Not So Grand Bargain

If America wants a nuclear-free Iran, it may have to drop its complaints about the mullahs’ support for terrorism and hatred for Israel.

If the Geneva talks have led to the breakthrough with Iran that some believe was achieved-an agreement by Tehran to send its low-enriched uranium overseas to be further enriched for fuel, while opening up its facilities for inspection-then President Barack Obama and his administration will rapidly approach their own "James Baker" moment. To put together the international coalition that fought the first Gulf War, Baker, as secretary of state, negotiated with other countries-especially those of the Arab world-on the basis of a trade-off. To gain support for the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait "by any means necessary," and the proposition that Baghdad be deprived of certain types of arms (chemical, biological, nuclear), the United States agreed that it would forego the option ousting Saddam Hussein, and would not support any separatist movements in the country. Some American commentators saw this approach as a mistake, one which limited our freedom of action and prevented U.S. forces from "marching on Baghdad"; others saw in it the reason that a UN Security Council resolution was passed, Arab states entered the coalition and the financial costs of the war were assumed by other countries.

Obama now faces a similar issue when it comes to Iran. If Tehran is prepared to address the fundamental proliferation question (and at this point in time, that still remains a very big "if"), will other countries argue that pressure against Iran ought to be eased? In other words, can the United States continue to try and impose punitive sanctions on Iran because of its continued development of its ballistic-missile program, further acquisitions to its conventional weapons arsenal (including advanced air-defense systems), its ongoing support for movements like Hezbollah in Lebanon, anti-U.S. forces in Iraq and the Palestinian rejectionists, and its refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist? Most countries will reject the standard U.S. approach to link Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology with its support for terrorism, and other domestic and international faults of the regime. Should Iran prove to be far more accommodating to international concerns about the possible acquisition of a nuclear device, then whatever momentum has been building for increased and sustained pressure on Tehran will quickly reverse itself.

What the administration therefore faces is the possibility that enough critical countries-not only Russia and China, but also Germany, India and Japan-can argue that Iran has "done enough" and that other issues (like its position vis-à-vis Israel) are part of Iran's bilateral relationship with the United States and thus Washington's problem. In the absence of a clear united position as we had with the Libya agreement-where both rejection of weapons of mass destruction and renunciation of terrorism were built into the deal-the United States could end up in a situation where Iranian accommodation on the nuclear issue is de-linked from other concerns. Under such circumstances, it becomes much harder for Washington to convince other states to continue to put pressure on Iran. And since Tehran has moved to become a "post-American" country in terms of its position in the global economic system-one where U.S. unilateral sanctions can be bypassed (even though not without some difficulty) by accessing other nodes in the world's financial and trade networks-Iran might go the way of Cuba, finding that American policy is a nuisance, but not a game-changer.

It would also dash U.S. hopes of using international pressure for pushing any sort of "grand bargain" that encompasses issues like Israel, terrorism, Lebanon and Iraq.

In 1991, James Baker and George H.W. Bush de-linked U.S. hopes for Saddam Hussein's removal in favor of holding together a broad international coalition to expel Hussein from Iraq and to disarm Iraq of certain types of weapons. Depending on how the Geneva talks go, President Obama will have to decide if getting a deal on Iran's nuclear program is more important that other U.S. concerns-if the alternative is to go it alone.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.