Congress Shouldn't Sink Iran Talks... Yet

The Buzz

The whole purpose of a negotiation, as any able-bodied diplomat will tell you, is to get something from the other side without giving away too much in return. Diplomacy is difficult, not only because nations have their own interests and domestic political situations to deal with, but also because governments pitted against one another are oftentimes required to take a gamble in order to ensure that negotiations are successful. Sometimes, that gamble doesn’t pay off: a negotiation collapses, one side doesn’t meet its commitments and reneges on the agreement, or a development arises that makes the accord a relic of the past.

But there are examples when putting your personal reputation on the line can lead to unprecedented achievements. The nuclear negotiations with Iran, for all its bumps in the road, is an apt illustration of two nations recognizing that a thirty-five year history of mutual distrust should not impede a historic resolution on a critical matter of international security.

Many in Washington would say that this is a naive position to take. After all, the P5+1 talks with Iran on the latter’s nuclear program have been extended twice. U.S. and Iranian officials are hoping beyond all hope that a final framework agreement will be sketched out by late March—a timeline that is incredibly optimistic given the seemingly irreconcilable positions they hold on key issues. Tehran, for instance, has shown no willingness at all to downsize its centrifuges from the 10,000 or so it is currently operating to the 4,500 that western powers supposedly want. And, while the Iranians want a solution for the purpose of lifting an ironclad and debilitating global sanctions regime on their economy, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei doesn’t completely trust that Washington will live up to its promises.

We are fourteen months into negotiations over a comprehensive solution, and less than three months away from another self-imposed deadline on a framework agreement that could prove to be the last one on the calendar. No one said talks would be easy, and there is absolutely no guarantees that a framework agreement will be reached by March or that a final agreement will be signed by this June. But with only five months left before the international community is able to definitively conclude one way or another about Tehran’s willingness to limit its nuclear program, it doesn’t seem particularly logical for the U.S. Congress to pass another round of economic sanctions. Deadlines are established for a reason: ensuring that negotiations don’t get bogged down in deliberate stalling tactics and maneuvering. If Congress wants to pass sanctions, it should wait until after the Obama administration’s June deadline passes (on Thursday, January 29, the Senate Banking Committee passed with a bipartisan 18-4 vote the Kirk-Menendez bill, which would tighten the screws on Iran’s economy if an agreement is not reached by June 30).

Many lawmakers in Congress obviously disagree. The Senate Banking Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee all have members who would like nothing more than to ratchet up the sanctions if the administration fails to strike an accord with the Iranians by their self-imposed March deadline. Indeed, if it weren’t for an unexpected decision by Sen. Menendez to withhold support for his own bill until late March, there was a good chance the Senate would’ve already passed the bill.

Senators Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham, two Republicans broadly viewed by their party as men who take national security policy seriously, are simultaneously attempting to pass a bill that would force the White House to acquire congressional approval before a P5+1-Iran nuclear deal is officially implemented. The Corker-Graham bill may have a better chance at passing with bipartisan majorities since it provides Democrats with an opportunity to look tough on Iran without opposing the White House on sanctions.

Congress, in other words, wants to be a central part of the discussion. Yet, what Congress doesn’t seem to understand is that the Commander-in-Chief—whoever that may be at any given time—is the sole elected official responsible for conducting U.S. foreign relations. Forcing the president to get congressional approval for an agreement is not an example of oversight, but rather a hindrance that will raise more questions among Iranians as to whether the White House can implement what it agrees to during negotiations.

The message to the U.S. Congress from the administration and from Western Iran experts is clear and unambiguous: let the process play out to the best of its ability, without any interruptions or speed-bumps that could torpedo one of the first major acts of diplomacy that the United States and Iran have had over the past thirty-five years.

If Congress wants to pass an additional sanctions package, it is certainly within their power to do so. But the very least the body can do is wait until late June, when Americans, Iranians, and the rest of the international community will be able to determine whether a permanent deal is achievable. Because, if an accord is not signed after two six-month extensions, there’s a compelling case to be made that the issues dividing the P5+1 and Iran may simply be irreconcilable.

