Obama gambles on easing Iran sanctions during nuclear talks
The US hopes if it relaxes some of the crippling measures during anti-nuclear talks, Tehran will stay in the game, but critics say it's a losing bet
In its delicate negotiations with Iran over freezing its nuclear programme, the United States is gambling that the gradual relaxation of punishing sanctions will whet Tehran's appetite for greater economic relief, inducing the country's leaders to negotiate a further deal to roll back its nuclear progress.
Yet President Barack Obama's biggest critics - in Congress, the Arab world and Israel - argue that he has the strategy entirely backward. By changing the psychology around the world, they argue, the roughly US$100 billion in remaining sanctions will gradually be whittled away.
Wily middlemen, Chinese eager for energy sources and Europeans looking for a way back to the old days, when Iran was a major source of trade, will see their chance to leap the barriers.
"We know who we're dealing with, and you know, we've watched this same type of activity occur in North Korea where you begin to alleviate sanctions," said Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"The concern is that whatever you do on an interim basis becomes the new norm."
The Senate narrowly avoided a vote last week on new sanctions against Iran that the White House feared would blow up their chances of getting a preliminary agreement in Geneva this weekend, but Senator Harry Reid, one of Obama's greatest allies, says a vote may well come soon after the Thanksgiving break, which begins on Thursday.
Obama and his aides have argued that unless they give President Hassan Rowhani and his chief negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, something to go home and advertise as a win from the first round of negotiations, there is little chance that they will return to negotiate a second, permanent deal.
"Zarif says he has at most six months to get a deal before the hardliners rise again," an Obama administration strategist said recently. "And we believe him."
The belief that Zarif's warning was real triggered a lengthy debate among the United States and its fellow major powers - China, Britain, Germany, France and Russia - about how to give Iran a taste of relief without giving up too much. They settled on a portion of the long-frozen assets that Iran has hungered to tap - roughly US$3.6 billion in oil revenue parked in foreign banks.
The Obama administration's bet is that the need to restore Iran's oil exports - which are down by well more than half from early 2011 - will bring Rowhani back for more.
"We'll retain huge leverage - the leverage that comes from cutting into their oil sales," said Nicholas Burns, the US former undersecretary of state for policy who organised the first sanctions against Iran during the George W. Bush administration.
The Saudis and the Israelis clearly believe that the negotiation is not in their interest.
"We have the Iranians in boiling water right now," a senior Israeli official said recently.
"Bring it to a simmer, and they will have a nuclear capability they can live with and the sanctions will erode."