Iran: From coercion to agreement

The agreement and its preceding negotiation dynamics yet again provide worrying clues regarding the endgame of the Iranian nuclear crisis.

A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor 311 R (photo credit: Reuters/ Raheb Homavandi)
A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters/ Raheb Homavandi)
The Geneva interim agreement for the partial suspension of nuclear development by Iran is disturbing. Narrowing in on its terms, the agreement neither impacts Iran’s policy of pursuing nuclear weapons nor does it impact its capabilities to realize its stated policy. The agreement only deals with Iran’s behavior; it may change its behavior once again – unilaterally – if and when it finds such a change to be advantageous.
Broadening the picture, the agreement and its preceding negotiation dynamics yet again provide worrying clues regarding the endgame of the Iranian nuclear crisis.
The sanctions inflicted economic pain on Iran, yet Iran did not approach the negotiations from a position of ostensive despair. Perhaps because it calculated the advantages of turning to negotiations once it had practically reached the nuclear threshold, Iran’s posturing was fairly adamant, and it skillfully kept its positions vague while maintaining a maneuvering space. The US, on the other hand, did not approach the negotiations as the world’s sole superpower should. It radiated eagerness to avoid a diplomatic failure at almost any cost, hence a willingness to make considerable, previously unimagined concessions. This eagerness was transparent, and got in the way of employing any sophisticated negotiation strategy. American transparency and eagerness provided Iran with a convenient negotiating environment.
These dynamics supply powerful takeaways for the next stage of the Iranian nuclear crisis. On the face of things, US and Iranian policy objectives are conflicting and mutually exclusive; Iran wants a nuclear bomb and the US’s stated policy is that of “prevention, not containment.” Hence US strategy should focus on coercion, employ all means of national power.
Yet one can deduce from the Geneva interim agreement, from American behavior toward Iran in the past few years and from American behavior in other contemporary crises (from Syrian chemical weapons to the Japanese Senkaku Islands), that the Obama administration seems to prioritize risk- and cost-aversion over the realization of its stated policy objectives. For this reason, the US is probably no longer seeking to coerce Iran to forsake its policy objective of acquiring nuclear weapons, rather it is now attempting to reach a mutually acceptable political equilibrium with Iran.
And here is the key point: once the US has moved away from coercion toward a mutually- agreed negotiated resolution, the range of possible endgames for the crisis has changed accordingly.
A different range of ways and means translates into a different spectrum of potential ends. If the stated policy objectives of the US and Iran are a zero-sum game (as they are), and if the Obama administration is now giving Iran a vote on the end state, then something must give: the new zone of potential endgames cannot include the realization of the clearly-defined American policy objective. At the very least, it must include a new political equilibrium in which Iran is a nuclear threshold country, which undercuts prior American red lines and UN Security Council resolutions.
The Geneva interim pact also provides Israel with two somber takeaways toward the endgame. First, Israeli influence over the multilateral diplomatic track is minimal, if it exists at all. Second, the diplomatic track’s endgame is unlikely to meet Israel’s minimal criteria for defending its most vital national interest.
The rational conclusions are that Israel must develop tracks in parallel to the diplomatic track that allow it to act unilaterally; and that it must reclaim a veto right on the endgame.
In plain words, Israel has run out of options besides either accepting Iran as a nuclear threshold country that will sooner or later break out to a nuclear weapon, or executing the military option. The purpose of the military track is not material (degrading nuclear capabilities) but rather political (a unilateral veto on intolerable diplomatic endgames).
No doubt diplomacy will be indispensable in the push toward the crisis’ end state. But, since diplomacy is based on mutually accepted negotiated solutions, and the context is a crisis in which the two respective ends are mutually exclusive, diplomacy cannot be the sole means. Nor can strategy be based on a “zero-risk, zero-cost” directive, as this means that the risk-taking opponent must prevail. The clear-cut US and Israeli policy objective can only be realized via coercion and friction.The author is a reservist in the Israel Air Force’s Campaign Planning Department and the author of several books on Israeli national security.