Image: Flickr/ResoluteSupportMedia

TopicsDiplomacy RegionsMiddle East

Russia to Hold Joint Military Drills with North Korea, Cuba

The Buzz

Russia is in discussions to conduct joint military exercises with North Korea and Cuba, a senior Russian military official announced on Saturday.

Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff of the Russian military,  made the announcement on Saturday at a meeting attended by all the top service chiefs as well as the Russian defense minister, Sergey Shoygu.

“We are planning an expansion of the communication lines of our military central command. We are entering preliminary negotiations with the armed forces of Brazil, Vietnam, Cuba and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Gerasimov said, according to a Newsweek report.

He added: “We are going to conduct a series of joint naval and air force exercises, as well as joint drills of our ground troops and air assault troops.”

Voice of America Korea and Russian news outlets also reported Gerasimov’s comments.

Newsweek quoted Steven Pifer, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia and currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, as saying that the move was likely aimed at proving that Moscow isn’t isolated on the world stage.

“The Russian military may be reaching out to other countries as part of Moscow’s effort to show that it is not isolated.”

Pifer also doubted that North Korea and Russia would actually conduct joint drills together. “I’d be astonished to see Russian and North Korean troops training together.”

However, Cho Han-bum of the Korea Institute for National Unification, a think tank funded by the South Korean government that focuses on Korean issues, did not find the notion particularly farfetched. “Russia and the North have common interests in that Russia wants to resist U.S. pressure and the North opposes the joint South Korea-U.S. exercises,” Cho was quoted as saying by The Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean daily.

Indeed, Russia and North Korea have been strengthening ties in recent months, and had previously suggested they’d increase mil-to-mil ties this year. Back in November of last year, Choe Ryong-hae— North Korea’s unofficial number 2— traveled to Moscow as Kim Jong-un’s special envoy, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, among other Russian officials.

In reporting on the trip following Choe’s return, North Korea’s Party-run daily Rodong Sinmun said: “The two sides reaffirmed their commitment to enhancing exchange and cooperation in 2015 in the political, economic, and military fields, and others.”

Notably, General No Kwang Chol, vice-chief of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army, also traveled to Moscow as part of Choe’s delegation. While there, he met with his Russian counterpart, Andrei Kartapolov, and the two military officials had “a wide-ranging exchange of views on putting the friendship and cooperation between the armies of the two countries on a new higher stage,” according to a report by North Korea’s state media.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2 when Soviet forces liberated North Korea from Imperial Japan’s brutal occupation. Kim Jong-un is expected to travel to Russia in May to participate in celebrations for Victory Day (the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany).

Besides military cooperation, Russia also sees North Korea as crucial to its plans to ship natural gas to South Korea via the North.

Image: Wikimedia

TopicsSecurity RegionsEastern EuropeAsia-Pacific

Revealed: How to Avoid a U.S.-China War

The Buzz

In book one of The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides provided his explanation for why the Spartans (or Lacedaemonians) broke the thirty years’ truce treaty with the Athenians after just fourteen years: “I consider the truest cause the one least openly expressed, that increasing Athenian greatness and the resulting fear among the Lacedaemonians made going to war inevitable.”  Thucydides reiterates later how the Spartans assembly voted “that the treaty had been broken and that they must go to war not so much because they were persuaded by the arguments of their allies as because they feared further increase in the power of the Athenians, seeing the greater part of Hellas under their control.”

Historians and political scientists have remained focused on the hypothesis offered by the Athenian historian two and a half millennia ago: shifts in the relative balance of power between competing states or alliances can—intentionally or unintentionally—culminate in the most consequential outcome in international relations, great power war. Rising powers often hide their grand strategic objectives (assuming there are coherent preferences among that country’s leadership)—such as whether they accept the status quo or seek to change the international system. In the face of such uncertainty during power transitions, there may be incentives for declining powers to undertake preventive, aggressive actions against the rising power—the “better now than later” thinking.

These historical precedents and social science findings are directly applicable to the relative rise of Chinese power and influence in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. I have written a short essay, “The A Word: An Accommodationist strategy for US-China relations,” that attempts to provide some framework for how U.S. officials and policymakers could think about the “rise of China” challenge. Below are some of the issues discussed:

-Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, aptly warned, “We shouldn’t talk ourselves into [a conflict].” The antagonistic language used to describe China as an adversary could needlessly limit cooperation and harm relations. In order to avoid talking itself into a conflict with China, the United States should take a more accommodating approach.

