Deciding What We Want From Iran - And When
Posted by David Shorr
With apologies to Andrew Marvell: Had we but world enough and time, this coyness, Tom Friedman, were no crime. Friedman's column today says that the US shouldn't negotiate with Iran because we lack sufficient bargaining leverage in the face of Iran's coherent regional strategy and commensurate negotiating strength. His advice, leverage first, negotiations later.
There are many problems with this argument. We don't have time to put this off. We don't have time to wait for Iran to clean up its entire act in the region. Friedman understimates US leverage, Iranian vulnerability, and potential Iranian interest. But mostly, as we keep saying, negotiation is not a favor we do for the other side, but a means -- potentially, not guaranteed -- to achieve objectives and promote our own interests.
The primary objective of a negotiation is to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons. Obviously, the destabilizing (yes, terrorist) acts of "Iran & Friends" that Friedman writes about will also have to stop, if Iran is to become a 'normal country.' But first things first. Friedman is falling into the same we-want-it-all trap that got us into this situation. At the risk of sounding like one of his columns, foreign policy requires choices. If we wait to accumulate leverage (we're really supposed to wait for alternative energy???), or for Tehran to clean up its regional act, Iran could use that time to develop its nuclear program. That's what North Korea did.
Friedman's assessment also deeply discounts the leverage on our side of the equation. To say we have no leverage is to claim that Tehran is heedless to its international outlier status. Speaking of energy, this also ignores the problems in Iran's energy sector. It also denies that significant political segments in Iran want better relations with the West, and the US in particular.
And just as with Iraq, an important source of leverage is Iran's standing with respect to the Nonproliferation Treaty. In the very same section of today's Times, was a piece about the IAEA's complaints with Iran. This is the non-negotiable stuff. Absolute transparency is the core of any deal and the focus of any negotiation. If we believe the moral high ground matters -- for instance to corral international opinion and support -- then there's leverage. In short, Iran has a burden of proof, let's keep it that way. The US, too, has an outstanding high-ground matter: taking regime-change off the table. Interesting that Friedman mentions Bush's negotiations with Libya; an explicit emphasis on policy-change rather than regime-change was crucial.