No. The Iran Deal Didn’t Just Collapse … but It Could.

In this photo taken on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2010, and released by the International Iran Photo Agency, a worker stands at the entrance of the reactor of Bushehr nuclear power plant, outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran. Iran's nuclear chief said Tuesday Nov. 23, 2010 that a malicious computer worm known as Stuxnet has not harmed the country's atomic program and accused the West of trying to sabotage it. Iran has earlier confirmed that Stuxnet infected several personal laptops belonging to employees at the Bushehr nuclear power plant but that plant systems were not affected. (AP Photo/IIPA,Ebrahim Norouzi)
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
Dec. 13, 2013, 11:43 a.m.

Ac­cus­ing the U.S. of vi­ol­at­ing “the spir­it” of last month’s in­ter­im deal, Ir­an stopped ne­go­ti­ations with world powers in Vi­enna over how to curb its nuc­le­ar pro­gram — just one day after Wash­ing­ton an­nounced new sanc­tions against com­pan­ies and in­di­vidu­als found sup­port­ing Tehran’s nuc­le­ar am­bi­tions.

Dip­lo­mats are down­play­ing Tehran’s de­cision to end the talks. Ac­cord­ing to Re­u­ters, dip­lo­mats stressed the “in­con­clus­ive out­come” of the Vi­enna dis­cus­sions about how to im­ple­ment the deal, meant to cur­tail the most dan­ger­ous as­pects of Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram in ex­change for about $7 bil­lion in sanc­tions re­lief, and said this did not mean the deal was in “ser­i­ous trouble.” Dis­cus­sions, they say, are ex­pec­ted to re­sume soon.

However, the news, which comes as the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has launched a charm of­fens­ive to per­suade skep­tic­al mem­bers of Con­gress to give dip­lomacy a chance and avoid levy­ing new sanc­tions on Ir­an, does raise the pos­sib­il­ity of two sep­ar­ate out­comes:  

1) The Nov. 23 deal is fra­gile, and Ir­an is not a guar­an­teed play­er. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion wor­ries new sanc­tions from Con­gress would un­ravel the sens­it­ive nuc­le­ar ne­go­ti­ations, but to pre­vent mem­bers from tak­ing ac­tion, it must prove it can and will keep the eco­nom­ic pres­sure on Tehran. Thursday’s sanc­tions an­nounce­ment, just hours be­fore seni­or State and Treas­ury De­part­ment of­fi­cials test­i­fied on Cap­it­ol Hill — was a strong step in that dir­ec­tion.

That Tehran is hes­it­ant to con­cretely com­mit to more talks after the sanc­tions is a sign Ir­a­ni­an of­fi­cials may not be bluff­ing when they warn new sanc­tions would de­rail a deal. The nuc­le­ar deal was con­sidered a ma­jor dip­lo­mat­ic break­through and a sol­id chance to end the dec­ade­long nuc­le­ar dis­pute. So, after Fri­day’s spat, those mem­bers of Con­gress in­clined to give talks a chance may have more am­muni­tion to con­vince their col­leagues not to call Ir­an’s bluff.

2) However, that the Ir­a­ni­an del­eg­a­tion re­turned to Tehran after the U.S. simply demon­strated it would en­force its ex­ist­ing sanc­tions is not ne­ces­sar­ily an en­cour­aging sign that the coun­try — which is ob­vi­ously fa­mil­i­ar with the in­ter­na­tion­al vise around its eco­nomy — is ser­i­ous. 

There’s no chance Wash­ing­ton will lift all its sanc­tions at once, just as there’s vir­tu­ally no chance Ir­an will dis­mantle all of its nuc­le­ar pro­gram im­me­di­ately. Every­one knows some form of pres­sure must re­main for ne­go­ti­ations to con­tin­ue. If Ir­an breaks off — or ex­tens­ively pauses — nuc­le­ar talks now be­cause it is angry about sanc­tions that are already in force, im­pa­tient con­gres­sion­al hawks are vir­tu­ally cer­tain to move for­ward with new meas­ures to cripple Ir­an’s eco­nomy and test its re­solve. And in that case, very likely, the deal would be kaput. 

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