Flynt appeared yesterday on Ian Masters’ Background Briefing, a nationally syndicated public affairs program, to discuss the nuclear talks between the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic; you can hear him here. One of Flynt’s basic points is that the Obama Administration seems no more prepared to deal with the big issues that will determine diplomatic success or failure—namely, accepting the principle and the reality of internationally safeguarded enrichment in Iran and recognizing that a negotiated solution will necessarily entail significant sanctions relief—than it was during its initial experience in multilateral negotiations with the Islamic Republic during 2009-2010. Until that changes, the chance for anything other than failure or, at best, an extremely narrow deal of little strategic significance—is negligible.
Before the nuclear talks started again last month in Istanbul, Tehran calculated that American and European Union sanctions policies created at least as many problems for the United States and Europe as for Iran. Oil prices have been going up even before the new sanctions go into effect (indeed, the Europeans have set a new standard for witlessly self-damaging policy choices by boosting prices while they are still buying Iranian crude). An Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear targets would raise prices even more dramatically. And, as Flynt notes, all of this is going on while President Obama is running for re-election.
Against this backdrop, the Iranians assess that the Obama Administration has an interest in keeping the negotiations going at least through the U.S. presidential election in November. As Flynt points out, they have been using the talks as a way of probing Western seriousness about a potential deal.
We anticipate that Tehran will continue using the talks for this purpose for some time; at this point, neither side is taking an approach that, in the near term, is likely to prompt a complete breakdown. There will be another round of discussions in Moscow next month, and it is easy to imagine further meetings through the summer and into the early fall. But the talks are not going to produce anything of strategic significance unless the United States substantially alters its approach.
Flynt goes on to explore the reasons for the Obama Administration’s reluctance to do this. Of course, domestic politics is part of the story (as noted, the President is running for re-election). But Flynt argues that an even more fundamental element is the Obama team’s ongoing commitment to American hegemony in the Middle East. The conversation rounds out with a discussion of whether Saudi Arabia or Iran—that is, the Islamic Republic of Iran—is a more natural ally for the United States, and of the risks of a unilateral Israeli strike.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett