In Iran negotiations, U.S. strength better demonstrated through poise than threats

U.S. security guarantees should include a commitment not to attempt to overthrow the Iranian government or attack Iran’s nuclear program as long as Iran adhered to its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Additional Protocol.
 
Economic incentives should include a commitment to a phased lifting of sanctions, an end of U.S. opposition to oil and gas investments and pipeline routes through Iran, and the prospect of future trade agreements, scientific exchanges, and access to alternative energy technology and financing.
 
Iran should in return be expected to comply fully with the NPT and Additional Protocol and immediately cap its uranium enrichment activities at the 20 percent level to a quantity determined by the IAEA as necessary for its legitimate medical applications.
 
To date, U.S. policymakers have offered their Iranian counterparts minimal sanctions alleviation in exchange for their concession of their rights under the NPT. It is not difficult to appreciate why the Iranians view this, at best, as an inequitable offer.  This is no way to build trust.  As the more powerful party in the negotiations by far, the onus is on the U.S. to do everything that it reasonably can to meet Iran halfway.       
 
Opponents of compromise would argue that placing security guarantees and economic incentives on the table would signal weakness on the part of the United States, effectively encouraging provocations in the future.
 
Bold rhetoric notwithstanding, Iranian leaders are undoubtedly well aware that the United States could overthrow them by force if it so resolved.  They could not have failed to notice how quickly Saddam Hussein’s military, which Iran fought to a bloody stalemate after eight years of war, fell to U.S. forces.
 
The Ayatollah Khamenei’s recent public statements indicate that the U.S. should be more concerned that its policies are causing Iranian leaders to perceive that no matter what they do, the unstated U.S. goal will remain regime change, making it more likely that Iran might risk taking the final steps to acquiring nuclear weapons as the logical conclusion to a rational cost-benefit analysis.  The key to successful negotiations is to convince them otherwise while holding them to a standard of transparency.   
 
The argument that Iranian leaders are most threatened by compromise with the United States is unproven by the historical record.  U.S. policymakers might best support the Iranian people by taking a more poised, strategically patient approach on Iranian political and economic liberalization, allowing this evolution to proceed organically on its own time line, which might ultimately be faster than what outside pressures are able to induce.
 
If Iranian hardliners are unable to point to aggressive foreign powers as the culprits behind their gradual loss of influence, they will have a much more difficult time maintaining political support for their repressive tactics against their more moderate political opponents.
 

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Another fear of lifting sanctions is that Iranian leaders would eventually demonstrate duplicity by pursuing parallel secret nuclear activities.  Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in March testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, however, that “[the Intelligence Community] assess[es] Iran could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of [weapons grade uranium] before this activity is discovered.” As long as the IAEA inspections regime remains in place, there is minimal likelihood that this would occur.  Iranian leaders would be keenly aware, moreover, that they would be inviting military action against themselves by risking such a foolish and unnecessary course of action.
 
Now that Iran’s presidential election season has passed, the Obama administration should press for direct negotiations with senior Iranian leaders—ideally Khamenei himself and others within the inner circle of Iranian policymakers to minimize political opacity and the potential for miscommunication.  Continuing to engage in diplomacy within a zero-sum framework, in which the Obama administration seeks to maximize what Iran must sacrifice while aiming to minimize what the U.S. will concede, will risk running out the diplomatic clock in a series of self-fulfilling prophecies ending in military confrontation.
 
As U.S. national security experts have made clear, that confrontation would have no guarantee of remaining an antiseptic “shock and awe” type air and naval campaign but would rather likely provoke a strong Iranian military response, potentially leading to a rapid escalation of hostilities and another costly war.

Buonomo is a former military intelligence officer and graduate candidate in Middle East Studies at George Washington University.