Diplomacy is not ‘the best tool for Iran’

In advocating a renewed bilateral track, veteran US diplomat Nicholas Burns displays troubling naivete — and a flawed grasp of the nuclear standoff with Tehran

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, speaks during a parade commemorating National Army Day in April (photo credit: Vahid Salemi/AP)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, speaks during a parade commemorating National Army Day in April (photo credit: Vahid Salemi/AP)

In an August 16th op-ed in The Boston Globe entitled “Diplomacy is the best tool for Iran,” Nicholas Burns, a veteran US diplomat and director of the Aspen Strategy Group, made the case for moving the Iranian nuclear issue to the US-Iranian arena, and placing all issues on the table in a renewed bilateral negotiation. His rationale? An insight he developed in the wake of the latest Aspen meeting: “The US should do all it can to avoid war and look for another way to stop Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon.” In order to achieve this, Mr. Burns makes three suggestions: that the winner of the upcoming presidential elections create a direct channel between Washington and Tehran and begin an extended one-on-one negotiation with all issues on the table; that the US put far-reaching proposals on the table if diplomacy and negotiations are to succeed; and that the US take the reins of this crisis from Israel to give America more independence and at the same time protect Israel’s core interests.

It is hard to believe that anyone – not least Israel– would disagree with the conclusion that diplomacy is the preferred strategy for dealing with Iran. However, Burns gives the impression that diplomacy is a new idea that was never tried. Not only has a string of diplomatic initiatives been attempted for almost a decade, all of these efforts have met with failure. Indeed, Obama came into office with his hand outstretched to all US adversaries, and got a slap in return from Iran. The international community is currently at the end of a very long process in which not only has diplomacy been attempted over and over – in different formats, and with different states taking the lead – but it is indeed the only strategy that has been attempted so far.

Far from being the easy option, negotiations are the much more difficult policy option to carry to success

Therefore, the problem is not that diplomacy has not been attempted, but rather that the job was not done well. Far from being the easy option, negotiations are the much more difficult policy option to carry to success. This is the lesson from diplomacy with both Iran and North Korea over the past decade. In whatever format negotiations have been carried out, the constraints to successfully negotiating with a determined proliferator have surprisingly not been confronted head-on. First and foremost is the simple fact that Iran is not interested in a negotiated deal because it would mean giving up its long-held goal of attaining a military nuclear capability – a goal that it is close to achieving, and for which it has paid a heavy price. This means that to get Iran to negotiate seriously, its cost-benefit calculation will have to be profoundly altered. Massive pressure – sanctions and very credible messages regarding the possibility of military force – is essential in the attempt to get Iran more interested in cutting a deal.

Iran’s strategy and tactics in dealing with the international community stem from its basic goal. Looking at the issue in this way, all of Iran’s actions and reactions to the world can be easily explained, and even predicted. It also clarifies Iran’s behaviour at the negotiations table, where it will not budge an inch, and demands that its rights to enrich uranium be recognized and sanctions lifted. It promises little in return, and the failure of the recent round of talks is consistent with this pattern.

As for the prospect of direct US-Iran negotiations, had the op-ed been written three years ago, it would have been a more timely suggestion. One of us is on record advocating that Obama advance bilateral nuclear negotiations in late 2009 in order to escape the constraints of the multilateral P5+1 format. When negotiating with a single and determined actor like Iran, it is not advisable to have on the other side a group of six states that are not on the same page with regard to either the nature of the threat or the solution. This significantly weakens their hand in the negotiations setting, something Iran itself was well aware of and blatantly attempted to entrench by playing the divide-and-conquer game.

Three years ago, the situation with respect to Iran’s nuclear advances was very different. Iran had only a small stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent and had not begun enriching to 20 percent (which brings it very close to the military target of around 90 percent); the concealed Fordow uranium enrichment facility near Qom was on the verge of being uncovered; and the US was just coming into the negotiations loop with Iran, having previously left the field to the EU-3 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom). And although Iran had already reneged on its agreements with the EU-3 to suspend uranium enrichment, and was defying UN Security Council resolutions as it proceeded on its way to a military capability with little or no hindrance, there was still time for a serious negotiation with the US, and even for putting a number of additional regional issues on the table.

In the ensuing years, however, the situation has deteriorated considerably: Iran has accumulated enough enriched uranium, that if enriched to military grade would enable it to produce four-five nuclear weapons, and it has been found to have been working on the development of an explosive mechanism for a nuclear devise. It is enriching to 20 percent and moved some of this activity to the Fordow facility.Iran has skilfully played for time and gained it, has withstood all attempts for serious negotiations, has ignored the sanctions and other pressures that have been brought to bear, and has repeatedly threatened the continued existence of Israel in theMiddle East.

When negotiating with a single and determined actor like Iran, it is not advisable to have on the other side a group of six states that are not on the same page

So, when Burns suggests this idea today – and especially when he advocates putting all the issues related to 30 years of bilateral tensions on the table, which will complicate matters considerably – it is simply (and most unfortunately) too late.Iran is too advanced, and there is no time.

Is Burns really suggesting that the US now wait until every conceivable negotiations format is exhausted (and what would the definition of that be?) before moving to harsher strategies? If so, how does that square with the current US approach whereby it will move to harsher measures if it has indication that Iran has proceeded to weapons production. Would it come instead of that approach? In addition to it? Israel would surely be happy to leave the arena open for greater US initiative, as long as it is fully convinced that the US would act decisively to prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and that a policy of containment is not an acceptable fallback position.

As it stands, Burns’s proposal is odd and certainly comes much too late in the game. We do not know what went on at the Aspen meeting, but the resulting insight is sorely lacking.


Dr. Ephraim Asculai is a senior research associates at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. Dr. Emily B. Landau is Director of the Arms Control program at INSS, and the author of “Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation.”

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