-The United States and China, as well as other countries, will have to continue to learn to live with each other in open seas, international airspace, outer space, and cyber domains. In the absence of clarifying information from Beijing about its operations in these domains, it is easy to misperceive objectives and unnecessarily inflate threats.

-China’s expanding military must be put into perspective. It is reflective of most rising powers throughout history that seek some ability to shape outcomes in their neighborhoods, and is rationale and even predictable.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Politics, Power, and Preventative Action here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Both Sides Need to Concede to Get an Iranian Nuclear Deal

Paul Pillar

Early in Diplomacy 101, one learns how international negotiation consists of give-and-take between two or more states, with each side yielding on some points in order to reap the benefit of the other side doing its own yielding. Also early in the course, one learns how this sort of mutual bargaining, by leading to mutually beneficial agreements, is an important tool for any state in advancing its own national interests. It is for similar reasons that in domestic affairs, the right to be sued is a fundamental individual right along with the right to sue; it represents the ability to advance one's interests by making concessions and enforceable commitments to others.

As basic as all this is, Americans seem to have a hard time understanding it. A one-way exceptionalist asymmetry infects much discussion in this country about international diplomacy and negotiation. The process is viewed not as mutual give-and-take but instead as the other side giving and the U.S. side taking. Hence issues under negotiation get discussed in terms of the United States imposing “redlines” and of how pressure can be exerted to get the other side to capitulate to U.S. demands. This perspective in turn gets exploited by anyone who does not want an agreement at all on whatever issue is at hand.

These patterns have been present in abundance in American discussion of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Almost the entire discussion is about Iran making more concessions—what it would take to elicit such concessions, whether Iran can ever be expected to make such concessions, etc. Almost nothing is said about the need for the United States and its negotiating partners to make additional concessions, too. Instead there is, even among those who genuinely support reaching an agreement, an assumption that the United States has put a “reasonable” deal on the table and it is up to Iran to accept it.

One repeatedly hears some version of the now-trite refrain, “it all depends on whether the Iranian supreme leader wants a deal.” Well, he certainly does want a deal in the sense that he otherwise never would have allowed the negotiations to go as far as they already have, and Iran to make as many commitments as it already has. But there are some possible deals that he and other Iranian leaders would be willing to accept as being in Iran's interests, and other deals that they would not accept. The supreme leader surely does not believe that any deal is better than no deal. That gets to another refrain that has become trite through repetition in American discussion. If we don't think that considering any deal to be better than no deal should be the U.S. position—and indeed it should not be—we ought to realize it will not be the Iranian position either.

Also among the familiar refrains: political woe besets any U.S. leader who gives evidence of “wanting a deal more” than Iran. No such inter-country comparison of utility or motivation is actually possible, just as inter-personal comparisons of utility are not possible. But even if such a comparison were possible, it would not be the proper standard for assessing whether any particular agreement were in U.S. interests. An agreement would be in U.S. interests if it produces military, economic, or political conditions that are more congenial to those interests than what the absence of the agreement would produce—regardless of how much or how little someone else might “want” the agreement.

For those intent on making cross-country comparisons, here's a little background to what is currently being negotiated with Iran. The Iranians are being called upon to subject their nuclear program to restrictions, and to intrusive inspections, substantially greater than what any other country is subjected to. And they are being called on to do that to get even partial relief from economically debilitating sanctions that no other party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is subjected to. In the preliminary agreement that is currently in force, the United States and its partners got the main restrictions and inspection requirements they wanted—so much so that indefinitely continuing the preliminary agreement (if that were somehow politically possible) would suit U.S. nonproliferation objectives just fine. The Iranians got what was, by any quantitative measure, relief from only a small fraction of the nuclear-related sanctions that have been placed on them. In short, it is undeniable that Iran has made most of the concessions in this negotiation so far. And if either side has more reason to “want” to push the negotiations ahead promptly to completion, given the nature of the interim deal it clearly is Iran that has reason to want it more.

