Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif is heading back to Tehran for consultations. Perhaps he’s relaying the Western reaction to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s remarks earlier in the week when he seemed to trash the key points of the deal the two sides came to in April.
As Stephen Hayes explains in the latest Weekly Standard, Khamenei “called for an immediate end to all United Nations Security Council and U.S. economic sanctions on Iran; he said Iranian military sites would not be subject to international inspections; he declared that Iran would not abide a long-term freeze on nuclear research; and he ruled out interviews with individuals associated with Iran’s nuclear program as part of any enforcement plan.”
Yesterday, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius urged the P5+1 to hold the line and ignore Khamenei’s tirade, but given past performances it’s not hard to guess who’s going to blink first.
Zarif is scheduled to return tomorrow, which suggests that his excursion is likely meant to show his Western interlocutors that he’s operating in good faith. John Kerry and his team are likely telling themselves it’s a good sign—Zarif is taking their concerns back to Tehran and talking it over with the supreme leader. This is the real hard work of diplomacy, the secretary of state must be thinking—and it requires patience, fortitude, and of course some flexibility.
And flexibility is precisely what Zarif will be expecting from Kerry when he returns to Vienna. The alternative is highly improbable—Zarif relayed Western concerns, and Khamenei reconsidered his overly strong words and decided to walk them back some. The supreme leader is ready to show some flexibility.
That is a highly unlikely scenario. What is much more likely is that Zarif’s trip is simply meant to underscore the red lines that Khamenei has repeatedly drawn. The Iranians aren’t going to budge at all, because if they do, from Khamenei’s perspective, it will make the supreme leader out to be a liar and a weakling who caved into the West.
Everyone here agrees that the negotiations are going to push past the June 30 deadline, but the reality is that two days before the deadline we already have a pretty good idea of what the deal is going to look like—Khamenei’s red lines are the basis of the only deal the supreme leader can accept. If the White House wants a deal, they’ll have to agree to Khamenei’s position. And that’s presumably why the Vienna talks are going to go on for another week or so into July—Kerry’s going to need some time to paper over a bad deal. Zarif will undoubtedly lend a hand—after all, the two of them are going to be sharing that Nobel Peace Prize.
The alternative is this: Kerry walks away right now. While Zarif visits Tehran, Kerry should head back to the United States, not for consultations but for vacation. It’s almost July 4, and the wind-surfing is great out on the Cape this time of year. The lobster is perfect. The corn delicious. It’s America. Kerry can tell Zarif, “Hey, call me when the old man is serious about a deal.”
But the thought of walking away from the table to make the Iranians sweat and get a better agreement for the United States and our allies has never occurred to the Obama White House. And that’s why they think diplomacy is hard work—because it really is hard work trying to make a bad deal look good.