Posted by: bmeverett | March 19, 2015

Negotiating with Iran


The Obama Administration’s negotiations with Iran have become one of the most controversial foreign policy issues in many years. Perhaps the core of this problem is how the President defines negotiations. For the sake of argument, let’s consider two different kinds of negotiation.

Type I involves two CEOs negotiating a merger of their companies. They agree on the technologies involved, the business models and the value of the merger. What they are negotiating is how the value of the merger will be split between the two companies, and perhaps what their individual roles will be in the new firm. They both recognize, however, that failure would be bad for both and have a strong incentive to come to an agreement. The negotiations may get heated, but generally take place in a cordial atmosphere with both sides accepting the good faith of the other. The agreement takes the form of a set of promises, which each side believes the other will keep. Both anticipate a long-term relationship where honesty and goodwill will remain valued.

Type II involves a police SWAT team negotiating with a bank robber holding hostages inside the bank. Although this situation is also a negotiation, it’s very different. This is not a cordial, “let’s have dinner together” type of negotiation. The police are trying to limit severely the bank robber’s options: either release the hostages and surrender or risk being killed. Agreement is reached only through action, not promises. No relationship here. No goodwill.

For most of the post-war period, the State Department has tended to see all negotiations with other countries as Type I. Assume that your negotiating partner is reasonable and that there is a solution that will meet the needs of both parties. Treat promises as substantive concessions. This approach is fine if we’re negotiating lumber trade with Canada, but not if we are negotiating with rogue states, the international equivalent of criminals.

Neville Chamberlain made this mistake in his negotiations with Hitler at Munich in 1938. He assumed that the horrors of the First World War would keep the Germans, as well as the British and French, from ever initiating a European war, and he expressed his willingness to address Germany’s “legitimate” territorial grievances. From today’s perspective, the Munich Agreement looks crazy. How could any intelligent person have been so badly deceived? The trap Chamberlain fell into was essentially to announce that he was willing to take whatever deal Hitler offered him as the only alternative to war. He ended up giving Hitler a substantive concession (forcing Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudetenland) in return for Hitler’s promise of no more territorial ambitions. Hitler took the concession and immediately broke his promise.

Chamberlain was convinced that he had tried his best to avert war, and that resulting disaster was therefore not his fault. He shouldn’t get off that easy. In 1938, the Czechs had a million well-armed, well-trained troops in fortified positions. The German military was much weaker than it would be in 1940, and the “West Wall” defenses against France and Britain had not yet been completed. A 1938 war would have been bloody, but it’s quite possible that Hitler would have either lost the war quickly or been ousted by his generals if the French and Germans had opted to fight at that point. Chamberlain’s negotiating strategy cost the world 50 million dead.

The Islamic republic of Iran is an autocratic, violent and messianic state, similar to Nazi Germany, but without the economic capabilities. It seems obvious that the acquisition of nuclear weapons and the associated delivery systems is the core of their geopolitical strategy. During the Bush Administration and the first term of the Obama Administration, the US followed a clear policy that Iran would not be permitted to acquire such weapons and that they would be subject to severe economic sanctions and ultimately military attack if they continued their nuclear weapons program. Despite its chronic weakness, corruption and anti-Semitism, even the United Nations supported that policy with resolutions demanding that Iran end its nuclear program. This policy defined success as the dismantling of Iran’s centrifuges and of the facilities capable of producing weapons-grade fissionable material.

The situation has now changed. President Obama has relaxed sanctions without any reciprocal concessions by the Iranians. It now appears that the President is promising to ease sanctions further and allow Iran to maintain its nuclear capability in return for a promise (perhaps even a temporary promise) not to build a bomb. Secretary Kerry and other members of the Administration claim that UN inspections will prevent Iran from breaking this promise or at least alert us if they have done so. They continue to make this argument in the face of the complete failure of the inspection regime under Saddam Hussein and the admission by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency last week that they lack the capability of determining even where all of Iran’s nuclear facilities are located. We have tried this approach for years with North Korea, giving them billions of dollars in aid and other concessions in return for dismantling their nuclear weapons program. We are now out the money, and North Korea has nuclear weapons.

In a Type II negotiation, the police would never agree to let the bank robber go free in return for promises not to rob banks in the future, not to use his gun and not to harm the hostages. The police wouldn’t care of the negotiation were “fair” or if the bank robber had legitimate uses for the money he had stolen. You throw down your weapons, let the hostages go and surrender or we shoot you. We hope you choose the sensible option, but we’ll go either way. This approach is the one we should use with Iran.

Using this approach does not require that we sit down across a table in Geneva with some nice coffee and snacks and then glad-hand each other in front of the press. It does not require that we treat the Iranian mullahs with respect that they do not deserve. President Truman negotiated with the Japanese in 1945 by making the Potsdam Declaration which demanded that Japan surrender its armed forces unconditionally or face “prompt and utter destruction.” After the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan agreed to these terms. The only substantive concession we made was allowing the Emperor to remain as a figurehead. The US did not treat the Japanese as an equal partner in these negotiations. Not very nice, but very clear and very effective. Truman understood how to negotiate.

The White House and its congressional allies often claim that their approach is the only alternative to war. This argument is silly. The question is whether the US is willing to play hardball with the Iranians. I offered a proposed approach in my posting of June 2, 2011. The essence of this idea is to withdraw US recognition of the Iranian mullahs and recognize instead a government-in-exile. The US would then announce that any cargoes of oil leaving the Kharg Island terminal would be seized by the US navy and sold on the open market with the proceeds held in escrow for the Iranian government-in-exile until such time as they gain power. The US Navy would not actually have to seize any cargoes, since no oil importer would purchase a cargo at the risk of losing it and no shipping company would send their vessels to Iranian ports. Iran could smuggle out small amounts of oil by truck or pipeline, but their ability to export substantial amounts of oil would be stopped completely. Note that this approach does not require the support of Russia, China and others whom we have been treating with kid gloves lest they leave the Iran sanctions coalition.

US policy would thus be to squeeze Iran’s economy to the point where a nuclear weapons program becomes prohibitively expensive. Reagan did this with the Soviets. Maybe the mullahs would get nuclear weapons anyway, but they would have them in the context of a weak economy. The nuclear weapons program is apparently quite popular among Iranians, but that might change if they were starved to support the program.

President Obama could never take this step, because he believes too deeply that the US should have no more power in the world than Denmark or any other country and that miscreants can only be brought to heel by threatening the disapproval of the world community. This view is potentially disastrous not only for the US but for the rest of the world. Like Chamberlain, President Obama’s failure here would cost us dearly in the future. Future generations are likely to ask how anyone could have been so naïve.

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