Sometime next week, perhaps as early as Tuesday, President Obama will most likely announce that his administration has reached a political agreement with Ayatollah Khamenei's regime on nuclear weapons.
The deal may not be signed, it may not have any real specifics, but Obama will hail it as the only way to stop a war with Iran and delay them from getting a bomb.
Whatever the contours of the "agreement" Obama announces next week, it will look far weaker than it was supposed to look just months ago. Over the past week alone, U.S. negotiators reportedly have conceded to Iran: 1) the need for a written agreement; 2) the ability of Iran to use nuclear centrifuges underground; and 3) the need for Iran to disclose the full range of its current nuclear capabilities.
Why, as Lando Calrissian might ask, is this deal getting worse all the time?
The simple answer is that Obama's broader Middle East strategy leaves him with zero leverage over Iran. The New York Times Thomas Friedman explains:
The Obama team’s best argument for doing this deal with Iran is that, in time, it could be “transformational.” That is, the ending of sanctions could open Iran to the world and bring in enough fresh air — Iran has been deliberately isolated since 1979 by its ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guard Corps — to gradually move Iran from being a revolutionary state to a normal one, and one less inclined to threaten Israel.
If one assumes that Iran already has the know-how and tools to build a nuclear weapon, changing the character of its regime is the only way it becomes less threatening.
The only reason Khamenei's regime is negotiating with Obama at all is because they want the world's economic sanctions on Iran lifted. In return for lifting those sanctions, Iran is supposed to give up its ambitions for a nuclear weapon. That's the basic outline of the deal: Iran gets the sanctions lifter and Obama gets an end to their nuclear weapons program.
But read the above Friedman paragraphs again. Obama's Middle East strategy is premised on "transforming" the current Iranian government by ending sanctions on Iran. This means that Obama wants the sanctions on Iran lifted just as badly as Ayatollah Khamenei.
Now, granted, Obama and Khamenei have very different ideas about what the outcome of the end of sanctions will be. Obama believes an Iran without economic sanctions will lead to if not Kamanei's demise, than it least the marginalization of him and his followers. Khamenei, on the other hand, believes an Iran without sanctions will allow his regime to strengthen their control over not just Iran, but also the entire Middle East.
Who has a better understanding of Iran, its politics, its people, and the impact of ending economic sanctions? Is it Khamenei, who has ruled his country for over two decades? Or is it Obama, who honestly thought the power of his own celebrity could save Democrats from crushing defeat in 2010? We'll see.
The answer to that question is ultimately irrelevant though when judging who currently has more leverage in the nuclear weapons talks. Since both Obama and Iran want sanctions on Iran to be lifted, Obama has no way to force any real concessions from Iran on nuclear issues. His threat to continue the current sanctions, or enact new ones, are hollow. Everyone knows he wants the sanctions lifted anyway. Why should Iran concede anything?
That's why they are not.