Paul Pillar

Spinning Up For Baghdad

We know a round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 is imminent when we hear an upsurge in not only straightforward analysis of the issues but also proactive efforts to spin whatever the talks may yield. Much of the straightforward analysis has a tone of optimism, against the background of a positive tone in the previous meeting between the parties last month in Istanbul. The spinning is coming from various quarters but most conspicuously from those having an interest in the failure of negotiations with Iran. The pro-failure interests include the government of Israel and those who follow its lead, for whom indefinite persistence of the idea that Iran and its nuclear program pose the greatest threat to peace and stability in the Middle East provides the ideal diversion of attention from other, genuinely destabilizing matters they would prefer the world to overlook.

Pro-failure interests also include those who would welcome—for whatever misguided reasons—a war with Iran and for whom negotiations are a box to check and to declare a failure before proceeding to war. The reasons anyone would want such a war can be hard to fathom, especially given that a likely result would be to stimulate an Iranian decision (not yet taken) to build the very nuclear weapon we supposedly are trying to avoid, and to do so with no IAEA inspectors anywhere in sight because Iran would very likely eject them in response to an attack. A major basis for the desire for war, just as before the Iraq War, seems to be the neoconservative idea that employing military force against a loathed regime in an important country in an undemocratic region would bring about something that can't be any worse than what we face now. Never mind any careful analysis of consequences, according to this approach; just groove on the rubble.

The leading spinning technique resembles the expectations game that is customarily played before presidential primary elections. By inflating prior expectations of what should be achieved, the actual achievement is made to look more like failure. In the case of the Iranian nuclear program, one form of inflated expectations involves the prospective terms of an agreement, such as calling for an end to all uranium enrichment by Iran, even though that would be a deal killer from Iran's perspective. Another form concerns timing, such as an insistence that a specific agreement emerge from the meeting this month in Baghdad, even though a full, workable agreement requires a careful negotiation process that has barely just begun.

Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy exhibits another variation. Before the Istanbul meeting, he was emphasizing reasons Supreme Leader Khamenei likely would reject a nuclear deal with the P5+1. The favorable vibes coming out of that meeting have caused Clawson to change his theme. Now he is saying what he contends is Tehran's “poor track record of honoring agreements” makes negotiations with the current regime a bad idea, even if they do lead to a deal, and that instead we should be trying to achieve a “democratic Iran.”

Unfortunately, the pro-failure forces not only can affect perceptions and expectations but also can increase the odds of failure. Anonymously supplied tidbits designed to encourage mistrust of Iran on the nuclear issue, such as a drawing that allegedly depicts a containment chamber for testing nuclear-weapons designs, have a way of surfacing as the next round of talks nears. Don't be surprised to see also more direct trust-destroying actions such as additional assassinations of Iranian scientists. Even some of the talk and commentary can damage the odds of success. The more talk the Iranians hear in the United States about regime change—which is the ultimate disincentive to reaching an agreement for the regime that is to be changed—the more wary the Iranians will be of the West's intention to honor its side of any agreement.

The naysayers are smart enough to realize this, and so they will keep saying nay.

Image: futureatlas