Saturday, November 16, 2013

Will This Time Be Any Different?

The P5+1 negotiations with Iran regarding their nuclear program have failed.  Rather, they have been extended.  Postponed.  Will be continued in the future.  Until negotiations resume November 20, the global community sits in suspense, awaiting further clarification of Iran's nuclear intentions.  Really, this suspense should feel oddly familiar, seeing as tensions surrounding the Iranian nuclear program are not new.  In fact, the United States and allies should feel quite comfortable in this position -- Iran continues to pursue a nuclear agenda, and the West continues to punish Iran with crippling economic sanctions.  The status quo has not changed, which is certainly more desirable than the status quo shifting unfavorably.

Yet, I would caution that we, the Western community of citizens and policymakers alike, should not remain satisfied with the continuing state of affairs.  While none of us should be surprised by the failure of these most recent nuclear negotiations -- especially since the US and Iran have not maintained diplomatic relations since 1979 -- the perpetuated cycle of failed negotiations is unacceptable.

The historic disagreement between the P5+1 and Iran over Iran's nuclear enrichment centers on the rights guaranteed within the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).  According to Articles I and II of the Treaty, signed parties have the right to develop and produce nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.  Iran holds fast to this right as the foundation of its enrichment activities.  The P5+1, on the other hand, have consistently called for the full suspension of all Iranian enrichment in accordance with previous UN resolutions on the subject.  This impasse caused by these two hardline approaches has been fueled by four current conditions:

1. Western urgency to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem, resulting in perceptible over-eagerness to do so
2. The stark asymmetry between Iranian nuclear achievements (which they claim to be irreversible) and the subsequent Westen policy of sanctions
3. The Iranian government's apparent indifference to the continuation of sanctions
4. The lack of credibility of the Western military threat to Iran

The urgency and eagerness with which the West has approach negotiations with Iran have effectively given Iran the upper hand.  Iran has consistently maintained their position, while the P5+1 have, through their desperation, gradually acquiesced -- now seeking to reduce Iranian enrichment levels from 19.75% to 5%, instead of eliminating all enrichment activities.  Until a new negotiation method is adopted, Iran will continue to leverage these nuclear talks to its advantage, especially as economic sanctions appear to have little effect on Iranian policy.

Given the current conditions of nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Washington Institute recently published policy suggestions for the United States moving forward.  Unfortunately, these policy recommendations do not all accurately incorporate the realities of the most recent negotiation failures and, consequently, do not reflect plausible, successful courses of action.  Three of these policy recommendations are as follows:

#1:  Demonstrate less eagerness. As previously indicated, the urgency of the US/West to achieve a nuclear agreement with Iran has unwittingly granted Iran significant political concessions.  Policy analyst Michael Singh suggests that the US could diminish its over-eager appearance by strategically agreeing to further negotiations with Iran, rather than automatically agreeing to subsequent sessions immediately following a failed round.  Ironically, in the wake of the recently failed talks, the US has agreed to another round of negotiations beginning November 20.  Clearly, the US continues to eagerly and optimistically await an idealistic outcome.  Idealism is at the heart of American foreign policy on this matter; until the US can accept the possibility of a not ideal outcome, it will continue to pursue the same over-eager negotiation strategy, and negotiations will continue to fail.  Stated plainly, we should expect the US to continue to appear over-eager.

#2:  Coordinate closely with allies.  In theory, the P5+1 represents a unified Western front to the Iranian position.  However, much of the discussion regarding the failure of the last round of talks has singled out and blamed the French delegation.  Additionally, the Iranian foreign minister openly faulted the US and France for the break down in negotiations via Twitter.  For ongoing talks to be successful, collaboration between the P5+1 should be so air-tight that it is impossible to fault a single member of the team.

However, the New York Times reports: "The latest round of talks failed, [Secretary Kerry] said, not because of dissent from France, as has been reported, but because the Iranians rejected an offer put on the table by the French, along with the United States, Britain, China, Germany and Russia. 'The French signed off on it; we signed off on it,' Mr. Kerry said. 'There was unity, but Iran couldn’t take it.'"  Apparently, even when there is close unity amongst the P5+1, successful negotiations are still not guaranteed.  The P5+1 must learn to effectively leverage their combined policy efforts.

One additional note on this point.  Israel openly opposes the deal proposed by the P5+1.  Israel is understandably worried about the prospects of Iranian nuclear capacity; however, negotiations will not be successful in the future without the US fully coordinated with all allies.  Israel continuing to create regional and domestic opposition to any negotiated deal will only decrease the likelihood of future success.

#3:  Strength US military threat to Iran.  Of all of the policy recommendations provided by Singh on this issue, this is by far the weakest.  Singh argues that the recent US withdrawal from the Middle East and subsequent shift in focus towards the Pacific has emboldened Iran to continue to pursue a hard-lined nuclear program.  However, this policy prescription does not adequately consider two important factors:
     1.  US domestic opinion
     2.  Iran military capability

US pubic opinion is currently so against continued intervention in the Middle East that even threatening US military action to compel Iranian nuclear compliance would be resoundingly unsupported by the American public.  Consequently, such a threat would most likely be an empty one.  And, Iran knows this.  Additionally, the Iranian military capability is so comparatively weak that the strengthening of US military threat is not necessary.  Furthermore, threatening military action would only further tarnish the United States' reputation in the region.

Given the repeated precedent of failure, the upcoming negotiations certainly carry a lot of expectations.  Perhaps this iteration of talks will prove successful.  Or that may just be the idealistic American in me talking.  Whatever the outcome may be, see you soon November 20.

No comments: