Nuclear Focus May Doom Talks
September 30, 2009
Long-awaited talks involving Iran and the United States begin tomorrow, and the prospects for a resolution are bleak. The two sides are approaching talks from very different perspectives. Iran seeks wide-ranging discussions that skirt the nuclear issue or at least place it in a broader context. By contrast, the P5+1 is focused with laser-like precision on stopping Iran’s nuclear program. Ironically, this laser-like focus is likely to prevent resolution of the nuclear issue. The US and its allies would be better served by broadening the scope of talks. The likely outcome in the absence of such an adjustment is a ratcheting up of sanctions and of tensions and a prolongation of the nuclear dilemma.
Much ink has been spilled regarding the high costs of allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Much less deliberate discussion has taken place regarding the costs of stopping it. It will cost the P5+1 something to guarantee a non-nuclear Iran. These costs can be conceptualized as being of two types: costs of coercion and costs of compromise.
Costs of coercion include the real economic and opportunity costs of sanctions; Europe, Russia, and China would be more profoundly affected by these given the fact that the US already long ago cut virtually all economic ties with Iran. Heavy costs may also be borne to the Iranian people; these costs could translate into political costs. Mir Hussein Mousavi opposes sanctions of any type, and no Iranian opposition leader has come out in support of them. The international community should think carefully before predicating sanctions on any assumption that they will bolster the reform movement. Any sanctions should be tailored to specifically target regime institutions and elites with minimal trickle-down effect. This is not merely a moral argument – it is a strategic argument.
Finally, the most profound cost of coercion is the escalation of risk of a military confrontation. If Iran is unmoved by diplomatic coercion, we may eventually witness a military confrontation over its nuclear program. This would be costly to all sides (and would likely only delay an Iranian Bomb). Moreover, it is not the only potential military cost of coercion. Iran could retaliate against coercion by interfering with American and Western political-military goals in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel-Palestine. Finally, coercion could have the perverse effect of encouraging Iran to work more speedily toward The Bomb.
Compromise also involves costs. Costs of compromise generally refer to anything that the P5+1 would give for Iran to verifiably halt any nuclear weapons effort. Costs of compromise can be further broken down into strategic costs and political costs. The strategic costs of compromise could be high in the event of deception. The removal of sanctions could allow Iran to more speedily acquire the nuclear technology and expertise that it would need to build a nuclear bomb. Iran could renege on any agreement, re-engage in pariah-like behavior, and establish a position of strength before the instruments and infrastructure of coercion could be put back into place by the international community.
The more problematic costs, however, appear to be political. Western leaders appear politically unwilling to even consider granting Iran what it would most likely demand in exchange for a verifiable cessation of its nuclear shenanigans. This includes removal of sanctions, affirmation of the Iranian regime’s legitimacy, security assurances, and a more prominent role for Iran in the political and security affairs of the Persian Gulf/Middle East. Iran has not helped by submitting a meandering, platitude-laden proposal or by suggesting that the nuclear issue is off the table; in short, Iran is not being straight-forward about what it wants or what it is willing to give up. Indeed, the fractured Iranian government may disagree internally about what it seeks from the current talks. But certain fundamental desires transcend the make-up of a specific government. Such fundamental desires can be gleaned from Iran’s much-maligned proposal as well as from other sources – none perhaps better than Iran’s 2003 ‘grand bargain’ proposal to the United States. In this 2003 proposal, Iran offered to come fully clean on its nuclear program, cease all support for anti-Israel terror activities, cooperate in fighting al-Qaeda, and even recognize Israel in exchange for a removal of sanctions, assurances of regime security, and a more prominent role in regional affairs. (The Bush administration rejected the offer.) Despite the rise of Ahmadinejad and a new generation of hardliners, Iran remains under the same Supreme Leadership as in 2003. It is therefore reasonable to explore whether the 2003 proposal could serve as the framework for a comprehensive settlement that would resolve the nuclear dilemma as well as other issues.
Though it may be the best or only way to peacefully solve the nuclear dilemma, the deck is stacked against major incentives and a comprehensive approach. President Obama’s cause of constructive engagement with Iran appears to be losing ground in public discourse. The recent revelation of a secret nuclear facility in Iran has strengthened the voices of foreign policy hawks who contend that Iran is beyond the pale and that compromise and concessions would be tantamount to rewarding bad behavior or succumbing to blackmail. But packaging incentives in a broader settlement that wins Iranian concessions not only on the nuclear issue but other issues like terrorism and Arab-Israeli peace would hardly constitute surrender to blackmail or rewarding bad behavior. Broadening the scope of talks stands to get the US what it wants on the nuclear issue and more – all while obviating the appearance of blackmail or capitulation. It ought to be a no-brainer to at least try.
So why won’t the US embrace and lead the P5+1 in such an approach? Aside from possible strategic myopia, the answer most likely lies in political psychology. Americans have been conditioned for thirty years by events and discourse to view the Iranian regime as irrational and even evil. According to the narrative, to compromise with Iran is to compromise American principles. Iran’s moral and political disrepute in the United States has been exacerbated recently by the rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and by this summer’s electoral fraud and crackdown. Cutting a major deal with Iran has long been taboo, and to suggest that Iran may have reasonable concerns requires more political courage than most American leaders seem to possess. This problem, by the way, is not unique to the American side. The Islamic Republic is unmatched in its demonization of and vitriol aimed at the United States.
The problem with such image construction and emotional politics is that reprehensible regimes (which Iran’s surely is) can still have reasonable geopolitical interests. A peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue requires the US and its allies to recognize and address any reasonable geopolitical interests while decoupling them from the regime’s more objectionable traits and behaviors. If Iran seeks nuclear weapons because it is evil or crazy, then there is no hope for compromise. But if Iran seeks them because of geopolitical concerns common to most countries, then compromise may be both rational and possible.
It may not be possible to completely decouple Iran’s legitimate interests from its objectionable actions. Affirming Iran’s territorial integrity should be unproblematic; any Iranian government would request this – theocratic or otherwise. Yet more explicit affirmation of this Iranian government’s legitimacy may be too politically costly and unpalatable, especially in light of this summer’s stolen election. American and other Western leaders do not want to appear to sell out the Iranian Opposition. Some Western leaders may also judge that ‘selling out’ the Iranian opposition would have not just political, but long-term strategic costs. Should the US and its counterparts deem the costs of compromise too high, one hopes that they reach this conclusion on thoughtful strategic rather than shallow political grounds.
So where does this leave us? Iran likely has terms in mind for a nuclear settlement. These terms are probably based on largely reasonable geopolitical concerns. Unfortunately, Iran will not clearly articulate them – perhaps as a result of internal discord. Meanwhile, America and the P5+1 appear myopically fixated on the nuclear issue, oblivious to the possibility that a broader approach stands the best chance of stopping Iran’s nuclear march and achieving other important goals. This refusal to engage more broadly appears to be rooted in an unwillingness to incur the political costs of compromise. The West appears much more willing to incur the costs of coercion. Sanctions may have a marginal impact, but are themselves unlikely to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. As a result, we are more likely to see prolongation and escalation of this crisis than we are major progress in the near future.