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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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If commentators and the press had longer attention spans, they would recall the history of nearly 10 years of sanctions imposed on Iran, unilaterally by America, Japan, and others, more broadly by the European Union, and even more broadly by the Security Council. The net effect is that Iran continues to plow ahead. As Obama’s director of national intelligence, Lt. General James Clapper, testified in January, “the sanctions as imposed so far have not caused [the Iranians] to change their behavior or their policy.”

Iran has been anticipating sanctions for years, not starting yesterday. Advance planning has defeated some measures before they were even imposed. Sanctions advocates once stressed, for example, prohibiting exports of refined petroleum products to Iran, taking advantage of the curious reality that, though a major petroleum exporter, Iran had inadequate domestic refining capabilities. In anticipation, Iran attracted substantial capital from China and elsewhere to build new refining capacity; dramatically scaled back domestic gas subsidies, driving up prices and effectively reducing current demand; and took steps toward using its enormous natural gas reserves to fuel public-vehicle fleets like urban mass transit and military vehicles. Today, refined-petroleum sanctions are effectively no longer under consideration.

We are told the latest round of oil and financial sanctions is different, but already analysts see them failing, because of extensive Obama administration waivers, lax EU enforcement, and massive fraud, deception, and misinformation by Iran. Iran took advantage of the oil price runup starting in the early 2000s to accumulate huge foreign currency reserves. It has designed and deployed worldwide money-laundering capabilities, creative but entirely false statistics, and oil-smuggling techniques that would make drug cartels envious. Perhaps most important, Tehran’s mullahs have the will to prevail, certainly in any contest with the Obama administration.

However much economic pain sanctions are causing (a reasonable debating point), no one has produced a scintilla of evidence, despite the hosannas greeting the newest sanctions, that they have actually changed Iran’s behavior since Clapper’s January testimony. The only corroboration is Iran’s early July missile tests, general saber-rattling, and smug attitude about the P5+1 negotiations. There is much administration talk about “Perm Five unity,” but in fact Russia and China have a strategic national interest in preventing us from succeeding. Even if Moscow and Beijing truly oppose a nuclear Iran, they will not, for their own broader reasons, let the West bend Tehran to its will. Just as they continue to protect Syria’s Assad regime, an Iranian satellite which has neither substantial oil nor its own nuclear weapons program, Russia and China see Iran as a test case in limiting American power. And they are succeeding.

Focusing on half-steps simply provides more time for Iran’s nuclear efforts. If we make the appropriately humble assumption that our Iran intelligence is not perfect, then we must acknowledge that Iran may be even closer to weaponization than we believe. And every additional day simply increases Tehran’s advantage.

In the race between the West’s sanctions/negotiations track and Tehran’s nuclear weapons track, the nuclear effort is much closer to the finish line. Since all other options have failed repeatedly, we must at some very near point face a basic question: Are we prepared to use force at a time of our choosing and through means optimal for us rather than for Iran’s air defenses, or will we simply allow Iran to have nuclear weapons under the delusion it can be contained and deterred? The clock is ticking, and the centrifuges are spinning. 

John Bolton, ambassador to the United Nations during 2005-06, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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