Shadow Government

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What are the odds that Obama’s Iran talks will succeed?

By Peter Feaver How should we measure success in the talks with Iran that begin today? I propose the following sliding scale. 1. Breathtaking, mission accomplished victory: Iran agrees to abandon its nuclear weapons program, submit to a rigorous verification and safeguards regime, and open substantive dialogue on its support for global terrorism. If this ...

By Peter Feaver

How should we measure success in the talks with Iran that begin today? I propose the following sliding scale.

1. Breathtaking, mission accomplished victory: Iran agrees to abandon its nuclear weapons program, submit to a rigorous verification and safeguards regime, and open substantive dialogue on its support for global terrorism. If this is achieved, President Obama would be a shoo-in for the Nobel Peace Prize. Chance of this happening: I would guess near zero.

2. Demonstrable and significant progress: Iran’s continued recalcitrance is identified early by all the relevant players, especially Russia and China, and the UN Security Council responds within a few weeks with a substantial ramping up of de facto sanctions on Iran — sanctions that involve the effective participation of Iran’s chief trading partners, the EU, Russia, China, and India. Chance of this happening: I would guess not zero, but maybe just a 1-in-10 chance.

3. No progress beyond what the Bush team already achieved: Iran’s continued recalcitrance provokes a range of global rhetorical censure ranging from Chinese tut-tutting to American (or French or British) bluster. The United States unilaterally increases sanctions pressure, but only incrementally because U.S. unilateral leverage over Iran is minimal. Europeans agree to review their options for an incremental increase of sanctions pressure themselves, but do not commit irrevocably to a ramp up in pressure. Russians and Chinese acknowledge that Iran has not been forthcoming, but block further sanctions on the grounds that these would be counterproductive. Chance of this happening: I would guess this is the most likely outcome, so maybe a 4-in-10 chance.

4. Less progress than what the Bush team already achieved: Iran’s continued recalcitrance even after the U.S. has played its "hole card" of the evidence of Iranian duplicity concerning the second enrichment site splits the international coalition and key members, likely Russia or China, blame the United States for its mishandling of the negotiations. Chance of this happening: I fear this is the next most-likely-outcome, so maybe a 3-in-10 chance.

5. False progress is achieved: Desperate to show progress, the United States accepts a fig-leaf arrangement, or merely declares the negotiations fruitful when they are not, and so there is neither true progress towards Iranian relinquishment of their nuclear program nor increased leverage imposed on them to make a deal in the next round more likely. Chance of this happening: I don’t think this is as likely as some Obama critics think, but there is a non-trivial possibility of this happening, perhaps barely a 2-in-10 chance.

6. U.S. capitulation: Desperate for a deal, the United States follows the advice of some and signs a grand bargain agreement that "resolves" the issue by preemptively conceding to all of Iran’s demands, including the demand that the world community stop complaining about the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Chance of this happening: not likely, probably only marginally more likely than outcome #1.

It should be noted that when Dennis Ross, a key player on the Obama team, outlined his strategy for Iran, it was essentially the Bush administration strategy and so was likely only to produce what the Bush team had been able to produce — or a slight improvement thereupon. While he hoped for Outcome #1, he acknowledged that it might more realistically only achieve #2 in the medium-term. For that reason, I do not think it is fair to declare the strategy a failure if it doesn’t achieve #1. However, if it doesn’t achieve #2, I think it is fair, and perfectly within the terms established by Team Obama, to declare it a failure.

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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