Does the Iranian government think Obama is desperate?
By Peter Feaver The Washington Post is spinning this comment from Ali Akbar Velayati, one of Iran’s former foreign ministers and an ally of the regime leader Ayatollah Khamenei, as a positive and hopeful sign: "America accepts a nuclear Iran, but Britain and France cannot stand a nuclear Iran." It is true that this statement ...
By Peter Feaver
By Peter Feaver
The Washington Post is spinning this comment from Ali Akbar Velayati, one of Iran’s former foreign ministers and an ally of the regime leader Ayatollah Khamenei, as a positive and hopeful sign: "America accepts a nuclear Iran, but Britain and France cannot stand a nuclear Iran." It is true that this statement is, by Iranian standards, a compliment to President Obama, but I am not sure it is a very auspicious omen about the fruitfulness of any coming negotiations with Iran.
To be clear, I do think it is worth negotiating with Iran, under proper conditions. Indeed, I think it is worth negotiating with Iran even if you believe that such negotiations will fail and that the military option is the best of a bad set of options. I am not ready to endorse the military option, but I don’t see how any such option is viable without having conducted more intensive negotiations than we have thus far. Put it another way: It seems to me that negotiations are a necessary precursor to the military option, and they are probably even a necessary precursor to ramping up non-military coercive pressure, too.
But it is dispiriting to see the Iranians praise Obama as someone who “gets it” — who gets that Iran really needs to be a nuclear power. I don’t think it is necessarily a fair assessment of Obama’s position, but it could be a fairly revealing indication of Iran’s position. And that depresses an already pessimistic assessment about the possibility of achieving a meaningful settlement with Iran that leaves Iran short of nuclear-weapons capability.
The only plausible “acceptable” diplomatic solution I can imagine is one in which we give Iran some sort of fig-leafs on a few key issues: “yes, they have a ‘right’ to control the fuel cycle”; and “yes, they have understandable security needs that make nuclear weapons attractive”; and “yes, even under the NPT, they retain the right some day to leave the NPT if they so chose” and so on. In exchange for these rhetorical concessions and lots of other goodies, Iran would agree to forego these “rights” for some long period of time (at least a decade or more) and would agree to intrusive inspections that verified they were honoring those promises (even if only for a decade or so). This would not solve the Iranian nuclear issue for all time, but it would kick the can far enough down the road to be counted a success. (Note: even the most optimistic outcome for a military option would only delay an Iranian nuclear program by a decade.)
If Velayti was hinting at those sorts of fig leafs in his statement, then I agree with the Post that this is, relatively speaking, a positive sign. But I think he is saying something different: that the Iranians perceive Obama to be so eager to cut a deal with Iran that he will accept a nuclear Iran. If that is the case, then Obama would be starting any such negotiations with a weak hand.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
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