Getting Iran to say ‘uncle’ might not be smart

Getting Iran to say ‘uncle’ might not be smart

What if our current policy towards Iran actually works, and Tehran gives in to every one of our demands? You’d think that would be a crowning diplomatic success, wouldn’t you? Think again. In fact, a one-sided triumph over Iran might solve little, because a deal dictated by Washington probably wouldn’t last.

Given where U.S. policy is today, there are two paths to a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. Both are inherently coercive. The first path is the one we are currently on: The United States and its allies keep ratcheting up economic sanctions until the Iranian economy collapses, accompanied by a fair amount of human suffering and untold deaths due to economic hardship. At that point, the clerical regime either says "uncle" or gets overthrown. In either case, whoever is in charge in Iran subsequently agrees to abandon all nuclear enrichment, get rid of all their current stockpile of enriched uranium, and dismantle all their centrifuges, with compliance to be verified by the United States and the IAEA.

In this scenario, a tightening vise of economic pressure will convince Iran to do what the late Muammar Qaddafi did in Libya in 2003 and abandon any interest in a nuclear capability. Unfortunately for us, Tehran has probably noticed what happened to him, which makes it less likely that they’d ever surrender in quite the same way.

The second path is the military option: The United States attacks Iran and destroys as much of its nuclear infrastructure as it can find. We also manage to convince Iran that we’ll keep coming back to repeat the job if they try to rebuild. In response, the clerical regime ignores the popular outrage that our attack would provoke and agrees to remain a non-nuclear power in perpetuity.

Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that U.S. intelligence services still believe that Iran is not actively seeking nuclear weapons at all, a view that our allies in Great Britain apparently share. Let’s also leave aside the question of whether either of these two paths is likely to succeed. Instead, let’s suppose one of them did, and Iran capitulated to our current demands. Would that be a good thing? I’m not so sure.

The problem with these two paths to a non-nuclear Iran is that each will leave a lot of Iranians really pissed off and resentful. Even if they were forced to grant all our demands, they will have done so under extreme duress, either because the U.S.-led coalition had twisted their arms out of their sockets with "crippling sanctions" or because the Great Satan had launched an unprovoked military attack. In the unlikely event that either policy convinced Iran’s leaders to completely abandon nuclear enrichment — a goal that the government, key opposition figures, and much of the Iranian public have long supported — that concession will have been screwed out of them.

The obvious danger, of course, is that this outcome will provide ammunition for Iranian nationalists and hardliners, and strengthen the hands of those who favor Iran have an overt nuclear weapons capability. They will ask why India and Pakistan can have nuclear weapons but Iran cannot. They will point out that other Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories are permitted to have enrichment capabilities but Iran is barred. They will remind the world and their fellow citizens that Japan has vast quantities of plutonium and is probably only a few months from a bomb if it ever wanted one, while Iran is treated as an international leper. And they will surely wonder why Israel gets U.S. protection and unconditional aid even though it is not signed the NPT and has a large nuclear weapons arsenal of its own.

As a result, there will be plenty of Iranians eager to abandon any agreement they might reach with us, just as soon as they thought they could get away with it. In other words, an agreement that is reached solely through coercion will only endure as long as the same level of coercive pressure remains credible. At best, such an agreement would last only as long as the balance of power and resolve continued to favor us. The more one-sided the deal, in short, the more likely Iran is to renege and the more the U.S. and Israel will have to watch it like hawks for any sign of slippage. What better way to ensure that relations never improve?

By contrast, a nuclear deal that gave something to both sides and promised both sides a significant stream of future benefits would give both actors an incentive to stick to the terms. It would also tend to silence the hawks in both camps who push for hardline solutions (i.e., those Americans who favor military force and those Iranians who might favor actually getting a bomb). The problem here, as my colleague Matt Bunn reminded me yesterday, is that the current level of mistrust makes it hard for either side to convince the other that it will actually deliver the stream of benefits that will have to be part of the deal.

The late negotiation expert Roger Fisher famously recommended giving opponents "yes-sable" propositions: If you want a deal, you have to offer something that the opponent might actually want to accept. In the same vein, Chinese strategic sage Sun Tzu advised "building a golden bridge" for your enemies to retreat across.

Translation: If we want a lasting nuclear deal with Iran, it can’t be completely one-sided. Paradoxically, we don’t want to strong-arm Iran into accepting a deal they hate, but which they are taking because we’ve left them no choice. A completely one-sided deal might be easier to sell here at home, but that sort of deal is also less likely to endure. In order to last, there has to be something in it for them, both in terms of tangible benefits but also in terms of acknowledging Iranian interests and national pride. Otherwise, the deal won’t stick and we’ll be back to the current situation of threat-mongering, suspicion, and strategic distraction. That might be an outcome that a few neo-cons want, but hardly anyone else.

We are often warned about the dangers of appeasement and the "lessons" of Munich. But we often forget the equally important lesson of Versailles: when victors impose a harsh and one-sided settlement on a country — even if it deserves it — it sometimes backfires. Assuming we eventually get serious about negotiating with Tehran, we will need to look for a deal that satisfies our core interests. But we won’t get everything we might want, and if we want it to stick, Iran will have to believe that it got something out of it too.