Soft Talk, Big Stick
Against Iran, negotiating without leverage is futile.

Ali Khamenei


Mario Loyola

In the Iranian supreme ayatollah’s most recent rejection of an American offer for direct talks, he had this to say: “You take up arms against the nation of Iran and say: ‘Negotiate or we fire.’ But you should know that pressure and negotiations are not compatible and our nation will not be intimidated by these actions.”

First of all, we most certainly are not saying “negotiate or we fire.” Second, and more important, the idea that “pressure and negotiations are not compatible” is something you’d expect to hear from a hippie college freshman in her first international-relations class, not from the leader of a government. Negotiation is always a matter of pressure.

Khamenei’s comments are, however, fully in keeping with the tradition of American liberal pacifism going back decades. In the 1980s, senators Joe Biden and John Kerry railed against the Reagan administration’s policy of confronting the Soviets. They furiously attacked Reagan for dramatically increased military spending; for supporting the contras in Nicaragua and UNITA in Angola; and for the first foray into missile defense. They thought these were needless provocations that would poison relations with the Soviets. In fact these “provocations” were the very pressures that led to the peaceful, negotiated liquidation of the Soviet empire.

During the Cold War, and far away from the U.S. Senate, American strategists reached remarkable heights in the science of negotiating strategy. In The Strategy of Conflict (1962), Thomas Schelling observed that adversaries’ objectives are virtually never completely opposed; there is virtually always some common ground. In negotiating, Schelling taught us, the key was to find the common ground and build on it, while increasing the penalties for continued hostility from the other side.

In the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program, there is plenty of common ground. Iran claims the right to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. We agree. Iran claims the right to be treated like any other sovereign state. We agree there, too. Iran wants to be admitted as a full member of the international community. There, too, we agree. We have no quarrel with Iran as a nation or with its claim to sovereign rights.

But Iran’s nuclear program is not a peaceful program. It is obviously military. They defend it like the crown jewels of the realm. The key facilities are buried deep underground, under reinforced bunkers, and are ringed with the most lavish air defenses the Russians can sell them without getting into deep trouble with the United States.

The Obama administration continues to insist that nothing in our intelligence assessments suggests that Iran has “decided” to develop nuclear weapons. That assertion is not only stupid, it’s tantamount to a fraud on the public. Everything about Iran’s nuclear program suggests that it has decided to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran says that it needs the full nuclear fuel cycle for energy independence. This explanation is laughable on its face. Iran has some of the world’s most fabulous reserves of oil and gas, while it doesn’t possess enough natural uranium to power its power reactors for more than a few years. 

The conflict with Iran has arisen for the simple and inescapable reason that Iran, a prolific sponsor of terrorism, has decided to develop nuclear weapons.

There is only one way to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis, and that is to convince the Iranian government to abandon its nuclear program — entirely and verifiably. Any use of military force that does not produce that result will be a failure. The “military option” must consist of whatever pressure may be necessary and proportional, in combination with other forms of pressure, to convince Iran to abandon the program.

The Obama administration has insisted that if diplomacy fails, all options remain on the table. It has gone a step further by insisting that our strategy is not one of containment, but of prevention. If so, the strategy is fatally flawed.

Treating diplomacy as separate from military power guarantees that both will fail. Diplomacy without military force to back it up means insufficient leverage. But resorting to military force only once diplomacy fails means that we’ve given up on exerting any leverage. The current strategy will lead either to armed conflict or to a nuclear-armed Iran. What it cannot do is convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program peacefully.

If you leave aside what would be needed to destroy Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, and start by asking what would be needed to convince Iran to abandon its program, you realize that Iran is a lavishly target-rich environment. We could bomb refineries and bridges and defense-ministry buildings. We could bomb gasoline depots, military bases, and power plants. We could bomb any of the many things the Iranian government needs to maintain power.

If we did any of those things, it would almost certainly rattle nerves in Tehran. It might even rattle the mullahs’ nerves.

Khamenei could not be more wrong: Negotiation without pressure is futile.

— Mario Loyola is former counsel for foreign and defense policy to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.