Will the Iran Negotiations Be Too Big to Fail?

On February 29, Secretary of State Clinton assured the House Foreign Affairs Committee — in absolute terms, three separate times – the Obama administration’s policy was not simply to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but a nuclear weapons capability.  She assured Howard Berman (D-CA) “it’s absolutely clear that the president’s policy is to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons capability.” She reiterated the policy to Eliot Engel (D-NY), and reiterated it again to Gary Ackerman (D-NY).


The “absolutely clear” policy lasted until the White House could get a hold of the New York Times. On March 2, unnamed “administration officials” told the New York Times that Clinton had “misspoken.”

The same day as the Times report, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg posted the transcript of his interview with the president, in which Obama repeatedly phrased his policy as preventing Iran from “getting a nuclear weapon.” At AIPAC, Obama used the same formulation: “obtaining a nuclear weapon.” At various times in the past, Obama has phrased his position as preventing Iran from “getting,” “obtaining,” “acquiring,” or “deploying” a nuclear weapon. Each verb connotes a policy that makes actual acquisition the red line, rather than a nuclear weapons capability.

The significance of the “capability” versus “acquisition” issue is that it impacts the timing of a U.S. military response. The administration argues that Iran is “rational” (in Gen. Dempsey’s view) and “self-interested” (as Obama told Goldberg), and that sanctions will thus eventually work. On the other hand, Israel believes Iran is already approaching a nuclear weapons capability, and building underground facilities impervious to Israeli attack, fundamentally changing the strategic and security situation even if the bomb is not manufactured until later. In Israel’s view, even if sanctions might arguably work — which is speculative — the time for them to work is running out.

Thus Israel believes the U.S. red line has been set at a point that will not be reached until it is too late for Israel to act. That would leave Israel dependent on a future decision by a U.S. president to go to war — based on a pledge to use “all options” that is (as Secretary Clinton would say) “unenforceable.” According to the Washington Post, a “senior administration official” said after the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, “Our red line is a nuclear weapon, and we didn’t change our policy” — which means the administration did not change its timing, leaving the U.S. red line at a point beyond Israel’s ability to strike.


The Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. officials said a red line of nuclear weapons “capability” would be too ambiguous. But the difference between (1) a red line set far down the field (indeed right next to the goal line), and (2) an ambiguous red line set at an earlier point, is that the former effectively incentivizes Iran to continue marching down the field, whereas the latter would make Iran nervous now, rather than later.

If faced only with the first alternative, a rational and self-interested Iran will likely decide to continue its present course, perhaps negotiating a “framework agreement” or a “joint statement” of principles that will later break down, and eventually present the U.S. with a fait accompli — which is exactly what happened with respect to North Korea.

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.



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