The current negotiations with Iran to deal with its nuclear program are unlikely to succeed, a top former White House said Monday.
"I have such low expectations for what's going to come out of this next round of talks that I think it's a mistake to try to set the bar," said Gary Samore, who served on President Barack Obama's National Security Staff as the chief official for weapons of mass destruction from 2009 until January. "I mean, if they agree to another round of meetings that will be the process continuing, but I think that it really is unrealistic to expect that there be some kind of breakthrough in these talks."
The next round of the ongoing series of talks between six major powers and Iran is expected to take place in Kazakhstan later this month, although Iran is threatening to postpone or withdraw from the negotiations. So far, the talks have yielded little progress, Samore acknowledged.
"Look, both sides are using, you know, the diplomacy for their own purposes," he said. "I mean, the Iranians use diplomacy in an effort to try to show that there's progress and therefore no further sanctions are justified and to the extent that it looks like there's progress it helps maintain the value of the rial [the Iranian currency]. The U.S. and the P5+1 use diplomacy in order to demonstrate that Iran is being intransigent and unreasonable and therefore more sanctions are required. And that process is going to continue," Samore said, referring to the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
The two sides are very far apart, even when discussing basic confidence building measures that could lead to a more comprehensive agreement, Samore said. The P5+1 countries are asking for Iran to shutter the facility at Qom, halt uranium enrichment at 20 percent, and ship out the bulk of the 20 percent enriched uranium Iran already has -- all in exchange for modest sanctions relief. The Iranians want a full suspension of sanctions in exchange for a commitment to halt enrichment of uranium at 20 percent.
Samore spoke at a Monday-morning event at the Brookings Institution alongside Javier Solana, a Brookings fellow and former secretary general of NATO and foreign minister of Spain. Solana said the unity of the P5+1 countries, which include the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia, is crumbling.
"I think that the level of consistency and coherence of the P5 is diminishing," Solana said. "It is diminishing first because of Syria. Remember that Syria, China, and Russia are not in the same place that the Americans and the Europeans, and that is an important issue... I'm very concerned that as time goes by the P5 are getting less concerted action in many issues, not only Syria."
The Obama administration has avoided intervention in Syria in part to keep the diplomatic track with Iran alive, Solana said, although that strategy is now being overtaken by events.
"I think that the United States has not taken a more active role in Syria from the beginning because they didn't want to destroy the possibility of -- I mean to give them space to negotiate with Tehran," he said. "They probably knew that getting very engaged against Assad... could contribute to a breaking in the potential negotiations with Iran. Nowadays the situation may be different because the situation within Syria is much worse than it was in the beginning."
Samore said that Assad's continued reign in Syria makes a breakthrough with Iran less likely and that the the Syrian leader's fall could have a positive effect on P5+1 countries' ability to convince Iran to come to terms with the international community about its nuclear programs.
"In the end I think the collapse of Assad makes a nuclear deal more likely because the supreme leader will feel more isolated, under greater pressure, and more likely to make tactical concessions in order to relieve further isolation and pressure," Samore said. "Of course, that's not going to change his fundamental interest in acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. I think it will confirm for him that the best way to defend himself against countries like the United States is to have that capacity. But at least in terms of near-term tactical decisions, I think the more he feels isolated and threatened the more likely it is he'll make some modest concessions in order to have some kind of interim relief."
Marya Hannun contributed reporting to this article.