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The Negotiation Delusion

Iran talks fail again.

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By JOHN BOLTON
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The ongoing failure of talks concerning Iran’s nuclear weapons program, most recently in Istanbul on July 3, is no surprise. This latest negotiation charade between Iran and the Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany (P5+1) is the culmination of 10 years of innumerable diplomatic endeavors. These efforts rested on the erroneous premise that Iran could be talked out of its decades-long effort to build deliverable nuclear weapons.

Missiles

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Now, almost no one argues there is light at the end of the negotiation tunnel. The most they hope for, especially President Obama, is that the plain futility of diplomacy’s latest pretense will not lead Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear program before our November 6 election. Obama fears such an Israeli strike more than he fears Iran actually fabricating nuclear weapons because of his dangerous misperception that a nuclear Iran could be contained and deterred. Even worse, Iran fully understands Obama’s thinking, and sees no reason to believe it will change if he’s reelected.

We are well past the point where sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program achieve more than making their proponents feel good about “doing something.” They neither restrain Iran’s nuclear program nor effectively advance the goal of replacing the mullahs with a regime that would truly forswear nuclear weapons. Combined with material assistance to Iran’s extensive opposition, sanctions could help destabilize Tehran, but unfortunately both the Obama and Bush administrations have failed on that score.

And even Team Obama does not believe sanctions will stop Iran’s weapons program. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on June 30, for example, that “the pressure track is our primary focus now, and we believe that the economic sanctions are bringing Iran to the table.” That is a far cry from actually terminating the weapons program. Moreover, what would a negotiated deal look like? Our goal is to deny Iran nuclear weapons; Tehran manifestly wants the opposite. What is the compromise? Iran gets to keep a small nuclear weapons program? Not even the most effervescent Obama supporters (publicly) endorse such a result.

The fundamental problem today is that there simply is no effective, enforceable sanctions regime that will compel Iran to abandon its nuclear aspirations. It may once have been possible, a decade ago or more, but even then would have required full, active cooperation from Russia, China, and others; comprehensive sanctions, not the ad hoc structure actually created; armed enforcement; and checkmating Iran’s highly successful cheating and evasion efforts. That theoretical chance has long since disappeared.

Instead, Obama surrogates argue that Iran would renounce nuclear weapons if permitted to keep a “peaceful” nuclear program under international monitoring. In theory, such a deal should be easy, since Iran already loudly contends it has no weapons ambitions. But both Bush and Obama erred by conceding that Iran has any right even to “peaceful” nuclear activities without fundamental regime change. No nation that has so egregiously violated its treaty obligations (as Iran has violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by seeking nuclear weapons) has a right to claim benefits under the same agreement. Tehran has no credibility here. The mullahs will never agree to an intrusive verification mechanism that could actually detect systematic cheating; indeed, they reject it for a more fundamental reason: Exposing such impotence against foreign governments could spur Iran’s domestic opposition to challenge and endanger the regime itself.

Many who agree diplomacy has failed still support sanctions, computer virus attacks, and even targeted killings, hoping thereby to stop the nuclear program without resorting to military force. In fact, such efforts have been underway for years with no evidence they have materially slowed Iran’s program. There is a reason. All these steps are simply tactical responses, thrown in over time, against Iran’s passion to achieve what it feels is a strategic imperative. Just as military commanders learn through training or sad experience that deploying their reserves piecemeal will lose both the battle and the reserves, the piecemeal deployment of antinuclear tactics has simply provided Iran space to adjust and deploy countermeasures.

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