With only days to go before a deadline to reach agreement, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is playing his hand to the hilt. He sounds like a veteran negotiator who is confident of winning because he knows the other side is more eager for a deal than he is.
In a televised speech this week, Khamenei outlined his terms for a nuclear deal with the West, including:
--Economic sanctions must be lifted once Iran signs the deal. The U.S. and its allies insist that Iran has agreed that sanctions will be eased in stages, as Iran fulfills its part of the bargain.
--No international inspections of Iran's military sites. The U.S. and its allies have long suspected that Iran carried out nuclear weapons research at those sites. That's why "anywhere anytime" inspections are a key Western demand to ensure that Iran can't quickly develop a nuclear weapon.
--No freeze on Iran's nuclear enrichment program for a decade or more. Preventing Iran from operating advanced centrifuges or building stockpiles of higher-enriched uranium are key parts of the preliminary deal to curb Iran's rogue nuclear program. The ayatollah sounded as if he hadn't been briefed -- or maybe he conveniently forgot -- that Tehran had already agreed to a freeze in the preliminary deal announced earlier this year.
Could Khamenei be bluffing, posturing for hard-liners in his country but prepared to compromise to win an end to crippling Western-imposed economic sanctions? Sure. But we wouldn't bet on that -- and neither should Western negotiators.
Back in April, Tehran and the West celebrated a preliminary deal with promises to fill in the blanks -- a lot of technical detail -- by June 30. With the deadline near, however, many of those blanks seem to be still blank. All the evidence suggests that Tehran wants a deal, but only on its terms. And the only backpedaling we detect is from the Western side.
Case in point: The key Western demand that Iran come clean about its past nuclear weapons development work, as it has promised for years. Iran's response to this has been the same as its response to most International Atomic Energy Agency questions: A firmly upraised middle digit.
Inspectors need to know about Iran's past research to set a baseline that could be used to determine later whether Iran has violated nuclear research limits imposed by a deal. Just as important: Without that information, inspectors won't be able to accurately calculate how much time Iran would need to "break out" and build a nuclear weapon.
Will the U.S. and its allies stick to this critical demand? Don't count on it. Recently Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. was "not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another. We know what they did. We have no doubt What we're concerned about is going forward."
That sounds like the U.S. and its allies could be folding to the poker-faced ayatollah. We hope not. Iran can't be rewarded for flouting inspectors for a decade. Nor can its past nuclear work be shuffled off as irrelevant to the future. Iran has to come clean to the IAEA.
Officials now hint that negotiations could slip beyond next week's deadline. The ayatollah doesn't look like he's sweating. Neither should the U.S. and its allies.
In March, President Barack Obama said that if a strong agreement that restrains Iran from breaking out or cheating its way to a nuclear weapon isn't reached, "then we walk away." We hope he means that.
Assuming there's a deal, Congress will have a chance to weigh in. Here's a sure bet: A deal that gives away too much for too little has no chance to survive U.S. lawmakers' scrutiny.