Friday, October 31, 2014


Outpost Washington

Haggling Over Iranian Nukes

Ahmadinejad shows off a centrifuge to mark the National Nuclear Day day in Tehran on April 9, 2010.
Ahmadinejad shows off a centrifuge to mark the National Nuclear Day day in Tehran on April 9, 2010.
People in Washington have all sorts of theories about the Iranian nuclear program. But it's rare to hear someone offer a take that actually takes the psychology of Iranian negotiators into account.
 
On July 13, the day that Russia laid out a "step-by-step" approach to resolve Iran's nuclear imbroglio, your Outpost correspondent attended a panel on Iranian nuclear strategy at the Hudson Institute, one of Washington's conservative think tanks. One of the people on the panel was Peter Jones, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and an expert on nonproliferation and security in the Middle East. His analysis of the complicated Iranian nuclear issue was a breath of fresh air in an environment where so many experts in Europe, the United States, and Israel are either looking for a speedy resolution to the issue or advocating decisive action against Iran, including a strike against its nuclear sites.
 
Jones made the case that the military option wouldn't really solve the problem in the long term. First, it would strengthen the stance of the hard-liners and instantly rally the population around a regime that right now is deeply unpopular and struggling to boost its legitimacy. Second, Iran would end its cooperation with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), drive the program even further underground, and make the regime that much more determined to pursue its nuclear program. "Large-scale military action [against Iran] over a long period of time is politically unsustainable," Jones said.
 
As far as sanctions are concerned, he acknowledged that they do have an effect. One problem is that Iranian nuclear scientists tend to be faster at achieving results than sanctions are. Another is the high price of oil, which tends to dilute the impact of sanctions. Nevertheless, he saw the refusal of the international community to buy Iranian oil as a possible game-changer.
 
For Jones, diplomacy -- especially in combination with what he called "indirect action" (meaning, presumably, sabotage) -- is an option that may either bear fruit or at least raise the cost to Iran of pursuing its program. Diplomacy may be "frustrating" or even "maddening," he noted, but often negotiations seem to be the only way forward.
 
And it was here that Jones touched on the psychological aspect of negotiations with Iranian officials. "Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of buying a carpet in Tehran will know that negotiations are very difficult," he said. "It is a long process. You drink lots of tea and you have lots of inconclusive discussions, and [Iranians] are very good at having a bottom line but not letting you know what it is and making you search for it. It is a very difficult process."
 
Here he alluded to John Limbert's excellent book "Negotiating with Iran." Limbert is a veteran U.S. diplomat, a fluent Persian speaker who was held captive during the Iran hostage crisis. He is, in short, someone who can't be accused of excessive sympathy for the mullahs. Building on Limbert's observations, Jones suggested that negotiators keep a few basic principles in mind. First, "the past matters to [Iranians]" -- meaning, basically, keep in mind the potent combination of Iran's historical greatness, its recent weakness, and the sense of grievance that sometimes results. Second, the Islamic republic's priority is survival. Third, "it is up to [the Iranians] define their interests." We may not think that Iranians need civilian nuclear power -- but for us to begin the process of negotiations by telling them that they have no need for a nuclear program is a good way to undermine the whole exercise.

For those in the West who argue that Iranians are "crazy," and that all they understand is force and threats, Jones had this to say: "I don't know if you've ever had the pleasure of dealing with truly crazy people, but slapping them around rarely makes them more sensible. It just tends to confirm the paranoias that made them crazy in the first place."

Jones alluded to another of Limbert's rules by noting that Iranians tend to respect power and despise weakness. "Appearing weak in the face of outside pressure is fatal in the brutal world of Iranian politics. You will not last a second under those circumstances. I have seen many circumstances [in which] a very good deal, a very good deal from the Iranian point of view, would be walked away from, if it makes the Iranians look weak."

And what about regime change? Jones noted that the Islamic republic has already survived a brutal revolution and survived a vicious war with Iraq that took hundreds of thousands of lives. It is a complex and multiheaded regime and perhaps nothing but a "massive internal uprising" can bring it down.

"If the present regime does fall, there is no guarantee that what would eventually replace it would be any better for us," Jones said. "It almost certainly would be no less interested in acquiring a nuclear option because in many ways the nuclear option is not seen as Islamic.... It is seen as a hard rational choice made by them based on their history and their geostrategic situation."

He concluded his comments by saying that there is no real answer to Iran's nuclear program but a combination of diplomacy, sanctions and indirect action. Stopping the program in its track or rolling it back is not possible. Western countries should find an Iranian nuclear program that they can live with and find ways to contain it. Deterrence has worked in the past, he said. There's no reason why it can't work again.

-- Hossein Aryan

Tags: Iranian nuclear program

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by: Vineet from: Canada
July 18, 2011 19:15
We are not talking of carpets here. This is a very rational regime hell bent on Middle East domination. if it behanve this way withot a bomb, what after it?

Its all wishful thinking that indirect action and sanction will stop them. A decapitating attack is already planned to the last details. yes, it will be terribly painful and debilitating, but Israel and other allies, Guld countries included, know that the alternate is horrendous.

by: staly from: france
July 18, 2011 19:55
@Vineet

its an affirmation that you support, but nothing allow you to said that .the mullah are no less rational. the military option is clearly the worst of all. I prefer a nuclear Iran to a nuclear Israel. and I prefer to live with a nuclear Iran, than the economic consequences of such a war. I do not see really what the Gulf countries are allies of Israel, no Arab country will never fights alongside Israel.

by: Quinterius from: USA
July 18, 2011 22:17
This article continues the common trend of fear-mongering about the imaginary Iranian nuclear weapons. It is as if people have been imprinted like little chicks with the idea that Iran is intent on building nuclear weapons. Well, how incompetent do they have to be to have been trying for 10 or 12 years, according to reports by the Western countries, and they are still not there?

The fact is that all this discussion is a total waste of time. Iran is not even paying attention to these ridiculous discussions. Iran is not wasting a penny on nuclear weapons (see numerous IAEA reports and the 2011 US NIE). Instead, Iran is busy building its industrial base. Let the Western powers waste all their time on these useless conferences where people waste their times talking about imaginary issues. These arguments are simply laughable.
In Response

by: AJ from: UK
July 19, 2011 15:20
exactly, let these so called experts rant at each other like crazy and arrogant people that they are. iran will continue its progress.
In Response

by: Anonymous
July 22, 2011 17:16
You've got it exactly right, I wish US and Canada could stop wasting time worrying about silly things and trying to start another war under false pretenses

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"Outpost Washington" looks at what's happening in the U.S. capital through the eyes of Washington-based RFE/RL journalists. Tired of hearing Washingtonians tell you about the rest of the world? It's our job to turn the telescope around and scrutinize events in Washington from a uniquely global perspective. 

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