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Groundhog Day in Vienna

Walter Russell Mead

Deadline day has come and gone for the nuclear negotiations, and surprise, surprise—no deal. Now, despite concerns that passing the July 9 date (thus triggering an extended Congressional review period under Corker-Menendez) would make the deal harder to pass domestically, the Administration is signaling it may well prolong the negotiations indefinitely, according to the Wall Street Journal.

For their part, Iranian negotiators seem to be in no particular hurry to get a deal done today, or even later this week. A senior Iranian official told reporters, “We do not see any definite deadline. July 7, July 8 or July 9 — we do not consider these dates as dates we have to finish our job. Even if we do not finish by July 9, it will not be the end of the world. We need to get a good agreement.” (And a “good agreement” in Iran’s eyes—and perhaps Russia’s too—may now include lifting the United Nations arms embargo.)

So, despite the breathless headlines, it’s really Groundhog Day in Vienna: the Obama administration is on the edge of a deal, and Iran does something to screw things up. Again.

It has been clear for some time that, while the White House is in a hurry to get to a conclusion, the Iranians are happy to keep spinning the process out. That willingness has given the Iranians an edge in late-stage negotiations—and they are using it effectively.

In an attempt to reverse this advantage and to put Iranians in the position of trying to close the deal, some have suggested that the interim deal could be rolled over. That suggestion has at least some support from the Senate, Israel, and other interested parties, but the warm reception it has received is a sign of just how little confidence is felt in the course of the negotiations themselves. If negotiations were going the way the U.S. and its allies wanted, there would be calls to close out the interim arrangements and to replace them with the fabulous permanent deal. That isn’t happening.

We still don’t really know what the Iranians want. One interpretation is that they are just trying to see what else they can squeeze out before finally signing the deal. Another is that they don’t plan to do a deal—that Lucy will pull the football away from Charlie Brown—and that they are dragging out the process before finally walking away.

The most likely explanation: the Supreme Leader isn’t operating according to some well laid out secret plan—the Protocols of the Elders of Qom. Instead, he makes moves on the chessboard, sees what response he gets, then makes another move, all the while keeping his options open and exploiting the opportunities he finds. Keeping President Obama focused on the negotiations while holding the final deal just out of reach isn’t a bad position for the Supreme Leader—especially when, so far, every step of the process has weakened America’s position and bolstered Iran’s.

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