The on-again, off-again musings about a deal between Washington and Tehran are on again. A deal might reconcile the most important demands of each side: Iran’s insistence that it has a legal right to an independent fuel cycle for what it insists is a nonmilitary nuclear program and the declaration of the United States that Iran must not be permitted to build nuclear weapons. The latest round of speculation follows recent press reports that the two parties have agreed to hold bilateral negotiations following the U.S. presidential elections.
Yet soon after the news broke, both sides weighed in with their own spin. The White House, while reiterating that it has always been open to direct talks, insisted that there has been no formal agreement to hold them. Was this clarification meant to ensure that the American pubic received an accurate account? Was the denial of a formal agreement, preceded as it was by what appears to have been a leak about possible talks between Tehran and Washington, meant to prevent rising expectations that could then be dashed, making the Obama administration look feckless? Or was it, given that Election Day is nigh, designed to show that the administration is making progress on a diplomatic solution but to do in a way that would provide parry charges by Mitt Romney that Obama is rushing toward talks that would allow Iran time to build nuclear arms? There is no clear answer.
Iran quickly dismissed the reports about impending one-on-one talks. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi insisted that Iran was engaged in negotiations with the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, the so-called P5+1 but that it was not conducting talks with the United States. This was a tad ambiguous: given his choice of words, Salehi did not deny that Iran had broached the idea of talks or that it had responded positively after the United States had done so.
Is Iran trying to prove that the economic sanctions and the resulting tumble in the rial’s value have not forced it to change course and deal directly with the United States in hopes of relief? Is Salehi’s denial just a tactic designed to allow Tehran to negotiate with Washington eventually but without seeming desperate in the run-up to talks? Is it meant to calm Iranian hard-liners, ever vigilant for indications that the regime is yielding to pressure? Is it a sign that, despite the power attributed to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, there is no consensus within Iran’s leadership about how to cope with the pressures created by the sanctions? (The rial has lost some 40 percent of its value, Iran has lost half the revenue it gets from oil sale and ordinary Iranians are facing rising prices for basic goods.) Again, this remains unclear.
It does appear that Iran is not about to change its stance on enrichment because of the sanctions’ bite. At the same time, as the West becomes convinced that the sanctions have hurt Iran, President Obama can insist that the economic pressure is working. This in turn makes Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s argument—that time is running out and that a military strike may be the only solution—less persuasive and takes pressure off Tehran.
Iran’s leaders don’t like being squeezed by sanctions, but they prefer that to being attacked by the United States and Israel. In the meantime, Tehran will take steps to reduce the pain sanctions have brought to Iranian citizens (chiefly in the form of higher prices for goods that are imported or contain material that is) while simultaneously dealing harshly with protests to prevent economic dissatisfaction from producing mass demonstrations that could snowball and imperil the regime. Securing the state is the Iranian leaders’ most important goal.
Though Tehran is not blasé about a military strike, it understands that Americans have just wound up one long war in Iraq, are still extricating themselves from another in Afghanistan and are not eager to start a new one, no matter their apprehension about a nuclear-armed Iran. Mitt Romney also understands the public’s mood. That is why he (like President Obama) has said that he will not permit Iran to build nuclear weapons but has not explained how his approach differs from the president’s.
Obama and a substantial portion of the attentive American public understand that a military strike could fail to destroy all of Iran’s nuclear installations. They know that Iran can retaliate by deepening its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, thus making the civil war there even bloodier and more dangerous. They realize that one consequence of that would be to make the already-evident spillover effects of Syria’s violence into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan even more pernicious. And they understand that that’s just some of what Iran could do in response to an attack.
Those who say these are just trade-offs ought not to be in positions of authority. Leadership requires foresight, in this instance the capacity to figure out how the consequences of a major decision will be handled and at what cost. Thankfully, those who condemn the administration’s approach as pusillanimous (and apparently favor a military response) have failed to sway public opinion, as shown a 2012 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
There are some who claim that a nuclear-armed Iran would be subject to the iron logic of deterrence. They have a point, but what makes strategic sense does not always make political sense. Can you imagine an American president finessing this problem by arguing that an Iran with nuclear weapons would be deterred from using them because Israel and the United States also have nuclear arms?
