The Obama administration has slipped past self-imposed deadlines and minced words over red lines before. Although certainly an embarrassment for the White House, another missed deadline in the seemingly never-ending Iran nuclear negotiations — which stretched beyond the latest deadline of March 31 — may not matter much in the end.
From Iran’s point of view, it was a deadline to be exploited, not one to fret over. Iranian leaders, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, had expressed misgivings about a framework agreement, insisting that the deal is not done until all core issues are resolved in a final deal. The White House imposed the March deadline to prove to Congress that enough progress was being made to hold off on sanctions. Still, a dodged deadline and a diluted progress report are unlikely to calm dissenters in Congress. Even if a bill calling for additional sanctions in the event of a violation of an agreement makes its way through Congress, it will be vetoed in the Oval Office. Congress overturning that veto is a less likely prospect.
Ironically, the U.S. congressmen vehemently threatening more sanctions are working in Iran’s favor in this stage of the negotiating process. The more effort the U.S. negotiating team has to put into keeping Iran at the table, the more leverage Iran has in the talks. So, as the plethora of leaks on Monday all pointed toward the drafting of an agreement, Tehran strategically dropped a bombshell at the last minute. It said that while it would agree to reduce the number of operational centrifuges to 6,000 — going against the supreme leader’s earlier demand for at least 10,000 centrifuges to remain in operation — it would pull back on an earlier concession to ship its low-enriched nuclear fuel to Russia.
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This is a classic negotiating tactic: One party throws up a flare, panic ensues and once all sides return to the table, any further concessions from the instigator appear that much more generous. The next three months will be filled with such twists as the window for negotiations narrows.
In Iran’s neighborhood, states like Saudi Arabia do not have the luxury of betting against the United States and Iran and have to prepare for the worst. The developing U.S.-Iranian relationship is what has driven Saudi Arabia into action in leading its Sunni allies against Iran across multiple fronts, with Yemen now in the spotlight.
Israel may also be upset at the United States for negotiating what it considers a bad deal with Iran, but it cannot deny that the upsurge in Sunni determination to contain Iran is a good thing. For example, Sudan’s recruitment into the Saudi-led alliance had been months in the making, but the end result is that Iran has lost a critical conduit to supply arms to militant groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad through supply routes that run from Port Sudan up through the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip. So long as Hamas struggles to replenish its weapons, including long-range rocket components, Israel has less to worry about.
Egypt is another beneficiary of the Saudi-led “Decisive Storm” operation. The White House never abandoned its close relationship with Cairo, but it became entangled politically by branding the deposal of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi a coup and demanding steps toward democracy before resuming aid. While the United States was trying to maintain its political correctness, Russia took the opportunity to court Egypt with military and energy deals, trying to broadcast the message that Washington’s role had been filled in the Middle East.
Cairo simply used the attention from Moscow to bargain with Washington, waiting for the politics to become conducive enough to normalize relations with the United States with the understanding that a relationship with Washington would matter much more than one with Moscow. Egypt has yet to reschedule its elections, yet its participation in the Yemen operation gave the White House the justification it needed to show that Cairo is still a key Arab ally worthy of a dozen F-16 fighter jets that are now being delivered.
Much will be made of a missed deadline in Lausanne. Doubts will be cast over a potential agreement. But it is important to keep some perspective. This deadline over an interim agreement did not mean much to Iran in the first place. Progress, however uneven, is being made in the nuclear negotiations, and a U.S.-Iranian understanding is already having reverberations across the region.
“In the Iran Talks, Does a Missed Deadline Matter? is republished with permission of Stratfor.”