Geneva negotiators see few options if Iran nuclear talks fail

A third round of talks begins today, and prospects for a deal on Iran's nuclear program have never been better. 

Denis Balibouse/Reuters
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (l.) talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a photo opportunity before the start of three days of closed-door nuclear talks at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Nov. 20.

As talks on Iran's nuclear program resume today, hopes for a deal are high. Regular paying guests at the Hotel Intercontinental, where some meetings are being held, have been told to vacate their rooms on Friday, apparently just in case ministerial delegations fly in for a signing ceremony.

If a preliminary deal on limiting Iran's nuclear program is struck, it would be a banner achievement after more than a decade of failed diplomacy. But a deal seemed close at the last round of talks, too – only to be scuttled on a day expected to end with a signed agreement. 

What if neither side can accept “yes” as an answer? What is the price of failure?

The window for the West to capitalize on the new, more moderate administration in Iran is narrow. If negotiators leave this round of talks, Geneva III, without a deal, tensions could escalate, potentially leading to military action. 

As the chances of an agreement have grown, Iran has signaled readiness to play a much more positive role, says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, contacted in Tehran. If things fall apart, she says, "You would be dealing with a whole slew of [negative] activities, whether increased nuclear work, non-cooperation with the US leaving Afghanistan, non-cooperation on Syria."

By not securing a deal, she says, "You’re effectively encouraging an escalation. I’m not sure it will lead to war, but it is certainly in that direction."

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said today that Iran’s nuclear negotiators had his support, and that Iran wanted “friendly relations with all nations, even the United States."

On the table now is an initial deal that would halt advance of Iran’s enrichment capacity and roll back part of its nuclear program for six months, while a comprehensive deal is struck. In exchange, the US would offer what American officials have described as “very modest” sanctions relief.

Yet there are many who would welcome a failure. 

Skeptics abound who argue that an imperfect deal is worse than no deal. Key US senators expressed doubts yesterday after a White House briefing in which President Obama pushed for delaying further sanctions. The administration has been arguing forcefully to not spoil this opportunity. 

“The American people do not want a march to war,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said last week, as the administration campaigned on Capitol Hill to prevent imposition of more sanctions now.

Americans “prefer a peaceful solution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and this agreement [in Geneva], if it’s achieved, has the potential to do that,” said Mr. Carney. “The alternative is military action.”

Yet Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who has demanded that Iran’s entire nuclear program be scrapped – has stated that the current proposal is an “extraordinarily bad deal” that itself could eventually lead to war.

And the thousands of basiji militiamen Mr. Khamenei addressed today chanted “Death to America” in response to his remarks about better relations with the US.

Iranian officials are watching this game play out. A string of tweets on Khamenei's Twitter account today included several with anti-US invective and criticism of the French role in hardening the offer from the P5+1 (the US, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany) two weeks ago, which prevented a deal then.

In one tweet, Khamenei said French support for Israel’s position was a “great dishonor” to the Europeans. Another read: “It came from the mouth of the rabid dog of the region – #Israel – that Iran is a threat to the world! No, fake Israeli regime and allies are a threat.” 

Iranian lawmakers said they were ready to play hardball if a win-win deal was not achieved.

“If Congress seeks to take negotiations to defeat, the Iranian parliament can also bind the [Rouhani] administration to the expansion of nuclear technology,” said lawmaker Mohammad Dehghan, according to a translation by

“If America and the P5+1 demonstrate harsh and irrational behavior in front of Iran’s flexibility, our hand is open as well,” said Mr. Dehghan. “If negotiations do not reach a result with such behaviors and harsh positions, there is no reason for Iran to be faithful to its previous commitments.”

Khamenei has expressed skepticism about the talks but backed his negotiating team so he can’t be seen as the spoiler, says Farhi in Tehran. That means that if talks fail, “the whole Iranian society will know – across the political spectrum – that it is not [Khamenei’s] fault," she says.

“If it doesn’t work then this push to make a deal will disappear inside Iran, because everybody will realize that the pressures imposed on Iran are not about Iran’s nuclear program [but] getting rid of the Islamic Republic.”

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