Will the Iran Negotiations Be Too Big to Fail?

In 2003, the U.S. president declared he would not “tolerate” a North Korean nuclear weapon; insisted on dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program; applied crippling sanctions -- and left office with a nuclear weapons capable North Korea in place. According to the latest U.S. intelligence estimate, North Korea has in fact “produced nuclear weapons.”

In the Clinton administration, a principal cause of the failure of its peace process diplomacy was (according to Dennis Ross) American unwillingness ever to call it to a halt when commitments were not upheld; it was too big to fail, but never succeeded. The Bush administration negotiations with North Korea likewise continued indefinitely, as Secretary of State Rice continually sought one more “breakthrough” -- even after North Korea tested a nuclear device and transferred nuclear weapons technology to Syria. She got several agreements she described as “breakthroughs,” and all were violated, but she kept negotiating all the way to the end of the Bush administration.

When negotiations are viewed as too big to fail, they have an inherent tendency to continue indefinitely, with the failures explained away. A clearly conveyed willingness to end negotiations within a set time frame is necessary for negotiations to succeed.

At AIPAC on March 6, Defense Secretary Panetta said, “Military action is the last alternative when all else fails; but make no mistake, when all else fails, we will act.” But will the administration really proclaim a failed process if Iran agrees to partial steps and hopeful-sounding principles, then fails fully to implement them and urges further negotiations? Who will declare that a process that is too big to fail has failed?

The Obama administration is unlikely to declare negotiations a failure and activate the Panetta pledge, because negotiations that are too big to fail continue even after they have failed. Look at the North Korea experience and the Palestinian peace process, both of which ran nearly two decades, and now feature a nuclear-armed North Korea and a new terrorist mini-state in Gaza -- and calls for more negotiations. The nature of negotiations that are too big to fail is that no one ever wants to declare them a failure.

Iran is also unlikely to construct a nuclear weapon until all the materials, facilities, and processes are in place, and its later decision to build a bomb will be made secretly. Israel is not likely to rely on a U.S. pledge to stop Iran at the last possible moment (what John Bolton has called “just in time” deterrence), or to outsource to politicized U.S. intelligence agencies the decision about when that moment has arrived, or to depend upon the oral promise of a president who reneged on the written promises of his predecessor.

On March 5, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr told 13,000 people, “no nation can gamble its sovereignty and security on perfect knowledge of a clandestine effort by an avowed enemy,” and “Israel was created to ensure that the Jewish people would never have to put their fate in the hands of others.” Those principles are likely to guide the Israeli response to Iran negotiations that turn out to be too big to fail (and thus too important ever to end).

The U.S. may be prepared to negotiate indefinitely, in the hope sanctions will eventually change Iran’s mind. But Israel is unlikely to rely on hope and change; at some point, it will more likely conclude that “we can’t wait” -- perhaps this year, perhaps later. The Atlantic has put together an “Iran War Clock,” which averages the predictions of a panel of 22 experts (including PJ Media’s Barry Rubin) on the likelihood of war in the next 12 months. Currently the panel puts the odds at 48 percent.

Ironically, negotiations might succeed if the U.S. projected a credible threat of force sooner rather than later. The most unfortunate aspect of the administration’s backtracking from Clinton’s February 29 articulation of administration policy is that her statement implied a unified American-Israeli position and a threat of more timely U.S. force -- which may be the only thing that might make negotiations succeed.