Barack Obama won election to the nation's highest office under the slogan "Yes we can!" But when it comes to perhaps the boldest foreign policy gamble of his presidency — negotiations with Iran to halt its ability to build a nuclear bomb — he has offered a different refrain: Maybe we can't.
"These negotiations will be difficult," he said in this year's State of the Union address. "They may not succeed." Elsewhere, he has said that the chances of a deal are no greater than 50-50.
In the view of many foreign policy experts, Obama is still overestimating the odds. "I think 50-50 may be optimistic," former assistant secretary of State Robert J. Einhorn said at an event last month hosted by the Partnership for a Secure America. "The differences are very wide." Blaise Misztal, acting director of foreign policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, goes further: "I think that's wildly optimistic."
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says he takes the Iranian declarations as more than short-term negotiating tactics.
"With the Iranian regime, public posturing often becomes a non-negotiable position from which they refuse to climb down," Dubowitz says. "When they have said over the years, 'We will never stop enrichment,' the conventional wisdom was, that's just public posturing for domestic consumption. As it turns out, it wasn't. It was a very cleverly designed strategy to convert rhetoric into a non-negotiable negotiating position."
Dubowitz argues that the only way to counter the Iranian red lines is for the United States to offer some of its own in a show of strength. Although he believes that a deal is likely, he's not confident that it will be a good deal for the United States, as he expects that Iran is not truly interested in a deal beyond what has been agreed to so far, outside of a few additional transparency measures.
Dubowitz and Williams say the specter of war in the event of a deal's failure could convince lawmakers to help Obama roll back sanctions, although for opposite reasons. While Williams says members are genuinely leery of war, Dubowitz says a White House effort to cast advocates of conditional sanctions during negotiations as warmongers scared them into backing down, and the administration could use that tactic again.
Dubowitz says a better deal might be struck with the threat of congressional action hanging over negotiations — with Congress playing the "bad cop" to Obama's "good cop." Despite the administration's insistence that new sanctions legislation would violate the terms of the interim deal — even if the bill's sanctions are tied to the outcome of negotiations — Dubowitz says Iran does tend to respond to forceful gestures more than it does friendlier overtures. They expect that sanctions legislation will get another push at the six-month mark if they are still up in the air.
Another question would be the mechanism by which Congress would act.
"We are in agreement with our partners in the P5-plus-1 and the EU, and with Iran, that any sanctions relief, should we get to a comprehensive agreement, will be phased in and will be in response to actions that Iran takes," the administration official said. "So they will not happen all at once. They will happen all over time. And they will happen because we are, step by step, in a reciprocal way, matching the actions that Iran commits to take."
That means, Abdi and Dubowitz say, that any congressional action probably wouldn't be aimed at striking sanctions from the books but perhaps at giving the administration the authority to lift them based on Iran's meeting certain benchmarks.
"The administration will have significant political pressure to follow through" should negotiations fail, Dubowitz says.
"Then the president's going to have to face a moment of truth where, if those sanctions don't work, he's going to have to answer this question about whether he's willing to take preventive military action."