How Not To Negotiate With Iran

05.29.13 9:15 PM ET

Yesterday, Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, both with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, published an op-ed in the Washington Post laying out what they think is the best way to corral Iran's nuclear program. They wrote that the baseline goal for Iran policy now must be to get Iranian leaders to "feel that when the United States says the time for diplomacy is running out, we mean it—and that the consequence is likely to be the use of force." Either through sources unknown to us or by interpreting Iranian actions, Ross and Makovsky have divined the Iranians' true feelings on the matter: "Iranian leaders seem not to believe that we will use force if diplomatic efforts fail." 

That's the main goal here: make the Iranians believe we are serious about attacking. Ross and Makovsky's prescription for doing so hinges on ending talks over confidence-building measures and offering the Iranians a comprehensive deal that would end the dispute over their program, a sort of grand nuclear bargain. This offer would be take-it-or-leave it, amounting to an ultimatum to the Iranians: "It would signal that we mean what we say—that time is indeed running out," as if time must run out for its own sake even as Iran fails to take the most grave steps toward producing a nuclear weapon.

These ideas, though, suffer most from their own premises and assumptions. The first notable one is that Ross and Makovsky build on Obama's stated policy to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons; that is, a readiness to go to war to forestall Iranian progress. That's indeed the Obama administration's policy, but it's not clearly the right one to achieve its own goals. One of Ross and Makovsky's WINEP colleagues, the military analyst Jeffrey White, has said frankly that airstrikes on Iran's nuclear program would only delay its progress two or three years. That tracks closely with the findings of the Iran Project, a group of eminent former diplomats and foreign policy practitioners, as well as countless other analysts. What's more, the Iran Project and others have found a strike would harden its leaders' resolve to build a weapon. Ross, a former Obama adviser on these matters, and Makovsky don't deal with these possibilities.

Following that, they didn't consider that maybe the Iranians assume the U.S. is loathe to attack because an attack would be very bad for the U.S. itself: a potential wider war aside, if Obama or future presidents remain committed to prevention by any means and Iran was able to reconstitute its nuclear program in several years, forging ahead where they've so far failed to go (taking concrete steps toward building a weapon), the result would be either perpetual war—"mowing the lawn," as the Israeli euphemism has it—or invading and occupying Iran. Neither option seems palatable.

What's least clear in Ross and Makovsky's op-ed is the need to shift away from a confidence-building deal: they note that even with such a deal, Iran may be able to produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel sufficient for a bomb "almost as fast"—more than "30 to 40 days"—as they can now. But the most salient Iranian moves so far have reflected a hesitance to goad the U.S. and Israel precisely by crossing those thresholds laid out before them. The Post itself gave credit to Benjamin Netanyahu—albeit with some faulty logic—for causing the Iranians to slow their nuclear progress. What the Post didn't mention was that Obama has his own "red lines," which the Iranians haven't even approached. (I've written about the possibility that the Iranians might move beyond Netanyahu's "red line" in an effort to exploit the gap between it and Obama's.)

A confidence-building deal—an incremental step toward a broader agreement—might be necessary exactly because, as the moniker suggests, there is a tremendous lack of confidence between the two sides. "Clearly," wrote Ross and Makovsky, "if Iran is prepared to alter its nuclear program [with verifiable limitations], we should be prepared to lift the harsh economic sanctions." But, observing the political climate in Washington, it's not that clear at all. Congress and other Iran hawks hardly seem ready to take such steps: they've got their eyes on bills that would punish the families of sanctions violatorsinsist on effective regime change before sanctions can be lifted, and commit the U.S. to backing up Israeli military action. The sum total of these moves seem aimed at putting the kibosh on diplomacy. While Obama sets policy, the Iranians might be forgiven for thinking power centers in Washington aren't exactly priming their country for a big deal with the Islamic Republic.

"Deadlines are a two-way street," Dennis Ross wrote in his 2007 book, Statecraft. "You also have to be prepared to make your own hardest concessions." Is the Obama administration ready to defy Congress and do so? Probably not: the administration has objected to additional sanctions as a threat to diplomacy, but never put up a forceful fight against the measures, which all pass with flying colors. Deadlines "create the necessary pressure to overcome inherent reluctance to make hard decisions. They require great nerve and a sense of timing," Ross wrote in 2007. "They are certainly necessary, but they are not sufficient for reaching agreements." Yet Ross and Makovsky proffer a deadline exactly as the missing ingredient to striking a deal. When it does not get made, we will be at war.

The status quo with Iran isn't desirable, but it's so far held. "Iran does not cross any red lines, and we do not bomb," wrote Blake Hounshell last year, in perhaps the most concise summary of the current situation. "But how long can it last?" If you give Iran a make-or-break offer before its June 14 elections, as Ross and Makovsky suggested, and insist on a recourse to military force should Iran decline, the answer to Hounshell's question becomes disturbingly clear: not long at all.