do they need nukes anyway?), but in the end, Washington, Tehran and Jerusalem will all have to be able to claim victory. All sides will need to give up things, of course, but they must all end up feeling that what they gained was more valuable than what they surrendered. Iran must accept the fact that it will need to end its bid to develop nuclear weapons and agree to careful monitoring. In exchange, the U.S. will need to accept Iran's right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes and end sanctions sooner than it might like.

The U.S. isn't and can't be a totally free actor in this drama. Even if Iran developed a nuclear weapon, we wouldn't be the ones most vulnerable. And as unlikely as Iran attacking Israel or Saudi Arabia may appear, it would be irresponsible to trivialize their — and particularly Israel's — security concerns.

U.S. diplomacy must take these fears into account, both for their merits and for political reasons. Washington will have to negotiate not just for itself but for its vulnerable allies. And Israel is the key. The task will be to determine what the Israelis really need, and then to reconcile those needs with U.S. goals, making it unmistakably clear that the president will not participate in a charade that allows the Iranians to run down the diplomatic clock while continuing to develop nuclear weapons capacity. In the end, the president needs to be willing — and make his willingness clear — to use any means, including force, to prevent Iran from making weapons.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President Obama both have tough domestic politics to deal with. Even though Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, empowered Rouhani to launch his diplomatic bid, that hardly means he's a believer in an enhanced U.S.-Iranian relationship. Indeed, tension in that relationship may actually serve to consolidate Khamenei's control. Sanctions have created pressure to reach an agreement with the U.S. But suspicious hard-liners, including Khamenei, will be watching and weighing both U.S. diplomacy and Rouhani's own capacity to negotiate carefully and avoid missteps or traps.

Obama too will be under scrutiny at home. The president is operating in a political environment where mistrust of Iran is so deep and fundamental — and partisan tension so high — that it will take an impressive display of Iran's flexibility to keep the administration's Iranian initiative afloat. There is no foreign policy issue in Congress on which there is more unanimity than being tough on Iran. And there's almost no incentive to show flexibility.

To do a deal will require the prospect of both gain and pain, carefully balanced. The Iranians want sanctions removed. But that clock has been ticking for years now, and despite the economic dislocation and misery in Iran, the mullahs can wait. Indeed, the Iranians may well have concluded that the president's decision to go to Congress on Syria and the public's reluctance to use force may have bought them more time.

For Obama, the clock is ticking faster, accelerated by Iran's approaching capacity to make a weapon, Israel's willingness to use force to stop it and his own commitment to do so if no negotiated solution is reached. To succeed diplomatically, he will need to offer the enticement of lifting sanctions, but he will also need to make clear the threat of military force. Communicating both these things at a time when the status of the Iranian nuclear program doesn't yet warrant a strike and without blowing up the talks will require delicacy.

Indeed, in all aspects, negotiating a deal will require a rare degree of skill, will and luck, all commodities that are in very short supply these days, particularly for U.S. diplomacy. The U.S. would be wise to keep expectations low. We can't expect large-scale transformations or lightning progress. The goal should be a more limited transaction on the nuclear issue.

If the Iranians aren't serious, we'll know it pretty quickly. If they are, and the U.S. and Iran are moving toward an agreement, time will be less of a concern, both to Washington and to Jerusalem. Either way, the Iranian charm offensive has focused new attention on the nuclear issue and accelerated the clock. Whether zero hour turns out to be a negotiated deal or a military strike remains to be seen.

Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace."

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