The most important foreign policy effort President Barack Obama will be making over the next year is negotiating with Iran. The terms of the U.S. offer are clear: if Iran agrees not to build nuclear weapons, it will be allowed to enrich a certain amount of uranium, supposedly for purposes of generating nuclear energy (which Iran doesn’t need) and other benefits, supposedly under strict safeguards.
Will Iran accept such a deal? The Obama administration and others argue as follows: Sanctions have taken a deep bite out of Iran’s economy and frightened the regime with the prospect of instability. Iranian leaders are concluding that nuclear weapons aren’t worth all of this trouble. They are interested in becoming wealthy not in spreading revolution, and this includes even the once-fanatical Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is steadily gaining power in the country.
In a few months, June 2013, Iran will have elections to choose a new president to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Perhaps, goes the argument, they will pick someone more flexible and less provocative, a signal that they want to stand down from the current confrontation. Thus, a deal is really possible and it could be implemented.
I won’t dismiss this altogether. The truth is that despite extremist statements and radical tactics, the Iranian regime is by no means ideologically or theologically mad. The rulers want to stay in power and they have been far more cautious in practice than they have been in rhetoric. Despite the claims that the Iranian regime just wants to get nuclear weapons to attack Israel as soon as possible, a serious analysis of this government’s history, leaders, and factions indicates otherwise.
A key factor here is that Iran wants nuclear weapons for “defensive” purposes. By this, I do not mean that a poor Tehran regime is afraid that it will be attacked for no reason at all, and thus needs to protect itself. Not at all. It is Iran’s aggressive, subversive, and terrorist-sponsoring positions that jeopardize the regime. Like it or not, if the Tehran government got on with the business of repressing its own people without threatening its neighbors, the world would be little concerned with its behavior. But it has refused to take that easy and profitable choice.
Rather, Iran wants nuclear weapons so it can continue both its regime and behavior without having to worry about paying any price for the things it does. The situation has, however, changed in two respects.
First, the “Arab Spring” has put an end to any serious hope by the regime of gaining leadership in the Middle East or in the Muslim world. Two years ago it was possible that Arabs would dance in the streets and cheer Iran’s having a nuclear weapon as the great hope of radical Islam. Today, though, the Sunni Islamists are on the march and have no use for rival Shias, much less ethnic Persians.
They want to make their own revolutions, destroy Israel, expel the West, and seize control of the Middle East for Sunni Arabs and not under the leadership of Persian Shias. Iran’s sphere of influence has been whittled down to merely Lebanon, Iraq, and a rapidly failing Syrian regime. Under these conditions, getting nuclear weapons will not bring Iran any great strategic gain.
Second, sanctions have indeed been costly for Iran, though one could exaggerate the extent of this suffering. Additional internal problems have been brought on by the rulers’ own mismanagement and awesome levels of corruption. In other words, to stay in power and get even richer, Iran’s leaders, along with disposing of Ahmadinejad, might seek a way out of their ten-year-long drive for nuclear weapons.
Thus, it is not impossible that Iran would agree to the Obama administration’s proposed deal either because the leaders now seek riches rather than revolution, or because they intend to cheat or move far more gradually toward getting nuclear weapons, or at least the capability to obtain them quickly, if and when they decide to do so.
It is, however, equally or more possible that Iran would use the negotiations to wrest concessions from the West without giving anything in return and to stall for time as it steadily advances toward its nuclear goal. As this happens, Israeli concerns will be dismissed by the administration and the mass media. The kinder ones will say that Israel is being unnecessarily concerned; the more hostile will say that it is acting as a warmonger when everything can be settled through compromise.
For its part, the Obama administration is desperate to get a deal with Iran and quick to believe that the Tehran regime is being reasonable. The White House’s own ideology, arrogance, and naivete make it the perfect victim for an Iranian con job. It is the same pattern we’ve repeatedly seen in which supposedly economic considerations dominate ideology and everyone — including the Muslim Brotherhood, the PLO, and the Taliban — wants to be moderate and peaceful if only given the proper chance to do so.
As we’ve also seen in other cases, the White House and administration will argue that Iran is intransigent largely or mainly because “we” haven’t made enough concessions and have a long history of imperialist behavior toward the country. Consequently, the Islamist government’s trust must be won by American apologies for past behavior and material proof that the United States will now be nice to it. In other words, the White House will practically beg to be treated like a sucker. Already, even before talks have begun in earnest, the Obama administration is sweetening the offer to Iran.
Of course, it is worthwhile to try negotiations. But as in all policy making, such endeavors must be entered into with a clear sense of the possibilities, alternatives, goals, and unacceptable concessions, as well as a readiness to admit the strategy isn’t working. What happens as talks drag on month after month, with Iran demanding a better offer and proof that the West has honest intentions? Certainly, as long as the talks continue, the White House would be arguing for reducing pressure and stopping threats lest Iran get scared or mistrustful. Already, we are receiving hints that it is Israel’s fault for scaring Iran into thinking it needs nuclear weapons, forgetting the fact that Israeli threats result from Iranian leaders’ boasts about the genocide they intend to commit once they have atomic arms.
Part of the Obama administration sales pitch for U.S.-Iran talks is that Obama really will get tough if Iran stalls, uses the time to continue developing nuclear weapons, or cheats. People in positions of authority or influence — including in the mass media as well as governments — claim Obama will attack Iran if it plays him false. The administration’s patience is wearing thin, we are told; it won’t let the Iranian regime make it look like a fool.
For my part, I don’t believe that Obama would ever initiate military action against Iran. I think he will also do everything possible to prevent Israel from doing so, which means that Israel would also not launch an attack. Personally, I don’t favor an attack on Iran (for reasons I’ve explained in detail elsewhere), but it is a costly error to base a policy of concessions and letting Iran stall on a false claim of willingness to use force at some later point. In addition, whether or not you think it a good idea, an attack on Iran by either Israel or the United States as a means of stopping the nuclear program isn’t going to happen.
I suggest the most likely possibilities are as follows:
If Iran’s leaders find the pressures of sanctions so tough, the threat to the regime’s survival so great, and their greed for remaining in power and making more money so big, they will then make a deal. We will be told that Obama is a great statesman who has achieved a big success and rightly won the Nobel Peace Prize. He will indeed have prevented Iran from going nuclear, at least for a while.
Or Iran will use the chance to talk endlessly and build nuclear weapons while the administration’s hints of dire retribution will prove to be bluffs as the leaders in Tehran expect. The year 2013 will pass without any deal. During Obama’s second term, Iran will either get nuclear weapons or have everything needed to do so but will not actually assemble them for a while. U.S. policy will then accept that situation and shift to a containment strategy.
I’d bet on the latter outcome. But we are now going to see a campaign insisting that a peaceful resolution with Iran is at hand and ridiculing anyone who has doubts about this happy ending.