For anyone keeping score of such things, the U.S. and its partners could henceforth make significant concessions to close a final deal and still be well ahead on the scorecard of concessions elicited from the other side. But assessment of any agreement should not be based on any such scorecard anyway. Again, it instead should be a matter of comparing the conditions produced by an agreement with the conditions under no agreement.

Another often-overlooked consideration is that a good agreement would be one that gives both sides reason to observe it, rather than being seen by either side as a forced imposition to be violated or discarded at the first opportunity. Give-and-take, not one-sided pressure, is the way to get such a durable agreement.

An indication of how far the Washington discourse has strayed from basic understanding of Diplomacy 101 is an opinion piece by Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who not only says we should “stop offering Iran nuclear concessions” but also calls for “toughening the U.S. negotiating stance on key issues such as Iran’s past weaponization research, monitoring and verification, Iran’s missile arsenal and the duration of an agreement.” This is rather like saying that if a store is unable to sell a product priced at $10, the way to get people to buy it is to increase the price to $15. Singh tries to make sense of this bizarre recommendation by arguing that such U.S. obdurateness could “secure the congressional support required to empower the president to credibly offer sanctions relief.” But any Iranian of even average IQ who has been following the handling of this issue in Washington knows that anything that has “Congress,” “sanctions” and “Iran” in the same sentence is all about killing a deal, not fine-tuning the terms; no admiration for the administration for “toughening” its position would deter those determined to kill any agreement with Iran. And that is not even to mention the further deal-killing effect of U.S. negotiators backtracking on progress the negotiations have already made.

For the Obama administration to get an agreement that will advance U.S. interests—never mind what will be the subsequent efforts of Congressional opponents to shoot it down, no matter what the terms—the United States will need to make additional concessions at the negotiating table. It cannot just contemplate how reasonable is whatever offer it has on the table now, however sincere is its perception of reasonableness, and wait for the Iranians to close all of the remaining gap. Those in Washington who genuinely support the diplomatic process will have to understand this need and defend the administration's flexibility in fulfilling it.

To do this, the administration and its supporters will need to overcome two principal hang-ups, regardless of whether the hang-ups are having a negotiation-retarding effect because administration policy-makers have internalized the hang-ups or because policy-makers are self-deterred by anticipating how certain terms would be received in Washington once an agreement is announced. One of the hang-ups is the fixation on “breakout” times, which is misplaced because the distinctions in question would make no practical difference for U.S. security or the risk of there ever being an Iranian nuclear weapon. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani made a speech a month ago in which he said that Iranian ideals are not bound to centrifuges. We ought to realize that American ideals are not bound to them either.

The other hang-up concerns how sanctions have come to be treated in Washington as if they were an end in themselves—as if keeping sanctions in place against regimes we don't like is of some intrinsic value to the United States. It isn't; sanctions are only a tool—in this case, a tool to help get an agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. If sanctions get in the way of achieving such an agreement rather than facilitating the agreement, they are useless. Or rather, they are worse than useless, because of the costs they impose on the United States.

If this diplomatic process fails it will not be the first time that the American exceptionalist, redline-bound, asymmetric approach to international negotiation will have worked against U.S. interests, but it will be a particularly unfortunate and unnecessary instance of it doing so.                

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

The Next Great War: America vs. China?

The Buzz

The Sino-American relationship may be in decent shape. It's other countries we should be worried about.

Last year, the centenary of World War I's outbreak, was a bonanza for history fans. The prior benchmark The Guns of August, published 50 years ago, was comfortably eclipsed by several authors with access to new archives.

Still, World War I continues to vex, even as we unearth deeper clues to its causes. One of 2014's more thoughtful books – actually a collection of essays from some seriously heavyweight contributors – The Next Great War?, directly tackles the question at the back of everyone's mind today: what parallels between now and then?

The causes of World War I were so numerous and profound that “they are undetermining individually and overdetermining collectively.”

In other words, no single factor caused the war, but together all were irresistible: entangling alliances of approximate parity, a “security dilemma” of mutual fear, “the cult of the offensive,” “militaries gone rogue,” nationalistic domestic coalitions, the belief in “pre-emptive mobilization” (first strike advantage), a failure to understand the defense-dominance of new technologies, the “indivisibility problem” (eg. control of Turkish Straits), domestic paralysis and lack of legitimacy, “bounded rationality” (imperfect information), complacency, fatalism, credibility, mediocre statesmanship and outright lunacy.

