At Large

What’s to Negotiate?

As far as Iran is concerned, as long is the U.S. is talking, the mullahs are winning.

By 2.5.08

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At the recent Herzliya conference former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said, "there is almost no chance that President Bush will approve a military strike against Iran before he leaves office." If there was once a credible military option, it has been undermined by the National Intelligence Estimate, or I should say the interpretation given to it.

The foreign policy establishment, from State Department unnamed sources to many of those at the Council for Foreign Relations, has responded to the NIE report by arguing a military strike is unnecessary since Iran can be deterred. Yet an Iran with nuclear weapons the international community could not prevent would be emboldened to pursue a variety of goals in an already volatile part of the world.

We do know that a nuclear Iran would assert regional dominance. It is apparent, since the release of the NIE report, that Iran has vigorously pursued diplomatic overtures with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It could be assumed that what they discussed are nuclear guarantees Iran will provide if Egypt and Saudi Arabia do not attempt to develop their own nuclear weapons. In this scenario, the United States is a mere bystander.

A second order threat posed by Iran with nuclear weapons is that it offers terror surrogates, Hamas and Hezbollah, a license to destabilize existing regimes with a reduced fear of retaliation Iran can derive these benefits without producing a weapon. All it has to do is get close: enrich enough uranium to produce a bomb, maintain a warhead development program, and secure delivery capability.

IS THE U.S. INOCULATED against a grand bargain in which Iran's regional dominance is acknowledged in return for non-deployment of nuclear weapons? It's doubtful, and even without the actual bomb, Iran might secure this concession.

Cheering on the sidelines would be Russia and China eager to diminish United States' influence in the Middle East and eager as well to either obtain oil for a growing economy as is the case with China or maintain high oil prices which benefit the relatively oil rich Russian economy.

Any way one looks at it, the U.S. would be bargaining from a position of weakness even if the mullahs were willing to bargain at all. After all, nuclear weapons represent an insurance policy for the survival of the regime and regional hegemony.

These weapons would also undermine the non-proliferation treaty and the role of the U.N. as an arbiter for stability, a role it has tended to exercise in the breach in any case. By thumbing its nose at the world, Iran can become a regional and arguably a world power capable of advancing its own agenda.

Rather than deter an enemy, which is the presumption behind evolving State Department logic, the administration will be deterred from actions. It is apparent in the five party talks with North Korea that the U.S. has very little leverage other than acting as a supplicant offering a carrot and yet another carrot to a rogue state with nuclear weapons.

IF IRAN CEASED its nuclear weapons program in 2003 as the NIE report asserts, it probably did not do so because of negotiation, another NIE assertion, but rather because of the American invasion of Iraq in that year. Guns often speak louder than words.

But counter force strategy used to deter Iran's nuclear weapon only works when you know what the mullahs want or are unwilling to give up. At the moment, intelligence about Iranian motives and strategy is deficient and in the face of theological politics, possibly irrational.

There is the belief advocated by Martin Indyk and Fareed Zakaria, among others that a Sunni-Shia rift can be exploited for America's advantage. This belief has the added merit, its adherents maintain, that it will bring largely Sunni nations such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt in alliance with Israel in order to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions or deter the use of an Iranian bomb.

However, evidence on the ground suggests the triumph of experience over hope. The Saudis may be scared to death of Iran, but their diplomats would prefer appeasement to confrontation. The spread of Shiism may be limited, but Iran is relentless in spreading its faith and has achieved some success in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, despite the fact there is distrust of Persian leadership in the Arab world.

Hezbollah has been vigorous in spreading Shia notions through the free distribution of books and pamphlets in Lebanon and Syria with titles like the "Sayings of Khomeini." It is also the case that converts to Shiism are often Alawites whose religious predilections are close to Shia beliefs. But the pamphlets do not only make the case for Shiism, they also reinforce anti-western sentiment.

Hezbollah controls the fate of stability in Lebanon and Iran's support for Hezbollah is dependent on spreading the Shia faith. It is not at all surprising that ninety thousand Maronite Christians have left or been forced out of Lebanon in the last few years. If there is a residual Shia-Sunni rift in Lebanon it is likely to be political, not religious. In fact, the Iranian mullahs often say "it is not a Shia Crescent we seek, but a full moon."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself has said he seeks a Muslim brotherhood under the slogan "the family that prays together, stays together." He indicated that any attempt to create a divide between Shia and Sunni is a Zionist plot to promote dissension.

In negotiation between Egypt and Iran, it was noted that "we are Muslim brothers. It is the Copts who are the enemy of Islam." In addition, sources noted that "religious dignity means solidarity." As the Iranians have noted time and again, "the bomb creates equilibrium with Zionism," the real enemy along with Israel's American benefactors.

If U.S. influence in the Middle East recedes because of a withdrawal from Iraq or because of pubic impatience with troop deployment in the region, extremism will grow and the anticipated battle of religious faiths within Islam will be little more than a fantasy.

IT HAS BEEN argued in the Iraq Study Group (ISG) report and by the Democratic candidates on the presidential campaign trail that we should engage the Iranian leadership in direct negotiation, that "jaw jaw is better than war war." So widespread is this belief that low level conversations with Iranian diplomats have been occurring for some time under the media radar.

The question, of course, is what can we say that European leaders haven't already said. They have offered a variety of blandishments from planes to money without getting the slightest concession from the Iranians. Well, that isn't entirely true since the Iranians have agreed to continue talking.

For many, that is a concession since they rely on the notion that process itself is the end rather than a means to an end. For the Iranians, negotiation is cover for the pursuit of its goals.

When the weapons are produced or near production, there will be nothing to talk about. At that point, we will beseech the Iranian leadership to act responsibly. But why should they? It is irresponsible behavior that has led to foreign policy rewards.

Negotiation offers another level of benefits for the Iranians. It conveys the impression at home that the regime cannot be toppled and it conveys the impression abroad that the regime is in place and regarded as legitimate by western powers.

Should the U.S. promote a full scale regime change strategy, which it is apparently unwilling to risk, the mullahs, in order to insure their tenure, might accelerate uranium enrichment or buy a bomb or two from North Korea as an insurance policy against a successful coup. This scenario also reinforces the rationale for negotiation.

In the end, if U.S. action is neutralized by its own intelligence estimates and the much ballyhooed sanctions do not work in forestalling Iranian development of the bomb, there is little to do but pray. The question at that point is whether one prays to God or Allah.

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About the Author

Herbert London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.