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Negotiating with Iran


Most of the evidence suggests grounds for cautious optimism about the prospects for some sort of deal with Iran. Already, some (admittedly obscure) right-wing bloggers are crying foul over the carrots on the table. Others trumpet Bush’s “diplomatic coup.” What should we make of all this?

First, liberals shouldn’t begrudge giving credit to the Bush administration if they’re able to negotiate a deal. We should, rather, welcome its embrace of multilateral diplomacy.

Second, Merkel’s decision to back the Bush administration’s condition that Iran cease enrichment prior to negotiations is, in the short-term, a positive development. We don’t want Washington to be isolated on this point. But the US and its allies should, if push comes to shove, back down on this demand and proceed with negotiations without such a commitment from Iran. Consider that the fate of the current standoff will depend on two factors: whether or not (a) the Iranians feel like they’re getting a good deal and (b) the relevant parties in the Iranian government can present the deal as a victory for Iran.

American demands that Iran cease uranium enrichment before any negotiations take place, in other words, comprise a sensible element of US bargaining posture but should not be treated as an end in of itself. If the US ultimately abandons these conditions it should make it easier for Iranian negotiators to sell the deal back home.

It would also be a mistake for the US and Germany to hold the line on an a priori agreement by the Iranians to cease nuclear enrichment if that proves to be a key stumbling block. For one, we should not impose, in practice, a different standard on the Iranians than on the North Koreans. No matter what one thinks of the Iranian regime, the North Korean totalitarians are far worse. For another, we have a very strong interest in an outcome that leads to Iran accepting a deal; this interest far outweighs whatever intrinsic principles are at stake.

Third, we have nothing to fear from making concessions to Iran. While I don’t believe that Iranian nuclear weapons present a clear-and-present danger to American interests (as Eugene Gholz argues, we can deter Iran), a world without Iranian nukes is better than one with them. A negotiated solution, moreover, is infinitely preferable to American military action.

As I argued in one of my earliest posts on the Duck of Minerva, bribery is a perfectly acceptable tool of international diplomacy. Under the terms of Article IV, Section 2 of the NPT, moreover, nuclear-weapons states have an obligation to assist signatories in their efforts to utilize nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Parties to the Treaty in a position to do so shall also cooperate in contributing alone or together with other States or international organizations to the further development of the applications of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, especially in the territories of non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty, with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world.

The United States, for its part, has not done a particularly good job of living up to these obligations. Although the current scenario isn’t exactly in keeping with the spirit of the NPT, any deal of the type being contemplated would bring all parties into clear compliance with the treaty.

Fourth, ultimately the US should seek to normalize its relations with Iran. Despite the fact that Iran engages in all sorts of policies that contravene US interests, we should still deal with them in the same way we deal with similarly situated states. In the long-term, we want to cultivate the Iranians as, if not allies, than at least people with whom we can do (literally and figuratively) business. The current policy of estrangement isn’t exactly helping to accomplish our strategic objectives in the region. Given that, in particular, Iran will be a key player in the ultimate fate of Iraq, the relevant analogy should be with China rather than with North Korea. Iranian interests both cohere with and depart from those of the United States. In this respect, Iran is little different from many other countries with whom the US has diplomatic relations.

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