Energy Secretary Steven Chu welcomed Iran's decision to re-engage in talks with the "Big Six" (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the United States)-even though Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flatly stated that his country's right to possess all the components of the nuclear fuel cycle would not be subject to negotiations. Chu said U.S. officials are "hoping for the best" in these discussions.
But are we preparing for the worst?
One of the things which has struck me from one administration to the next is the disconnect between rhetoric and strategic planning. Politicians routinely intone that Iran's nuclear program is the "number one" threat to the United States, yet rarely seem to prioritize foreign-policy choices around stopping, eliminating or containing the problem.
We hear, for instance, that Russian support is "indispensable" if there are to be any meaningful international sanctions against Tehran that will produce real pain. And yet Moscow has refused to consider some of the tougher alternatives, being content with more anemic UN Security Council resolutions. Is the value of Russia's trade with Iran so great as to outweigh any accommodation of Washington's considerations? Is the United States unwilling to bargain on some of its other priorities to secure Russian acquiescence? If so, then that argues that there are other, equally pressing U.S. national-security initiatives which we would be prepared to countenance even the Iranian acquisition of a nuclear capability in order to retain.
Perhaps there is an unwillingness to bargain with other states because we feel that Iran is wrong on principle and that other governments should recognize Iran's position as a transgression against the international order, not an opportunity to gain leverage vis-à-vis the United States. Iran is an equal threat to all, so the argument runs. But most other countries don't see it that way. They see Iran as a problem for the United States-and aren't gong to become heavily involved unless Washington makes it worth their while.
With some of the other states, the United States cannot indefinitely "Christmas-tree" benefits promised in fulfillment of other ongoing obligations. America, for instance, did not make the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal contingent on India's moving closer to Washington on Iran because we wanted to use the incentives of that deal for other, more pressing nonproliferation goals. President Bush used Chinese desire for legitimacy at the 2008 Olympics to leverage Beijing's movement on some issues related to Sudan and North Korea; Iran was not at the top of that list. Now, the question will be whether the United States wants to use the Iran issue as part of its leverage-for instance, does India get access to the highest-tech American weaponry it desires if there isn't going to be movement on Iran? Or is the strategic opening to India so vital to American interests that it calls for segregating U.S.-India differences on Iran into a separate box from the prospect of increased security cooperation?
So what usually happens is that the Iran issue runs up against a whole host of other points in a given bilateral relationship, and so despite the rhetoric, stopping Iran's nuclear program is not a central organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. And if the costs of stopping it are too great, then what about the costs of accommodating it? These are the types of contingency plans I hope are being discussed.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior editor at The National Interest.