Why Negotiations With Iran Are Doomed

Photographer: Elizabeth Lippman/Bloomberg

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Photographer: Elizabeth Lippman/Bloomberg

(Corrects description of Arak nuclear reactor in third paragraph.)

If you want to figure out what went wrong in the first round of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, look no further than the news briefing by a “Senior Administration Official” in the U.S. State Department just days before Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva.

The unnamed Senior Administration Official (I stick with the initial caps intentionally) laid out a plan rich in contradiction. Then, when pressed on the crucial question of verification, the official essentially punted.

According to reports -- partially disputed by President Barack Obama’s administration -- the meetings collapsed over France’s insistence that the Tehran regime agree to stop work on its Arak heavy-water reactor, and possibly over details of verification as well. Yet just a day before things fell apart, reports were trumpeting the forthcoming deal.

How did things unravel so swiftly? To answer, let’s take a peek into Senior Administration Official’s briefing for reporters held on the eve of the most critical stage of the talks in Switzerland, which involved the U.S. as well as China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K. At this stage, things were thought to be far enough along that Kerry could join the table.

Deep Toolbox

The official transcript of the briefing includes the following striking passage:

QUESTION: Why do you think there is so much emphasis on Iran-U.S. bilateral?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think because we’re the United States, in the sense that we have the wherewithal with all of our capabilities to have a very deep and broad toolbox that includes sanctions and ability to enforce those sanctions, which we’ve done very, very well.

The important line: “because we’re the United States.” In other words, our importance to the negotiations derives from the fact that we are who we are.

But is that really so? As uber-realist (and Nobel laureate) Thomas Schelling points out in his classic “Arms and Influence,” your ability to use the tools of diplomacy increases with your military reach. Iran knows better than anybody how the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot to Asia” has left the U.S. far weaker in the Middle East and Persian Gulf than at any time in recent decades.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into that briefing. Asked about possible military action, Senior Administration Official had this to say: “The president will keep all of his options available to him and to ensure United States national security, but I think everybody in this room knows that military action is never a first resort; it is always a last resort. ... It would not end, in our view, Iran’s nuclear program. It would set it back, but it would not end it. And so that’s one option that has also potential consequences beyond what anybody might predict.”

The problem with military action, in other words, is that it wouldn’t guarantee destruction of the program.

What about the possibility, popular in Congress, of upgrading rather than downgrading existing sanctions?

“There are some who argue that we should just keep sanctioning Iran until they basically surrender,” Senior Administration Official said. “Additional sanctions, certainly at least in the immediate term, will not stop Iran’s program, and what it will mean is that Iran’s program will simply keep moving forward.”

So additional sanctions won’t work, either. And the goal, by the way, isn’t Iran’s surrender -- in other words, the goal isn’t to get the regime in Tehran to do what we want. The goal is this: “We’re trying to stop Iran’s program from advancing, to put time on the clock to negotiate a complete and comprehensive agreement. It seems to me it’s worth a brief pause to test that notion.”

Schelling would have spotted the contradiction: The goal is “a complete and comprehensive agreement,” but we are told in advance that the twin threats lying behind diplomacy -- military action and economic sanctions -- won’t bring it about. Suppose this is true. Then why on Earth should Iran negotiate in good faith?

Empty Toolbox

A negotiation isn’t an end in itself. It is a means to an end. Senior Administration Official is trying to have it both ways. The president will retain all of his options, but none of his options will get the U.S. what it wants. If neither the threat of force nor the threat of increased sanctions will alter Iranian behavior, then the toolbox, as Senior Administration Official calls it, is all but empty.

Finally, we come to the most important question of all: verification. How can we be sure, a reporter asked, that Iran is “not pursuing some other furtive program elsewhere in the country, like Fordow, that you didn’t know about until two years ago?” (The Fordow enrichment site was built secretly by Iran, beginning in 2006. It isn’t clear when the West learned of it, but public disclosure did not take place until 2009.)

Senior Administration Official’s response was telling: “There are no guarantees in anything in life, certainly not in this arena of nonproliferation.” Perhaps worrying that this answer would hardly reassure, he added an important correction: “But I would also point out that we may not have known immediately about Fordow, but we did come to know about it. And so I think it demonstrates to Iran and demonstrates to the world that if you do have a secret, you won’t have it for long.”

The reporter, Ali Arouzi of NBC News, turned out to be too well informed to be easily deterred: “But, I mean, the secret was pretty full blown until you found out about it. I mean, it was a pretty big, functioning complex when you found out about it.” He added: “So it might have been a little late by that point, even, you could argue.”

At this critical juncture, Senior Administration Official punted: “One could argue lots of things; that’s why we’re in a very difficult, complicated and challenging negotiation.”

And with that glib nonresponse on the most important question of all -- whether Iran will be able to build a new facility under the noses of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors -- Senior Administration Official went on to the next question.

Useless Toolbox

There, then, you have all the pieces for failure actually laid out in the news briefing before the negotiations began: an insistence that the U.S. is indispensable because of its toolbox; a confession that the toolbox is empty; and a refusal to address seriously the possibility that Iran might cheat.

I’m not one who opposes negotiation with our adversaries. It’s better for everyone if the diplomatic demarche can avoid war with Iran by achieving a deal with real teeth. And I understand fully that foreign policy isn’t a classroom exercise: You can’t always get what you want. But the purpose of negotiation is to get as much as you can. You don’t begin by telling the world that force can’t get you to your result. As Schelling counsels, you keep your adversary guessing. (You needn’t even have any real intention of attacking him as long as he isn’t sure what your intentions are.)

So, here’s a thought: If what Senior Administration Official said at the briefing is really all the administration wants to say publicly, then it’s better to say nothing. Forget the briefings. Let Kerry show up in Geneva, looking grim, and let him announce that this is Iran’s last chance. He needn’t even say last chance to do what. Tight-lipped pessimism might be a considerable improvement over the nonstop gabfest that has come to characterize contemporary American diplomacy.

(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.)

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen L. Carter at stephen.carter@yale.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.

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