In sum, World War I was caused by the “tyranny of small things...the accumulation of contingencies.”

Do these factors exist today? Overall the book concludes that “there are many more differences than similarities. Arguing that China in 2014 is Germany in 1914 is neither precise nor helpful.” It goes on to say that “It is inaccurate to describe the prevailing climate in either country as bellicose or complacent...the US has more time to manage its relationship with a rising power than Britain did a century ago, and China has more incentive for restraint.” The book's editors conclude hopefully that “the US-China relationship looks easier to manage than the multipolar system that led to 1914.”

But the multipolarity angle is an historical argument worth exploring.

The world in 1914 certainly wasn't a German-British duopoly. The Anglosphere tends to over-emphasize this rivalry. We rarely hear, say, French or Turkish accounts of the war, though they were as deeply affected. It is true that Britain and Germany represented “anchors” of two alliance systems, but their direct antagonism had probably peaked already. As late as July 1914, Royal Navy ships were paying friendly visits to Kiel. By then Germany was more worried about Russia: “The problem that the German General Staff and many among the civilian leaders thought truly dangerous was the growth of Russian power. If Germany was Britain's naval nightmare, Russia was Germany's army nightmare.” It was the very absence of a clear hegemonic order that created the multipolar mess the Great War became. Between Pax Britannica and Pax Americana, as Lamont Colucci has recently noted “the medium and lesser powers attempted to use the great powers for their own reasons.”

And the willingness of smaller nations to fight was striking. In his impressive concluding essay, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd cites predecessor Sir George Reid defiantly addressing the German Reichstag in 1912: “Peace is our supreme aim, it is the one thing we must have even if we have to fight for it.”

Rudd, who has warned of “a maritime Balkans” in Asia, notes that Australia would go on to suffer a 64% casualty rate in World War I, the highest of any nation. The Balkans was the “tinderbox” in which several dysfunctional, aggrieved, proud little states eventually set all Europe ablaze. As always “the costs of war are knowable only in retrospect” but even Russia, resurgent and feared, knew how internally destructive war would be. The famous Durnovo memorandum makes this clear. The editor of The Next Great War?, Richard Rosencrance, argues 1914 was the “worst of all possible worlds” where great powers “committed their support to a particular ally (Serbia and Austria) whose role in the war would be less than decisive.”

The reason why the Balkan morass quickly coalesced into a conflict between two great alliances is easily understood by the logic of “my enemy's enemy is my friend.” Bipolarity “solves” an equilibrium problem. Some argue it is actually stabilizing. The US has built a network of Asian allies, any of whom could act irresponsibly. The World War I parallel would become more compelling if China itself purposefully cultivated its own alliances: North Korea? Pakistan? Iran? Russia? “Usually hegemonic great powers have the greatest number of allied responsibilities and the most extensive periphery of interests. It is hardest for them to back down,” Rosencrance notes.

Thus an American scholar of European history puzzles about contemporary Asia: “The US has played a great power role in the western Pacific since at least 1898. Indeed its unwillingness to cede to the Japanese exclusive control over the region helped to preserve the Chinese polity in the early 1940s. Now these ambitions appear inappropriate to the Chinese.” How hard will they push? Another contributor remarks: “imputations of encirclement, naval expenditures, propaganda, self-consuming is hard to imagine that China's leaders are not sensitive to Germany's history.” Lee Kwan Yew's prediction, that “not until China has overtaken the US in the development and application of technology can they envisage confronting the US militarily,” is less than reassuring.

Kevin Rudd notes “the perception of some in the US policy establishment that China is simply buying time, taking the strategic temperature down at a declaratory level, while operationally continuing its long-term project of maximizing its national power, against that day in the future when China is able to begin to act unilaterally.”

Though a multilateralist, even he sees the difficulty of a grand bargain. “A new concert of power would seem to require more cooperation and even constitutional change than China or the US is ready to accept. Beijing has insisted on dealing separately with each regional counter-claimant to East Asian real estate, ruling out a more general settlement. This means the US must provide backup for each ally.”

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina