While the attention of the world is currently focused on North Korea’s threats to unleash nuclear war, the United States and its “P5+1” negotiating partners — Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany — are about to resume negotiations with Iran. While there were reports of progress being made in the last round of nuclear talks in February, expectations are now low. It is not likely that the negotiators will be able to secure a breakthrough to bring Iran into compliance with the multiple resolutions from the U.N. and the International Atomic Energy Agency, demanding full suspension of all enrichment and reprocessing activities. Even the modest goal the Obama administration has said it plans to seek appears out of reach: getting Tehran to close its Fordow facility, which could produce near-weapons-grade uranium in only a short time.
Pessimism about the outcome of the upcoming talks should only be reinforced by our last decade of experience with Iran. Looking at the record, starting with the “EU3” dialogue in 2003, we see that little has occurred besides Tehran’s cynically using the negotiations to buy time for its nuclear program. This ploy has succeeded. Iran has advanced to the stage where it could now move on to weapons capability, if it decided to, in months, not years. At this critical juncture, Tehran’s consistent bad faith should be taken as the point of departure for our diplomatic efforts.
This does not mean that diplomacy should be abandoned or is doomed to fail. Rather, it requires recognition that, if diplomacy is to have any prospect of success in the time remaining, our negotiating posture must shift from persuasion through concessions to “compellence,” as it is called in the arms-control lexicon — that is, making Tehran chose between ending enrichment and cooperating fully with the IAEA, on the one hand, and suffering real consequences through tightened sanctions and the potential use of force.
We know that compellence, unlike persuasion, has achieved counterproliferation objectives. It was the defining characteristic of the U.S. engagement with Libya that resulted in Tripoli’s decision to give up its nuclear-weapons program and its chemical munitions. Sanctions, interdictions, and, most important, the perceived threat of the use of force created an untenable predicament for Qaddafi, in which he had no choice but to abandon his weapons of mass destruction. While Libya is not Iran, the two countries share attributes that should shape our diplomatic strategy.
We also know that the approach taken to date has not persuaded Tehran to end enrichment and allow verification of its weapons-related work. Progressive concessions by the Bush and Obama administrations, from offering to facilitate access to light-water reactors to permitting fuel enrichment for civilian use, have undercut the very goal such concessions were intended to secure. It might have made sense to try such a course of action for one or even two years but, after ten years of repeated failure, it must be abandoned. After offers of concessions have failed, more offers will only be perceived as a sign of weakness.
Yet a continuation of this approach is exactly what the Obama administration has in mind. In the last round of talks, the P5+1 reportedly proposed the easing of sanctions on Iran’s ability to trade in gold and other precious metals in exchange for some limits on enrichment at the Fordow plant. Iran described this offer as a positive step, but, predictably, it did not slow its program at all. As always, concessions only produced more demands and more failure.
So instead of offering additional diplomatic carrots to Tehran, it is time to apply a basic lesson of negotiations. The U.S. government should reject the advice of many commentators calling for yet another “firm and final offer,” and instead stand pat and allow the pressure to build on the regime, through compellence alone.
Now is a better time than ever before to apply pressure. Iran is already under substantial pressure, both inside and outside its borders. Abroad, Syria, Iran’s only ally in the region, is being torn apart by civil war. President Bashar Assad, Tehran’s man in Damascus, is under enormous stress, and his government is showing increasing signs of fracturing. The end of Assad’s Syria would be, in the words of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the greatest strategic loss for Iran in 25 years (a point underscored by Tehran’s desperate supplying of arms and men to Assad).
Iran’s nuclear program has also recently suffered a number of major setbacks. Tehran has failed in several efforts to acquire sensitive materials from companies abroad — most notably, an attempt to secure over 100,000 specialty magnets, probably intended for a major expansion of its gas-centrifuge program. While the number of centrifuges and the production of enriched uranium at both Natanz and Fordow continue to increase, successful interdictions have placed additional pressure on the program.
Economic sanctions are finally being applied in ways that are disrupting Iran’s economy. The national currency is close to collapse. Oil production has fallen by almost 50 percent. Foreign-exchange reserves are steadily eroding. These and other effects of sanctions are forcing the regime to contemplate significant reductions in subsidies for gasoline, housing, and food, handouts that are essential to retain the loyalty of its supporters.
The greatest pressure on the regime comes from within; as with all authoritarian governments, the mullahs’ greatest fear is their own people. This is their existential threat. In the summer of 2009, Iran’s leaders were shocked by the level of protests sparked by evidence of pervasive voter fraud and government corruption. This June’s presidential elections hold the same, if not greater, potential for protest and revolt. Recent infighting, pitting President Ahmadinejad against the leadership of the parliament and the courts, reflects the regime’s current vulnerability.
The key to achieving a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear challenge is to let all of these pressures build on the already-precarious government. We failed to do this with North Korea and we are seeing the consequences today. Now is not the time for more concessions with Iran.
— Robert Joseph is a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.