Starting to Listen

In light of the new round of talks with Iran that began yesterday in Moscow, former ambassador and United States diplomat Dennis Ross published a short piece in The New Republic that suggests that the P5+1, a coalition of the five members of the UN security council and Germany, who are joined in diplomatic efforts related to Iran’s nuclear program, adopt a new strategy in their negotiations. “The Iranian nuclear program is approaching what the Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, refers to as an Iranian ‘zone of immunity,’” he writes, concluding that the P5+1 are running out of time in their step-by-step negotiations. He suggests putting forth a comprehensive proposal that directly addresses “whether Iran is prepared to accept not having a break-out capability to nuclear weapons.” To do this, “We would offer Iran a civil nuclear power capability—and if they reject the proposal, it would be presented to the public as a declaration that the Iranians want a nuclear weapons capability, not civil nuclear power.”

But his rationale for offering such a proposal doesn’t make much sense. “First, the Israelis are much more likely to hold off if they know that this is the aim of the talks,” he argues in defense of his proposal. Really? Israel does not trust Iran because of its genocidal rhetoric just as much as it doesn’t trust them because of their enrichment levels. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to accept a nuclear Iran, even if its stated capability is only civil.

“Second, and more importantly, we need a credible basis for using force if it comes to it,” he says. Again: Really? The negotiating position of the P5+1 should not be based on political correctness. And Ross’s reason sounds more like a reaction to the mistakes of Iraq than a guided policy towards Iran.

“A process geared to clarifying whether a real deal is possible with Iran will require putting a credible proposal on the table,” he surmises. But the lack of a credible proposal on the table is not what is stalling this process. Iran’s reaction to these talks has, time and again, proven that it is not what we are proposing that bothers them. What bothers them is that we are proposing anything at all.

The goal that Ross lays out in the opening of his piece, to be sure, is a right one, namely “determining whether Iran is willing to accept that its nuclear program must be credibly limited in a way that precludes it from being able to turn civil nuclear power into nuclear weapons.” But the P5+1 have been going about it the wrong way, and a shift in proposals, as Ross suggests, will have no tangible effect on the Iranian position (it is telling that he only mentions the benefits his proposal will have for the positions of Israel and the United States.)

The goal of the P5+1 must relate to the goal of the Iranian regime. Ross does cite the goal of the regime: “Ultimately, Ali Khamenei’s most important objective is to die in office of natural causes.” But he fails to recognize what this objective means for the negotiating position of the P5+1, and as a result, he puts forth a proposal that will uselessly have no impact on the Iranian position.

Ali Khamenei wants to die on his own terms – on Iranian terms. And the Iranian negotiating position is just that. The Iranian regime wants to settle the question of its nuclear power on Iranian terms. A senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations puts this reasoning most clearly: “Any commitment, any agreement to cease or constrain enrichment operations by an Iranian government would be perceived as an affront to Iranian sovereignty. That rhetorical posturing is very consistent and very deeply ingrained in the Iranian government.”

The stumbling block to the negotiations is not the P5+1’s current proposal, then, but this consistent Iranian position. Offering Iran a civil nuclear capability, as Ross suggests, will solve nothing; as long as the P5+1 are offering it, the Iranians will see it as an affront to their sovereignty, and they will not agree to it. Yesterday, in Moscow, Iran demanded an acknowledgment from the international community that it has the right to enrich uranium in return for any agreement. This is the Iranian position; and this is what must be paid attention to.

It appears unlikely that the international community would acknowledge what Iran wants it to. Nevertheless, Western powers have managed to stop Iranian enrichment once before. In 2003, as Ross recounts, Iran feared that the U.S. would invade them next after invading their enemy Iraq and toppling its government in only three weeks, and so they agreed to suspend uranium enrichment. Putting similar pressure on the Iranian regime today seems unlikely, to say the least. But the lesson is that in dealing with Iran, force matters.

On July 1, the planned European boycott on the purchase of Iranian oil will take effect. While this is not as forceful as a real threat of attack – and Israel’s threats are less devastating than the perceived U.S. threat was in 2003 – crippling Iran in this way leaves it with no choice but to stop enrichment. Continuingly forceful measures will achieve Ross’s stated goals: it will actually prevent the need for an Israeli strike, and will leave America’s credibility intact. And as all the great powers today agree on the usefulness of sanctions, the time to push harder and fiercer is now.