Thursday, October 4, 2007

The North Korean Deal and Iran

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.

19 comments:

Arnold Evans said...

The post is right that the US demand is that Iran give up all domestic enrichment.

Further, the US demand is that Iran must give up domestic enrichment for free. The US is not willing to exchange any substantial reduction of its unilateral sanctions for an enrichment moratorium because those sanctions can only be lifted in exchange for an Iranian acceptance or reduction of hostility with Israel.

The US strategy is to get other countries to impose new sanctions that can be exchanged for an enrichment moratorium.

Don Bacon said...

It makes a nice narrative, but it is naive to think that a client of China, on its border, gave up nuclear weapons because of US negotiating skills. Obviously China told Kim: 'Do it'.

It is also naive to believe that the US will ever be seriously interested in negotiating in Iran. The drive for US hegemony in the Middle East, replacing that of the British, dates back beyond the Carter Doctrine to the overthrow of the democrat Mossadegh. The US empire demands domination of Iran through whatever means, and Israel demands no less as well.

arnold: The goalposts in the US-Iran contest have been moved. Enrichment failed as an issue and the new reason for war is "Iran's proxy war in Iraq". That may change as well (the WMD scare is a proven winner) but the objective remains the same. Iran is surrounded and must surrender or be beaten. Russia and China have interests, however, and Iran is no pushover, so US aggression will have higher costs, this time.tjqgqvr

Farideh Farhi said...

Don, It is of course true that negotiating skills do not explain the story but I think the urge for some sort of compromise, coming from china, South Korea or elsewhere, worked not only on NK but also on the US for a variety of reasons that will probably be better revealed in the future.

In the case of Iran, however, the urge for some sort of compromise that allows Iran to take aways something from its encounter with the US does not yet exist. This explains the US strategy for the nuclear issue that Arnold talks about but also the shifting of goalposts.

The question, it seems to me, is whether there are ways to get out of the US-Iran confrontation that will allow both sides to claim at least some sort of partial victory (win-win, if you will). I think there is and I think at least a large of the Iranian leadership is pursuing policies that is trying to convince the United States that, given the fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran's refusal to back down on the nculear file without getting something substantial in return, the US should begin to think about direct negotiations with Iran for the sake of regional stability and so on. Will it work? I agree that there is a big if there.

For the Bush administration, the maximalist strategy of forcing Iran to back down publicly is unlikely to be abandoned. But the question still remains about the costs of such a policy pursued both in terms of the dangers it might entail as well as lost opportunites.

Don Bacon said...

farideh,
The North Korean deal is fascinating and complex, with the inevitable re-unification of Korea somewhere in the future. An independent, unified Korea has been resisted by the US, and I suspect that the recent meeting in Pyongyang was not favored by the US.

I see Iran differently: They don't ned anything because they control the situation. What do they need? Even the US pressure is helping them unify. Hardliners in Iran? No, they have been willing to negotiate for years, and have made offers. It is the uS, refusing to talk, that has been the 'hardliner'.

The US will not seriously negotiate because, as I wrote above, it needs to dominate the ME. It's not possible to negotiate hegemony. Iran has it and the US wants it, and right now can't figure out a way to get it. Iran is in the heart of SW Asia and on the Caspian rim. It is supported by Russia and China, and friendly with India, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The common US story that they are outcasts is not true--Iran even has (commercial) support in Europe. Putin is scheduled to attend a Caspian Rim conference in Teheran Oct 16th. Should be some statements from that.

The basic turmoil stirred up by the US is serving it well--lots of money being made. Korea and Palestine still aren't settled after fifty-odd years, on purpose. The US hopes to widen the Iraq conflict to Iran--why not?

Anonymous said...

The nuclear issue isn't really the problem - that's just a convenient pretext. So, whether Iran gives up enrichment or not won't make a difference - the US will find some other reason for hassling Iran. The problem boils down to a strategic competition between Israel and Iran, and Israel doesn't want to lose its strategic value in the eyes of the US to a rising Iran.

Mark Pyruz said...

The Iran-Korea comparison doesn't work. North Korea is a rump state, separating China from the military forces of the United States. Iran is certainly no rump state.

Iran is the big winner of the war in Iraq. The US invasion of 2003 brought with it the two main Iranian war aims of the Iran-Iraq War: the removal of Sadaam and the establishment of a Shia dominated government in Iraq.

As to the issue of nuclear power, Iran expects it to be a bumpy road, just as Turkey's road is bumpy towards membership in the EU. Sure, the Iranian road has been threatened by foreign military action, but such moves would provide the Iranian regime with certain political advantages, and it knows it. There's much greater risk to the West's economies by such a rash move.

Mohamad ElBaradei is probably correct when he says that there will not be any diplomatic progress made between the US and Iran without a change of US Administrations. For his part, he has been valuable in promoting peaceful resolution.

