Analysis: Dangerously misreading Iran

Analysis Dangerously mi

The dominant explanation that is emerging for Iran's recent rejection of the P5+1 nuclear fuel proposal is internal Iranian politics. Analysts explain that Iran is torn internally and unable to make up its mind in light of conflicting tendencies. This explanation, however, is heavily influenced by the aftermath of the June elections, and reflects a dangerous tendency to focus on this development as if it were an isolated event, rather than one more stage in an unfolding saga. The confusion emanating from Iran is simply the most recent manifestation of a well-known pattern that has been repeated in different forms for close to seven years. The "yes, no, maybe" answers from Iran are the tactic that serves its overall strategy in the nuclear realm. A well-known proliferation expert in the US recently reflected the dominant view in an interview, and exposed its weaknesses. He contended that Ahmadinejad's tentative initial positive response to the deal indicated that the deal was very good from Iran's point of view. And on this basis he then explained the ultimate rejection: "The deal actually is very good for Iran, and so the explanation for the turnaround is Iranian politics." But both the premise and the conclusion are anything but axiomatic. As to the premise: this is certainly not the first time that Ahmadinejad has made a conciliatory statement, leaving analysts somewhat puzzled about his intentions. Thus jumping from a conciliatory statement to the conclusion that the deal is good for Iran is an unwarranted leap, especially in the absence of supporting evidence. Indeed the deal is good for the US, less so for Iran. Iran is loath to give up its stocks of enriched uranium or otherwise cause delay in its nuclear program. The only way the deal could be conceived as good for Iran would be if Iran had changed its basic motivation in the nuclear realm, and there is no indication that this has happened. And then comes the conclusion, namely, if the deal is so obviously good for Iran, rejection can only be explained by internal political bickering. While the internal political situation in Iran is quite dynamic at present and could very well be affecting the nuclear issue, the current dynamic is too similar to patterns we have witnessed in the past to reach this conclusion. We saw similar Iranian hesitation with regard to the Russian proposal to enrich uranium in late 2005 and toward various significant offers of carrots from the EU-3 throughout the past years. Hesitation and back and forth movement is an Iranian tactic, used to buy time and test the seriousness of the international community's threats of consequences. Misreading Iran's behavior can have serious negative implications for negotiating with it. The shortsighted view misses the fact that the dynamic of the Iranian government is a race against the clock - on the one hand the pace of Iran's nuclear advances, and on the other, the determination of international efforts to stop it. Iran is mainly focused on the international reactions to its behavior, in order to assess the degree to which it must cooperate to ward off the harshest measures. For Iran, it's all about tactics. Therefore, even with regard to the rejected fuel deal, it has cleverly not completely shut the door. This is because the international community might still get tough. If it does, Iran will recalculate; but as long as it doesn't, Iran has no reason to accept the deal. The deciding factor for Iran is the price it will have to pay for refusal. And so far, a serious price does not seem to be forthcoming. For negotiations to be successful, the US must understand Iran's strategy, and look at the situation from Iran's point of view. If Iran senses that there is no cost for its behavior, why would it change course when it is so close to its goal of a military capability? Emily B. Landau is the director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project, Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University.