Today we learned that it has been impossible to reach an agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. Even a short "framework" agreement or one-pager was beyond reach. And this, despite the extension of the talks from the original deadline last spring.
It should be clear now that there will be no comprehensive agreement with Iran. Today's announcement says the talks will be extended, again, this time through to next summer. But all sides know what the key issues are, and there will be no deal merely because extra months pass by. The only way to get an agreement is for the United States to give more and more concessions, beyond the dangerous concessions already made to Iran. It may be that the president and Secretary Kerry would be willing to do this, given the concessions already made (starting with the abandonment of the critical demand that Iran stop enriching uranium). But the election results portend a tougher line in Congress and among Democrats, and reality has a way of setting in. The truth is that the Islamic Republic has, and demands to retain, a nuclear weapons program, and will not agree to a deal that forces it to abandon this program. Our negotiators and theirs can, no doubt, imagine what a compromise would look like, but it cannot be reached without the United States or Iran abandoning positions that neither wishes to sacrifice.
Why are these Iran talks and the Israeli-Palestinian talks alike? Because in the latter as in the former, it is long past time to recognize that a comprehensive agreement is not attainable. Years of previous efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian front should have proved this, from the Camp David negotiations to those after the Annapolis meeting, and including those led by Secretary Kerry. Why he thought a complete and comprehensive deal was within his grasp remains a mystery, but at long last even he seems to be concluding that he will not be able to seal a deal. Arafat said no at Camp David in 2000, to Ehud Barak; Abbas said no to Ehud Olmert in 2008. Abbas is not going to say yes no matter how many times Kerry asks. So the United States should stop pushing for an unattainable agreement, stop seeking additional Israeli concessions, and start thinking about how to manage the consequences—that is, help Israelis and Palestinians achieve the maximum security and prosperity and independence from each other given the real circumstances.
There will be no comprehensive Iran deal either, and similarly we should be thinking now not about how soon Wendy Sherman can return to Vienna or what other concessions we can make to Tehran, but how to manage the real world consequences. Are partial agreements any part of the answer? Surely sanctions should be strengthened, or Iran will be rewarded for its obfuscations and delays. And the military option should be made far more credible than it has appeared in the last couple of years.
But the beginning of wisdom in both these cases, Iranian and Israeli-Palestinian, is the realization that the fundamental differences cannot be papered over. The Obama administration has tried and tried, and it has failed--not due to a failure of its diplomats to master their briefs, but because the administration did not understand the nature of the problem. Once you recognize that the Ayatollah Khamenei insists on a nuclear weapons program, and that President Abbas will and cannot agree to give up the "right of return" and make compromises on Jerusalem, you recognize that more sessions with more diplomats won't reach a different result. It's a category error, where a thing belonging to a particular category is presented as belonging to a different category. Here, disputes that are fundamental (because interests are adverse) are presented by the Obama administration as being mere misunderstandings—problems that American good faith and State Department elbow grease can resolve.
Of course the administration does not want to admit this, because the conclusion that must then be drawn is tough: that Iran will give up its nuclear weapons program only when it is pressured and forced to do so, including by sanctions, military threats, and in the end possibly even military action. Very unpleasant conclusion—but, unlike the notion that Iran will agree to negotiate away its nuclear option, tethered to reality.