Incentives remain at the core of the negotiating strategy which the United States and its allies have toward the Islamic Republic of Iran and its nuclear program. Tracing the Western approach is an exercise in frustration as retired diplomats and Iran’s apologists blame the United States for Iran’s failure to make a deal, even as the pot which American diplomats offer grows increasingly rich.
Too often, once a diplomatic initiative is begun, the process becomes more important than the results. Sometimes it is useful to revert to the 100,000 foot level and question basic assumptions. First, does Iranian behavior suggest that incentives work? The answer is no: Since German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel unveiled the concept of “Critical Engagement” back in 1992, successive generations of European and American governments have been trying to entice Iran. Sometimes they referred to a China model, in which economic liberalization would lead (in theory) to political liberalization; at other times they suggested that returning the Iranian regime to the community of nations would lead it to become a more responsible partner; and still other times they were downright mercantilist, trying to buy Iranian compliance. While the Iranian regime was always willing to encourage a sweetening of the pot, at no time has its behavior suggested that such a strategy will work.
From day one of his first term, President Obama has made outreach to Iran a central pillar of his foreign policy. He spoke of reconciliation in his first inaugural address and, a week later, he told Al-Arabiya in his first television interview, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Both Obama’s supporters and the Iranian government embraced his willingness to talk: Diplomats and partisans sharply juxtaposed Obama’s posture with that of President George W. Bush, never mind that Bush won repeated unanimous UN Security Council resolutions and so achieved the same thing that Obama had—multilateral diplomatic blessing—only with greater frequency. What Bush did not do was stop Iran’s nuclear progress. But neither has Obama. The Iran failure has truly been bipartisan.
Obama has fumbled additional opportunities, however. When Iranians rose up in 2009, he remained aloof and indifferent until it was too late. At the very least, he might have used his bully pulpit to offer moral support to the Iranian people. Now, if reports are to be believed, Obama once again seeks to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by justifying silence on Syria—Iran’s most important client state—in order to keep the door to negotiations open. Chuck Hagel, too, has dedicated much of his Senate and post-Senate career to outreach to Iran’s ayatollahs.
This week National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper delivered the 2013 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The document reflects the latest chapter in the cautionary tale about American intelligence and diplomatic failures on the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
In the 2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the intelligence community told Congress “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” In the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment was “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.” In the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment now is that “North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States.” In other words, in the last two years North Korea has gone from (a) having only a nuclear weapons “capability,” to (b) having nuclear weapons, to (c) having nuclear weapons and missile programs that “pose a serious threat” to the United States.
The New York Times had a fascinating article on the latest Korean crisis the other day which noted that two-thirds of South Koreans now support developing their own nuclear deterrent–a radical idea for a nation that has been such a close American ally for decades but one that is gaining strength among some foreign policy elites. Significantly, it is not just the increasingly shrill line from Pyongyang which is causing alarm in the South. There are also doubts about the reliability of the U.S. as a protector. The Times notes
Beyond the immediate fear of a military provocation, analysts say deeper anxieties are also at work in the South. One of the biggest is the creeping resurgence of old fears about the reliability of this nation’s longtime protector, the United States. Experts say the talk of South Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons is an oblique way to voice the concerns of a small but growing number of South Koreans that the United States, either because of budget cuts or a lack of will, may one day no longer act as the South’s ultimate insurance policy.
In an article yesterday, placed prominently in the center of the New York Times op-ed page, Bill Keller wrote that if he were faced with only two choices — (a) Iran with a bomb, or (b) bombing Iran — he would “swallow hard” and live with a nuclear Iran.
It is not clear from his op-ed why any swallowing would be involved on his part: in his view: (1) it is “hard to believe the aim of an Iranian nuclear program is the extermination of Israel;” (2) the worry about a regional nuclear arms race is “probably an exaggerated fear;” and (3) “history suggests that nuclear weapons make even aggressive countries more cautious.” It seems like an easy choice for him.