Anatomy of a Deal
A negotiated settlement would have to include provisions allowing Iran some level of enrichment but one well below what would be needed to make even a minimal number of nuclear warheads. Such a deal should include stringent and intrusive monitoring designed to prevent Tehran from producing weapons-grade uranium or warhead components. Iran will not agree to an arrangement that lifts of sanctions only after Iran has delivered—and the United States cannot agree to lift all sanctions in exchange for Iran’s promise. A sequencing is needed that lifts the most consequential sanctions in the final stages.
Even if one concedes that the compromise sketched above is the best possible solution, it won’t be easy. There will be a fierce struggle in the United States between hawks and doves, with the former denouncing the deal as appeasement. The critics will charge that this solution is no solution at all because it compromises the security of the United States and Israel, shakes Israel’s confidence in the United States and undermines the trust of allies elsewhere.
Proponents of such a deal should make clear to the American public that a military strike might not do the job and that it will be difficult to preventing a post-attack Iran from further destabilizing the Middle East (particularly Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan). They should also make the case that instability in these countries could make the United States and its allies and friends less secure. And they should have to demand that hawks provide a detailed, rather than slogan-filled, account of their alternative course of action and its downsides.
But even if a deal proves possible, it amounts to a short-term fix. A long-term one requires several additional steps, taken in succession, that are even more complicated because they are more ambitious.
Existing nuclear-weapon states, starting with Russia and the United States, who still have far more nuclear weapons than necessary to deter an attack against them, should reach an agreement to reduce—in a phased manner and over a reasonable stretch of time—their nuclear warheads to numbers equivalent to the average possessed by the other major nuclear powers: Britain, China and France. Follow-on cuts might reduce the number of warheads possessed by each nuclear-weapon state to the average held by India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. A final stage would move from there to global zero. Of course, there must be agreement on tough, on-site verification provisions for each stage and joint agreements on ballistic-missile defenses to hedge against a breakout.
This will take many years under the best of circumstances. But if we can’t start down the path, we will be left with a world in which some states have the power, security and prestige (all members of the Security Council have nuclear weapons) that comes from possessing nuclear arms, and others (today it’s Iran, tomorrow it will surely be some other state) covet similar standing and power. Not all states will be moved by this motive, but some always will.
A world that accords status to nuclear-weapon states will necessarily be one in which there are incentives to get them. This problem is aggravated by the absence of a consistent U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy. What we have instead is one that, in practice, boils down to this: if we like you, you can have nuclear weapons (Israel). If we don’t, you can’t (North Korea, Iran). If we initially opposed your acquisition of nuclear weapons and punished you but have since revised our view in light of practical exigencies, we’ve decided that you can have them after all and that we will lift sanctions (India and Pakistan). We may even sign a deal with you on nuclear cooperation (India). Such selective treatment can be defended on the grounds of realpolitik, but we cannot reasonably expect others to see it as a principled nonproliferation policy.
There is also a connection with interventions aimed at regime change. No state exposed to another’s nuclear weapons is likely to invade it, much less use force to bring down its government. North Korea’s regime has pretty much made itself immune from this sort of intervention, to say nothing of more consequential nuclear powers such as China and Russia. Ditto Pakistan, even it were to unravel some day. And it’s hard to imagine the sort of campaign that toppled Muammar Qaddafi’s regime had Libya possessed nuclear weapons.
This dynamic would suggest that a state that renounces nuclear weapons should be given a pledge by the major powers that it will not be the target of a war for regime change. But there are practical problems here. Would it be feasible to provide an unconditional pledge, one that would hold regardless of what states did to their citizens or to other states? Would states offered this pledge trust it enough to forsake nuclear weapons? Yet without tackling this problem, it’s likely that a number of states will continue to consider nuclear weapons a deterrent against regime change.
This Crisis Will Happen Again
It is possible to imagine a solution to the current impasse between Iran and the P5+1, but not if the calculation remains that Iran will abandon the quest for an independent nuclear fuel cycle to ease the pressure created by sanctions. There must be compromises by both sides if war—with all of its uncertainties and hazards—is not to be the only option left. An agreement with Iran should be the focus for the moment, but a lasting solution to nuclear proliferation would require existing nuclear-weapons states to ante up.
Iran is but a particular manifestation of a larger problem. We will see this movie again.
Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances. This piece originally appeared in The National Interest.