If you want diplomacy to work with Iran, you can’t ease up the pressure

If you want diplomacy to work with Iran, you can’t ease up the pressure

Dennis Ross has made an interesting appeal for talks with Iran. He rightly points out that the current Obama strategy on Iran was to squeeze Iran with sufficiently painful sanctions so that Iran’s cost-benefit calculation would change, making the regime decide that the costs of the nuclear program were not worth the gain. Since there is evidence that the Iranians are experiencing the kind of pain the strategy called for, Ross says it is worth testing whether this has adjusted Iran’s cost-benefit calculation enough to make a deal possible.

Ross is clear-eyed about the modest prospects for success. Given the costs of the alternatives, I find Ross pretty compelling. But he buries the weak link in the strategy inside these two sentences: "Of course, Iran’s government might try to draw out talks while pursuing their nuclear program. But if that is their strategy, they will face even more onerous pressures, when a planned European boycott of their oil begins on July 1."

As Ross surely knows, the Iranians have a standard approach for alleviating the kind of sanctions and isolation they currently face. It involves offering negotiations, but then insisting that the sanctions be lifted as a show of good faith or as a way of creating conducive conditions for fruitful talks or simply as a precondition for getting the Iranians to the table. The Iranians have been fairly adept at making it look like it was Western pressure that was hobbling diplomacy, thus creating pressure on our side to ease the sanctions. Even when the United States has stood firm, sometimes our allies and partners have wobbled. By and large, the Iranians have been more effective at using the prospects of negotiations to improve their chances of wiggling out of sanctions than our side has been at using the sanctions to improve the prospects for negotiations. And while the dynamic plays itself out, Iran has kept marching toward the nuclear threshold.

So I would endorse Ross’s call for yet another round of negotiations, but only with certain provisos which are prerequisites for the strategy to succeed:

  • All current sanctions must be maintained at the current level of pressure throughout, until a deal is struck that will verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
  • All planned new sanctions must be imposed, as scheduled, unless and until the deal is struck and implemented.
  • "Signs of progress" and other lesser concessions by the Iranian side should be met with comparable rhetorical gestures and perhaps other sweeteners (e.g., an exchange of midlevel diplomatic visits), but not with an easing of the sanctions pressure.

A friend closer to the action than I am tells me it is "inconceivable" that a new diplomatic push would not undermine sanctions pressure. If he is right, it is also nearly inconceivable that diplomacy would work. But, as they say in the business, this is an empirical question. We can find out.

If the Obama team can pull off this delicate diplomatic maneuver — negotiating with Iran without simultaneously undermining our negotiating leverage over Iran — that would be quite an accomplishment. Even then, it might not be enough to secure a deal. And it still leaves an exceptionally complex part of the problem underdeveloped, for I have buried another weak link of this strategy in my description of the deal: "…will verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."

But, as Ross suggests, it is the only way diplomacy stands a chance of succeeding. And this part will be fairly easy to monitor. If we ease up our pressure while negotiating, we will know that the negotiations are probably doomed.

People who believe negotiations will fail and believe that the military option is the only remaining recourse should not oppose one last diplomatic push. The political predicate for the military option is a consensus that all reasonable nonmilitary options have been tried and found wanting. It is unlikely President Obama would believe that predicate was met without another test of the diplomatic waters.

There is yet one other weak link in the strategy. If there is a genuine window of opportunity after which the military option is pointless — as claimed by the Israelis in the "zone of immunity" — and if negotiations are strung out beyond the closing of that window, that would dramatically increase the costs of pursuing another round of diplomacy. I do not know enough about the operational details to adjudicate this. Perhaps no one, not even the Israelis and the Iranians themselves, know for sure. But if I am right about the political predicate for military action, then the hawks should be the ones pushing most urgently for diplomacy, albeit on a very short deadline.