It's a good thing that the talks on curbing Iran's nuclear program failed to produce a framework accord by their March 31 deadline.
The race to reach an accord before April Fools' Day was foolish because it was artificial. The real deadline for a comprehensive deal is June 30, but President Obama felt he had to get some concrete results much sooner, lest Congress impose harsh new sanctions on Iran that would scuttle negotiations. So U.S. negotiators devised a two-step process to produce a framework by March 31 that was supposed to be fleshed out later.
This self-imposed deadline made Washington appear too desperate, as if it needed an accord more than Tehran. Not so.
"The United States shouldn't feel it has to meet this deadline because it will fall off the edge of the earth if it doesn't," says Tom Pickering, one of America's most stellar diplomats, on a conference call organized by the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Take a deep breath, Pickering implies.
If the current round of talks (now briefly extended) can't produce a framework pact, the negotiations aren't over. Rather, it's time to declare a "constructive pause" in talks that would give the U.S. team a chance to work out a better deal.
Here are three reasons why.
First, the end of the two-step process will force the Iranian leadership to get serious. This week's deadline meant nothing to Tehran, so it could afford to stonewall and wait for more U.S. concessions. But having dramatically raised the expectations of the Iranian public for sanctions relief, Iranian officials can't walk away from the table. The June 30 deadline will force Iran's leadership to make decisions it has so far kicked down the road.
"The Iranian government can't afford to have talks fail," says former Israeli Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, also on the Woodrow Wilson Center call. "The United States can allow itself much more leeway, even in calling for a pause" - and in exerting more pressure than it has until now.
There's no guarantee Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will ever make the necessary compromises, but in June the onus will be more on Tehran than it is now.
Second, a pause will give the U.S. negotiating team a chance to rethink its basic red lines. There have been worrying leaks about alleged U.S. concessions that seem to undermine the U.S. goal: ensuring that the Iranians can't break out of negotiated limits on their nuclear program in less than a year's time. Washington needs to ensure that Iran will send its stocks of enriched uranium out of the country and will submit to intensive U.N. inspections even after the life of an agreement. Any accord also needs to ensure that Iran comes clean on suspect weapons work in the past.
And Washington needs to get the reluctant Russians and Chinese - who are party to the talks, along with Britain, France, and Germany - to agree on a "snapback" of sanctions should Iran be found in violation of an agreement. Obama could also coordinate better with the French, who have been more hardline than Washington on details of a deal.
It's time to disabuse Tehran of any idea that it can roll the U.S. delegation. Iran's advances in the Mideast are convincing America's allies that Tehran has Washington on the run in the region, as well as at the bargaining table. (A pause in talks would also give Obama the chance to rethink a regional strategy that is rebounding negatively on the talks.)
Finally, a pause would give Obama a chance to huddle with Democratic members of Congress and convince them to veto-proof any premature Republican effort to increase sanctions on Iran. Legislators are correct to urge that Obama toughen the U.S. stance, but an increase in sanctions before June 30 is a bad idea.
True, sanctions drove Tehran to the table, but any increase now, says Pickering, "could move things past the sweet spot" and convince Tehran that talks are pointless - because Congress will never grant sanctions relief.
It's worth listening to Pickering, whose hard-nosed diplomacy as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1991 got most of the world to line up behind the United States in expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
This consummate diplomat suggests that Obama work more closely with Congress, perhaps setting up a joint White House-congressional commission on Iran that would offer regular briefings to legislative members. The president could use this opportunity to enlist Congress in devising useful ideas for pressuring Iran. Example: Agreeing on what action by Iran would trigger new sanctions in the future. The passage of any new sanctions bills, however, would be postponed until it becomes clear whether a deal can be reached by June 30.
The bottom line: A pause in talks would give Obama a chance to rejigger an Iran strategy that still has serious glitches. Says Pickering, "If the present situation fails, it offers an opportunity to go away and think again."