Barack Obama complained yesterday that the Iranians “have been unable to get to ‘yes'” on his proposal that they send their low-enriched uranium abroad for further enrichment. It has evidently not occurred to him that his own behavior might have anything to do with that. In fact, thanks to the administration’s amateurish negotiating tactics, Tehran’s best move for now is to keep saying no even if it ultimately intends to say yes.
Though the official deadline for an Iranian response was supposed to be last month, administration officials have repeatedly said they will give Iran until the end of the year to make a decision. In other words, Iran can keep the centrifuges spinning for another two months risk-free merely by delaying its response. So why on earth wouldn’t it choose to do so?
And then, of course, it can submit a “counterproposal” on December 31 — or more likely sometime in January, since it already knows that this administration isn’t too fussy about deadlines. That will necessitate a summit meeting among the six countries conducting the talks (the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany, known as the P5+1) so they can decide how to respond. In other words, more delay.
At best, the P5+1 will agree to negotiate, giving Tehran many more months of risk-free enrichment. From Tehran’s standpoint, that has to seem a likely outcome. Granted, U.S. officials claim they will not accept any amendment to the deal. But can anyone remember the last time Obama stuck to his guns when confronted by an autocrat who failed to be swayed by his charm?
Yet even if the counterproposal is unacceptable to the four Western countries, the ensuing wrangling is guaranteed to take weeks, if not months: Russia and China are sure to say the talks are worth pursuing no matter what the counterproposal consists of, and the West can be counted on to waste time trying to persuade them otherwise. So Tehran will still have bought more time.
Most likely, Iran has no intention of ever saying yes. Since there is no evidence that even the Western powers alone, much less Russia and China, will ever agree on a package of sanctions that would make it sit up and take notice, why should it?
But even if the powers ultimately did come up with a sanctions package intimidating enough to get Tehran to agree to the proposed deal, Obama’s negotiating method has ensured that, at the very least, Iran can gain many more months of punishment-free uranium enrichment just by dragging its feet. The mullahs would have to be idiots not to take advantage of the opportunity.
This really is Negotiating 101: no interlocutor will ever give you a prompt reply if you make it worthwhile for him to stall. Unfortunately, Obama and his team all seem to have skipped that class in college.