A lose-lose strategy on Iran

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.


  1. slc1 says

    Prof. Walt has never learned that appeasement doesn’t pay. I am quite sure that, if the good professor had been alive and in his current position during the 1930s, he would have been the Neville Chamberlain’s biggest supporter.

  2. Scott says

    The appeasement you refer to is a bit different from USA vs. Iran where the party doing the appeasing (USA) is in a dominant position compared to Britain vs. Germany in 1938 where the appeaser was the weaker.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    During the foreign policy debate, I kept waiting for Obama to say something like this:

    “My opponent keeps talking about negotiations with Iran as if they were a bad thing. But there are only two ways of getting another country to do something you want them to do: negotiation or war. If we don’t want war, then negotations are our only alternative, and that’s what these sanctions are designed to produce.”

    I was waiting to hear that, but I didn’t. I heard a whole lot of sticks, but not a single carrot.

  4. left0ver1under says

    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,


    That might be an outcome that a few neo-cons want, but hardly anyone else.

    On the contrary, the majority of Americans would support one-sided deals. Many still live under the delusion that gas can go back to a dollar a gallon and stay there, and will sign off on anything that makes it possible. Why else did so many willingly support illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? It wasn’t about “terrorism”.

    For a century, US foreign policy has been predicated on the use of force and “US interest”. The US is the last country to build a “golden bridge”. When the US negotiates (especially when corporations and the wealthy are involved), if the US has the choice between the following two options:

    (1) A deal where the US benefits, and the other country benefits

    (2) A deal where the US benefits the same as the first deal, but the other country is cheated, damaged and/or humiliated (environmentally, politically, socially, economically)

    the US will always choose the second option.

    “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”
    – Michael Ledeen, pro-fascist ideologue, and advisor to several republican presidents

  5. Chiroptera says

    The warmongers cannot lose. If they don’t get their way, they will constantly be screaming about how the “appeasers” are selling out the country. If they do get their way, and it all blows up in everyone’s faces, then they will blame the “liberals” and “defeatists” and “traitors” for their brilliant plan’s failure.

  6. says


    (1) A little appeasement by one of Germany or Russia in 1914 after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand would likely have averted the Great War (if not an Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia).

    (2) Given Iran has regional almost-neighbours like Israel (nuclear-armed and hostile) and Pakistan (nuclear-armed and unstable with a chance of falling under the control of hostile Sunni), and is threatened with nuclear obliteration on a regular basis by politically-influential factions in US governance, it strikes me as entirely rational for them to want nukes of their own.

    (3) Speaking directly to the appeasement analogy again, apart from Scott’s point that there is a rather different power imbalance vis-à-vis the US-Iran situation than the UK vs Germany in 1938, there is the almost insignificant difference that Iran today & 1930s’ Germany are simply not in the same league of vicious foreign policy ambition. You could make the case, given what was known in 1938, that sooner or later Germany & the UK-France coalition would come to blows and it was better to do it in the fall of 1938. Based on what is known today it strikes me as very implausible that the US and Iran will come to blows, whatever line the US takes.

  7. mnb0 says

    @1) The Austro-Hungarian ultimatum of July 1914 is a classical case of a rigid and unyielding policy that failed, even for the warmongers. And the Austrians knew it in advance. Count Tisza, Prime Minister of Hungary, warned that the ultimatum would lead to a war on grand scale. The Serbians accepted all points bar one or two; Austria attacked and within two months all warhawks in that country realized that their policy had backfired. A-H was not a world power anymore, but completely dependent on Germany.
    The USA used to be smarter.

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