U.S., Iran have to sell a deal, not just reach one

The casual observer of recent Middle East activities might as easily conclude that Washington and Tehran are gearing for war, rather than – perhaps – angling for an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program.

The United States will participate in a two-week, Israeli-led military exercise this month with more than 100 aircraft and about 1,000 pilots from those two nations, and from Italy and Greece. Named “Blue Flag,” the exercise will be the largest international drill that Israel has ever hosted and, in a sign of possible U.S. involvement in a later military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Israeli pilots have been practicing their in-flight English.

Meanwhile, the Iranian regime this week celebrated the 34th anniversary of Iran’s takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran with huge demonstrations, marked by orchestrated chants of “Death to America.” Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Basij spearheaded the efforts, the daily newspaper Kayhan that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei controls reinforced the anti-U.S. message, and billboards appeared in major cities to denounce the United States and any notion of warmer U.S.-Iranian ties.

Such saber-rattling, however, is but one part of a complicated dance between Washington and Tehran – and, in fact, it comes as talk grows of a interim deal in which, the New York Times reports, the United States would provide “limited relief” from economic sanctions and Tehran would temporarily suspend its nuclear program and reverse part of it.

But, the task at hand for U.S. and Iranian negotiators, and the other global negotiators who will join talks this week, is not just to reach an agreement among themselves in Geneva. It’s to reach an agreement that Washington and Tehran can sell to their multiple, skeptical, and deeply divided constituencies.

Let’s start with the United States, where fissures over U.S. negotiations with Iran have opened within the Obama Administration, between the Administration and Congress, and between Washington and its allies.

After Secretary of State John Kerry took a public shot at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, terming expressions of skepticism about U.S.-Iranian talks “fear tactics,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel came to Netanyahu’s defense, suggesting it was Israeli pressure along with economic sanctions that brought Iran to the table in the first place.

That it was Hagel, the former Senator with a well-earned reputation for insensitivity to Israel, who defended the Prime Minister – “I don’t think he’s intentionally trying to derail negotiations” – made it all so ironic.

Meanwhile, the Administration is much more hopeful about talks with Iran than most members of both parties in Congress.

While the Administration wants to ease Western pressure on Tehran in order to reduce tensions and plant the seeds of a deal, a broad bipartisan consensus in Congress wants to increase the pressure. Top Administration officials have pressed the Senate Banking Committee, and top pro-Israel lobbyists, not to push for another round of economic sanctions that would bring Iran’s troubled economy much closer to collapse.

The Administration’s approach to negotiations is also complicating U.S. relations with its key Middle East ally, Israel.

Meeting with Kerry, Netanyahu blasted recent talk of a U.S. olive branch to Tehran in the form of a one-time cash payment from its frozen oil reserves, in exchange for Iran’s temporary halt to its nuclear program.

“I’d be very worried about any partial deals that enable Iran to maintain those capabilities but begin to reduce sanctions because I think this could undermine the longevity and durability of the sanctions regime,” he said.

Splits over strategy and tactics, goals and expectations, are equally apparent in Iran, where hardline revolutionaries have long battled with more moderate elements that seek warmer U.S. ties and more global acceptance.

These splits extend far beyond the obvious question of whether the happy talk of President Hasan Rouhani about forging warmer U.S.-Iranian relations has the firm backing of the far more powerful Supreme Leader.

The splits show up as well in the differing signals that top Iranian officials are sending about the upcoming talks.

On the same day this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zariff told France 24, a major TV network, that the two sides could reach a deal this week, while Iranian nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi said he didn’t foresee even the first steps toward a real deal for about three months.

For U.S. and Iranian negotiators, then, the trick is not just to reach a deal. It’s to reach one that their constituencies can accept.

It won’t be easy.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Gore, writes widely on foreign affairs and is author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.”