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The obstacles to an Iran-nuke deal will matter little if Obama and Kerry want it badly enough

By Bobby Ghosh

The deadline for a nuclear deal between Iran and the G5+1 world powers has come, and it will go, without any signature ceremonies or celebratory photo-ops. The negotiators gathered in Vienna’s Palais Coburg hotel will haggle on for a few more days—long enough, perhaps, for president Obama to be able to announce his third triumph in a row when Americans, done with their 4th of July distractions, are paying proper attention; but perhaps not long enough to allow the US Congress to throw a fresh wrench into the works, which it could after July 9.

As I’ve argued before (here, here and here), a nuclear deal with the regime in Tehran is a bad idea. But deadlines have nothing to do with it: this week or next—in the grand scheme of things, it matters little. If there’s a deal, it will be because the president and John Kerry are very keen there should be one. The secretary of state’s enthusiasm, in particular, has seemed a little… unseemly, leading to speculation that his mind is set on achieving some sort of legacy. (The inevitable joke doing the rounds in Washington: Kerry wants to win a Nobel Peace prize, and Obama wants to earn the one he’s already got.)

A telling indication of Kerry’s keenness came last week, when he suggested that Iran would not need to come clean over its nuclear-weapons research in order to get a deal. The state department was forced to do a volte-face the following day, but if you had a window open, you could have heard the sound of crowing from the general direction Tehran.

Getting the Iranian regime to acknowledge its nuclear-weapons research is a key sticking point in the final negotiations. Although supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insists nuclear weapons are “un-Islamic,” he won’t allow research facilities to be inspected by the IAEA, the international nuclear watchdog, or allow Iranian scientists to be interviewed.

This means the another important bone of contention for the negotiators in Vienna—the future monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities, and verification that it is not breaking any bargains—may need to be papered over before any final agreement. Khamenei’s claim this would compromise Iran’s nuclear “secrets” is absurd: nuclear technology—especially nuclear energy technology, which the regime claims to be its sole interest—is hardly a secret anymore. If Iran has anything to hide, the most reasonable conclusion is that it is seeking to make weapons.

The other key sticking point is over the lifting of economic sanctions imposed on Iran. Khamenei wants them to be lifted all at once—that would be worth hundreds of billions of dollars to Tehran. Ordinary Iranians wish this, too. But there is bipartisan opposition in the US Congress to total sanctions relief. The Obama administration’s claim that sanctions will “snap back” into place if Iran breaks its promises strain credulity. It was hard enough to get the likes of Russia and China to go along with sanctions in the first place, and the idea that Vladimir Putin, in particular, will play ball again is preposterous.

In the end, though, these obstacles may prove inconsequential to the political reality that Obama and Kerry badly want a deal. Khamenei is aware of this: “They need us,” he said recently.