Nuclear Brinkmanship with Iran

Washington and Iran are playing a dangerous game full of escalation, exaggeration and threats.

Nuclear negotiations between Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) took a turn for the worse in Moscow last month. Despite policy makers and pundits describing the talks as neither a breakdown nor a breakthrough, we should be clear about the fact that both sides are now figuring out how to pick up the pieces after a dangerous turn of events.

To the credit of Washington and Tehran, their public-relations departments have done a masterful job spinning just how badly the negotiations in Moscow went. Privately, however, officials from both sides concede that a breakdown in the talks occurred largely because the United States moved the goalposts—again. And an honest assessment indicates that political factors drove Washington to back away from a deal.

While there is always concern about whether Tehran will live up to its end of a bargain, numerous P5+1 officials have acknowledged that the Iranians have focused their bottom line on uranium enrichment at the 3.5 percent level and sanctions relief. At present, Iran’s enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level; its corresponding stockpile; and its underground Fordo nuclear facility all are fair game—for the right price. These were some of the key details under discussion in Istanbul and in any subsequent round of talks going forward.

If there is a silver lining from the Moscow talks, it was an agreement to continue diplomacy at the technical level (rather than at the political level) this week in Istanbul. Additional rounds of negotiations can help both sides continue to reacquaint themselves with one another after three decades of estrangement. But there is a downside: downgrading the level of talks reduces the likelihood of an agreement that already faces myriad obstacles. Nevertheless, continuing talks at a lower level is better than no talks at all. For reasons that I’ve outlined in these spaces, diplomacy with Iran is a marathon, not a sprint.

The dustbin of history is littered with failed attempts by both sides to reach some sort of accommodation. In 2009, the Iranians balked. Today, it is the Obama administration that cannot take yes for an answer. Simply put, political considerations related to Israel and President Obama’s reelection bid severely inhibit America’s ability to engage in a real, step-by-step process based on reciprocity.

Looking ahead, this means that the coming months will likely see a quixotic mix of escalation and diplomacy until the U.S. presidential election has passed. And therein lies the rub: the cycle of escalation is harder to contain in the highly charged political climate of a U.S. election year. The trouble with brinkmanship is the ease in which both sides can fall over the proverbial cliff. After the breakdown in Moscow, the reality is that Washington and Tehran are grasping at the edge of the cliff because both are exaggerating their own strengths and the other side’s weaknesses.

As a chronically reactive, authoritarian regime, the Islamic Republic will likely remain in wait-and-see mode until America makes what it perceives as tangible steps towards compromise. For its part, the Obama administration has likely calculated that in order to achieve a breakthrough with Iran, there must first be a breakdown in the diplomatic process. Because multilateral talks have reached a deadlock, the United States perceives that it stands a better chance of getting what it really needs by escalating the conflict. This is a risky game to play—small errors can lead to military confrontation—but there is a logic behind it.

In the current context, however, the problem with this logic is twofold. Washington should be wary of overplaying its hand—something it often rightly accuses Tehran of doing. The Obama team should be realistic about the effectiveness of “crippling” sanctions—who is being crippled by these sanctions? Sanctioning Iran’s oil and financial transactions undoubtedly has an effect but perhaps not on those in Iran whom the United States is seeking to influence. History repeatedly demonstrates that bending, much less breaking, does not come easily to an immensely prideful, nationalistic country.

Sanctions have a dismal record, and their limited success often proves the law of unintended consequences. Enough people in the Obama administration know this to keep at least a low-level diplomatic process alive through the end of the year. This week's talks in Istanbul were a means to that end. Obama was caught on a live microphone explaining this dynamic to Russia’s Dmitri Medvedev: “This is my last election. . . . After my election I have more flexibility.” Obama said he needs “space” until after the November ballot, which will ostensibly increase his ability to compromise on contentious issues.

In theory, this makes sense. But in practice, what’s past is prologue. If Obama is reelected, Congress will be no less destructive; Israel will be no less obstinate; and there is always the need to protect the Democratic brand for the next round of elections. At present, there is little reason to believe that a second Obama term will provide more flexibility on the various limitations that plagued his first term from the outset.

Effective diplomacy is not just about substance; it’s also about style, sequencing and timing. In the case of Iran, the latter has dictated the former. If nothing else, Obama’s Iran policy has demonstrated that there will never be a “right” time to deal. The complicating factors in both Washington and Tehran are so numerous that if either side waits for the right time, it will never come.

But wait we must. And while we do, both sides will continue adding to a powder keg overflowing with sanctions, computer viruses, secret assassinations and threats of war—all of which shows how easily a single incident can spark a wider conflict that both sides would independently seek to avoid.

Ambassador John Limbert—the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran during my tenure at the State Department—used to remind us that if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. With America’s allies essentially deferring to Washington’s handling of the Iran nuclear file in an effort to prevent war, they should hope that Obama can see the light at the end of the tunnel. But looking at the state of negotiations at face value, a heavy dose of skepticism is warranted. Obama's good intentions are sincere, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council.

Image: poniblog