The Bush Administration has reportedly struck a deal with North Korea. Non-proliferation folks will undoubtedly argue for a while about the specifics of the deal with two questions in mind: whether this was a good deal and whether an even better deal could have been struck many years ago. John Bolton will undoubtedly continue to cry foul. However, relying on Fred Kaplan’s fine analysis of a while ago, my sense is that the answer to both of these questions will be yes. But I will leave it to others better informed about North Korea and East Asian dynamics to judge.
What interests me is the underlying logic that made the deal possible. According to Michael Hirsh, the deal was struck under the premise succinctly articulated by the lead American negotiator, Christopher Hill. “To get something in this world, you’ve got to give something,” he said. I say, Amen! Now that Christopher Hill has managed to strike a deal with North Korea, can he replace Nicholas Burns as the head honcho on Iran and start cooking something with evil’s last remaining axis?
Apparently not! This is what George Bush said on October 3rd in Lancaster county in response to a question posed by a 10th-grade student who asked him why he would not negotiate directly with Iranian leaders: "For diplomacy to work, the other side needs as much or more from you as you need from them."
Now this is an interesting formulation and something that did not simply come out of the blue. The way it looks George Bush has thought a lot about his “Iran problem” and has found the reason for not negotiating with Iran over issues that concern the United States in the weakness of the American hand because the Iranians do not need the US to change or give up things as much as the US needs Iran to change.
Setting aside the curious, or more accurately mendacious, linguistic substitution of “needs” for “demands” that have been the hallmark of US policy vi's-à-vis Iran since 2002, the presupposition of a weak negotiating hand without any attempted crack at actual negotiation is revealing in so far it suggests a prior knowledge of what Tehran will settle for irrespective of the process of direct and multi-faceted negotiation.
More specifically, it suggests a belief that the minimum bar for which Iran settles for at this point is not good enough for the U.S. It also reveals that all the strategizing to pressure and challenge Iran economically, politically, and even militarily is to change the dynamics so that the Iranians end up lowering that minimum bar because they are pushed into a position to “need as much or more” from the United States.
At what point, if ever, the United States will come to realize, given the American troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan and given the contested domestic terrain of Iran, that this strategy of forcing Iran to lower its minimum bar will not work, I do not know. It is also not yet clear whether the United States will come to realize, again given its troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan, that Iran is a sufficiently significant player in the region that lack of engagement with it is detrimental to the U.S. objectives and interests in the Middle East.
What I do know is that serious negotiations with Iran is not being considered because despite the stalled sanctions process the Bush administration thinks that it can pressure Iran to lower its minimum bar. On this, I am pretty sure they are mistaken.
Given the porous nature of Iran’s border, the Iranians will adapt to the more serious financial sanctions regime of the coalition of the willing while the U.S. will have increasing difficulty in tightening the sanctions noose; a tightening that needs to continue for sanctions to be effective. This will be so because given the technical know how already achieved the Iranian offer on the table – which includes full cooperation with the IAEA and the implementation of a robust inspection regime in return for an end to “western confrontation” – will look increasingly reasonable to most countries in the world.
But for the Bush administration it is not the increasing contextual reasonableness that counts but the belief that negotiations with Iran without pre-conditions are too high a price for the U.S. to pay, no matter what.
This is an increasingly dangerous strategy because, like the way the years of non-negotiation did with North Korea, it may encourage Iran to be “naughty” in order to pull the U.S. out of this non-negotiation mode. This is particularly so now that at least the hardliners in control of Iran have become confident that a U.S. military attack is out of the question. So situational challenges and what in Iran has come to be known as “aggressive foreign policy,” instead of the previous president Khatami's criticized “passive” approach may not be as feared as before.
At the end of the day, however, like the years of non-negotiation with North Korea, the U.S. strategy may end up being counter-productive or simply dumb because less better deals may be the ultimate result for the United States as well as other countries in the region.