Advancing a Free Society

Negotiating with Iran

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Obama Administration took another swing at the piñata over the past two days, trying to persuade Iran to constrain its nuclear program. Unfortunately, the Geneva talks broke up with only an agreement to talk again next month.

Iran insists it will not halt enrichment, which is the major demand of the other nations. Iran’s enrichment program is in violation of its commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and forms the basis for UN sanctions currently in force against Iran.  Iran’s claim that talks will progress only if sanctions are lifted is ludicrous; they cannot believe that would have satisfied American, European and International Atomic Energy Agency objectives, as the sanctions are the leverage that brought Iran back to the negotiating table.

Which suggests three possible Iranian gambits:

  1. Stalling for time. The International Atomic Energy Agency has just concluded that Iran already possesses enough low-enriched uranium to process a bomb’s worth of the high grade stuff in ten weeks, so even the gain of a month or two could put Iran across the threshold.
  2. Hoping to peel the Russians and Chinese off the consensus. Always worth a try if you’re Iran, but despite grumbling that the US and Europeans had taken national sanctions beyond the UN list, Russia and China seem to have accepted the new status quo. Time is working against Iran on this one.
  3. Savoring the limelight. Not much to be proud of for Iran’s leadership: a country that should be wealthy isn’t, that craves respect has only animosity, and is consumed with domestic challenges. Perhaps getting cajoled to negotiate is reason enough to negotiate for Iran’s leaders.

A fourth possibility also suggests itself: that Iran isn’t cleverly gaming us, but genuinely doesn’t understand the position they’re in. We often project onto other states greater capacities than they actually possess – more unitary action, perceptiveness, fewer blunders than we make. Remember the old saw about how the Soviets would win the Cold War because they play chess while we amuse ourselves with checkers? China’s rise is being likewise portrayed as brilliant mandarins who make no wrong moves. Iran’s leaders may simply be too ignorant or feuding or domestically-focused or frightened or irrational to be able to say yes to a good deal. But that we have so little idea what is driving Iran’s intransigent behavior should caution us to develop a strategy with a wide margin for error; we are likely to be wrong about many important elements of the Iran problem.

(photo credit: Paul Sapiano)