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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