Farideh Farhi said...

I think the thrust of all the comments here is the fact that the Iran-US confrontation, or whatever you want to call, it is about much more than Iran's nuclear program. And I agree without hesitation! The key issue of whether the Bush Administration is in any way capable of defining the confrontation as anything but a challenge to Aemrican hegemony is an open question but I also doubt it. But the Bush Administration (and Israeli hardliners)notwithstanding, questions related to Iran's intentions in the region, the way it is trying to estabish its place in the region, and whether Iran's prominent role in the region necessarily undermines American interests need to be explored in much more reasoned way.

Mark Pyruz said...

Well, the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan certainly served the interests of the Iran. Obviously, with the unleashing of US military force to knockout Sadaam Hussein to the west and the Taliban to the east, these two strokes of US foreign policy inadvertently provide Iran with quite a bit of elbow room from which to flex its muscles.

Iran's prominent role undermining American interests in the region? In the present context, it does so by serving the Shia dominated government in Iraq with a regional, political counterbalance to the dictates and wishes of occupational authority. Iran's political, social and economic influence now projects westward to Baghdad, southward to Basra and eastward to Herat. What's more, the inability of the US military to win the war in Iraq, let alone maintain any sort of consistent order, serves to undermine the US, diplomatically, in the eyes of the Gulf States, driving them to explore possible accommodation with Tehran over matters as sensitive as regional security and even nuclear power. This goes a long way to explain the exaggerated US Navy presence on display in the Gulf, with no less than three Aircraft Carriers in current deployment.

Ms. Fahri, I'll expand your general discussion one step further. What are the relative difficulties in improving US-Iran relations? At this moment in time, it is my opinion that the position of the US is far more difficult to overcome than that of Iran. Powerful political forces in Washington are intolerant of any sincere reconciliation, going so far as to express open belligerency. Equally difficult, and far more durable is the dominating bully power projected by the Israel lobby.

Alternatively, as I see it, the quickest and surest recipe for effecting change in Iran today is a) the normalization of US relations with Iran, b) the withdrawal of all sanctions and frozen assets and c) the undeterred, opening up to Iran of Western investment, particularly from the United States. Iran's economy would take off like a rocket ship, and social change would take place in the blink of an eye, enabling a return to certain euphoric political aspirations of the 1979 revolution that were overtaken by traumatic events and the Iran-Iraq War. This would serve equally the interests of Iran and the West.

Nell said...

Thanks to all the commenters here and to Farideh Farhi for engaging their comments.

Could I ask you to give your reaction to this post by Brian Ulrich about moves made by the new head of the IRGC? (And/or suggest any other places on the web where the topic's been discussed.)

Thanks!

Mark Pyruz said...

Personally, I didn't find anything illuminating in that perspective.

The United States has positioned three USN aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. USAF warplanes have also been positioned within striking distance. And the current US Administration has made the suggestion many times of using force against Iran.

Of course the Pasdaran is on a heightened state of alert. Of course greater coordination between the Pasdaran and Basij is actively being pursued. This is perfectly natural, as are intensified efforts toward better internal security.

So I suppose I'd make the contention that it would be grossly irresponsible for Iran's armed forces and security agencies not to be putting these moves into effect.

Mark Pyruz said...

Additional commentary for Nell:

In terms of Iranian defense, observers and analysts should expect Iran's armed forces and security agencies to conduct themselves in much the same manner as most other republics of the world. The Pasdaran and Basij should not be considered exceptional in this regard. Like the Iran-Iraq War and the 2nd Lebanon War, it will be the use of Islamic paramilitary formations that will figure prominently in the defense of the country.

In terms of expectations, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that Pasdaran planners have envisioned a variety of responses to US strikes against its territory, in terms of both time and space. Expect the two primary theaters of operation to include assets in and around the Persian Gulf and an escalation of hostilities inside Iraq.

In the Persian Gulf theater, success would be measured in terms of actual hits, damage inflicted and, importantly, sustainability of hostilities. The longer they can maintain an active hitting capacity, the greater the damage to Western economies, the better the chances of generating an internationally declared intervention with terms favorable to Iran.

In the projected Iraq theater, expect an influx of more advanced infantry weapons confronting US military forces on the battlefield. These would include more advanced ATGM's and MANPADS, among other infantry and rocket weapons, which are contained in Iranian inventories but have been held back for this reason and another.

Wars offer political opportunities to both attacker and defender. It can also be expected that certain Iranian political elements have identified advantages to a war between the US and Iran. For them, it would represent a return to the solidarity the Iranian nation experienced during much of the Iran-Iraq War. However, it should be pointed out that Iran has not been provoked into actually starting war with the US. If and when a war does break out, it will be a war that casts the US as attacker and Iran as defender.

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add32 said...

True
Further, the US demand is that Iran must give up domestic enrichment for free.

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