In the Arena

Negotiating with Iran

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Can’t wait to see all the over-the-top reactions from the right about this decision of the Obama Administration to lift the Bush Administration’s precondition that the Iranians stop processing nuclear fuel before we engage them in negotiations over their nuclear program. Three points:

1. There should be no surprise here: this is precisely what Obama promised during the campaign, precisely what the American people voted for. Indeed, it was one of the more high-profile promises of the campaign, challenged repeatedly by John McCain. And, given the fact that the Iranians have refused to respond to Bush’s foolishly provocative precondition, there is nothing to lose by changing the ground rules and seeing if the Iranians respond.

2. Why was Bush’s precondition foolishly provocative? Because the Iranians have the right to produce nuclear fuel–for peaceful purposes. Of course, everyone suspects the Iranians have a bomb in mind, especially since they’ve not cooperated with the IAEA, which monitors the non-proliferation treaty that Iran remains pledged to support. But if the Iranians are merely producing nuclear fuel, they’re doing nothing illegal. Just very suspicious.

3. I’m not very optimistic that we’ll be able to prevent the Iranians from either producing a bomb or, if they choose, putting the pieces into place that would enable them  to produce a bomb on short notice (as the Japanese apparently are). The question is, how dire a threat do you think this is? The Israelis, and some of their American right-wing allies, believe it is mortal. I don’t. I think it is a consequence of Iranian pride and a rational desire for deterrence. As long as the Israelis and Pakistanis have the bomb, the Iranians will want one. After all, no sane mullah–and they have proven themselves to be quite sane, if often noxious, when it comes to foreign policy–could have watched the events of the last decade and not drawn the conclusion that having a bomb enhances Iran’s national security. The other two members of the “Axis of Evil” offer a dramatic narrative: North Korea developed a bomb and hasn’t been attacked; Saddam Hussein didn’t, and he is gone. 

Again, I think that every effort should be made to talk the Iranians out of obtaining a bomb–and, not coincidentally, talk them into rejoining the rest of the world. An Iranian bomb would lead to a middle eastern arms race, further destabilizing an already fissionable region. Which is why these new negotiating tactics–as well as the various Iran-related diplomatic initiatives the Administration is taking with the Syrians, the Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians themselves–should be given a chance to succeed. But it is not the end of the world if they fail. In fact, it is entirely possible that the United States could have a cooperative, positive relationship with a nuclear Iran. But that relationship stands a chance of being much more positive and cooperative–and less dangerous–if the Iranians can be convinced to stand down.