In my post on the Cuban missile crisis, I spoke about how the myths that were perpetuated in dealing with that crisis, of America being successful because it was rigid and unyielding and forced the other side to back down, has cast a long shadow over how to deal with future crises.
Stephen R. Walt says that the current American stance on Iran follows that pattern and leads to a lose-lose situation. He says that even if the highly coercive measures currently being used succeed in making Iran say “Uncle”, such a ‘win’ would be short-lived.
What if our current policy towards Iran actually works, and Tehran gives in to every one of our demands? You’d think that would be a crowning diplomatic success, wouldn’t you? Think again. In fact, a one-sided triumph over Iran might solve little, because a deal dictated by Washington probably wouldn’t last.
The late negotiation expert Roger Fisher famously recommended giving opponents “yes-sable” propositions: If you want a deal, you have to offer something that the opponent might actually want to accept. In the same vein, Chinese strategic sage Sun Tzu advised “building a golden bridge” for your enemies to retreat across.
Translation: If we want a lasting nuclear deal with Iran, it can’t be completely one-sided. Paradoxically, we don’t want to strong-arm Iran into accepting a deal they hate, but which they are taking because we’ve left them no choice. A completely one-sided deal might be easier to sell here at home, but that sort of deal is also less likely to endure. In order to last, there has to be something in it for them, both in terms of tangible benefits but also in terms of acknowledging Iranian interests and national pride. Otherwise, the deal won’t stick and we’ll be back to the current situation of threat-mongering, suspicion, and strategic distraction. That might be an outcome that a few neo-cons want, but hardly anyone else.
We are often warned about the dangers of appeasement and the “lessons” of Munich. But we often forget the equally important lesson of Versailles: when victors impose a harsh and one-sided settlement on a country — even if it deserves it — it sometimes backfires. Assuming we eventually get serious about negotiating with Tehran, we will need to look for a deal that satisfies our core interests. But we won’t get everything we might want, and if we want it to stick, Iran will have to believe that it got something out of it too.
Interestingly, there has been less sabre rattling recently by Israel on Iran, unlike about a month ago when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu regaled the United Nations with his cartoon drawing of a bomb. The Israeli defense minster Ehud Barak said yesterday that Iran has deferred its plans to make a bomb by about 8 to 10 months, thus making immediate action unnecessary, with the time for a decision postponed until next summer.
Of course, this whole idea that Iran is hell-bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon has been propagated mainly by the Israeli government and its lobby in the US, with little evidence to support it. Barak’s statement may be meant to lower the temperature on this topic before the US presidential election, in order to wait and see what happens.
It is becoming increasingly clear that Israel wants the US to take the lead on any attack on Iran. While both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been taking a hard line against Iran rhetorically, I suspect that the Israeli government feels that Romney is more likely to actually carry it out, given that the neoconservatives are in his corner along with the right-wing Christian groups.
But getting back to Walt’s point, the current bipartisan policy of essentially ‘no negotiations before surrender’, a relic of the mythology created around the Cuban missile crisis, is not going to produce a lasting solution. It would be far better to find ways to make Iran a negotiating partner. We need only look at how much relations have improved with China and Russia once the emphasis shifted from containment and confrontation and threats to deal making.