Israel’s leadership and America’s neocons are shifting into overdrive to block a plan that would put the brakes on Iran’s nuclear program, seeking confrontation, not conciliation, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.
By Paul R. Pillar
Those dedicated to maintaining perpetual hostility toward the Islamic Republic of Iran, and thus to sabotaging any negotiated agreement that resolves all or part of the issue of Iran’s nuclear agreement, are facing their most challenging week in some time.
Favorable reports have been coming from the talks in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is flying there to confer directly with the Iranian foreign minister, and the negotiators seem to be on the cusp of an interim agreement.
The response of the saboteurs is not to retreat, or even to wait until details of any deal are announced, but instead to redouble their efforts to subvert the process. The output of those efforts can be confusing to those who are not saboteurs themselves but instead have a genuine concern about keeping Iran’s program peaceful.
Some of the saboteurs’ principal accusations and arguments, regardless of how invalid they may be, are couched in terms that have resonance with those having honest concerns and with other Americans.
There is, for example, the idea of going for the jugular and making sweeping demands of the Iranians, including in particular the demand to end all enrichment of uranium. Such a demand is a sure deal-breaker, which is exactly why many of those making the demand are making it. But the idea of winning big appeals to Americans’ competitive instincts.
Some of that kind of spirit and attitude comes through in a Washington Post op-ed from Ray Takeyh, who argues that “Washington is in a position to demand the most stringent of nuclear accords and should pay scant attention to Iran’s oft-proclaimed red lines.”
Such an outlook evokes visions of an over-amped football coach who tells his players during a game against a banged-up opponent, “We’ve got them where we want them, boys — let’s run up the score!”
We are not playing a football game, or a zero-sum game. Humiliation of Iran does not advance U.S. interests. The “most stringent” of conceivable accords is not necessary — as a matter of either technical monitoring or Iranian motivations — to achieve the desired result of keeping the Iranian nuclear program peaceful.
Making sweeping demands instead would move farther away from that result by killing the chance of a deal, not only because some specific substantive demands would be unacceptable even to a hard-pressed and heavily sanction Iran, but also because of the political need of any Iranian leader to save face and avoid humiliation.
Then there is the handling of sanctions, and especially a push to add still more sanctions to the existing pile. That also would make an agreement less likely, principally by being another signal to the Iranians that the United States only wants to squeeze the Islamic Republic rather than to deal with it.
And again, some of those pushing the idea of still more sanctions are doing so precisely because this would make a deal less likely. Here the appeal to those other, more honest, Americans comes from the idea that if something has worked so far, it would be even better to have more of that same something.
In the present instance, the notion is that if sanctions have helped to bring the Iranians to the negotiating table, more sanctions is what we need to make them make more concessions. Sen. Robert Menendez, R-New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, among others, has voiced exactly this argument.
Life is full of circumstances in which even if a little of something works, this doesn’t mean more of the same thing would work better. Dylan Williams gives the example of how a small amount of baking powder helps to make yummy muffins, but using a whole boxful of the powder would not make better muffins.
If the negative signaling effect of added sanctions is hard for those honest Americans to understand, what should be easier to comprehend is the most fundamental of principles about how the exertion of pressure affects someone else’s incentives.
For the sanctions game to work, it is important not only for sanctions to be in place as long as there is no movement on the other side of the negotiating table, but also that the other party be convinced that if it does make the concessions we desire, the sanctions will come off.
If not so convinced — if facing the prospect of nothing but unending and even escalating sanctions no matter what it does — the other side has no incentive to make any concessions at all.
What also should be easy to understand is that after years and years of sanctions against Iran, the centrifuges are still spinning and the rest of the Iranian nuclear program is still growing. In this important respect, the sanctions — and always putting them on, not taking them off — have not “worked” at all.
Much of the rest of what is coming from the saboteurs is a confused jumble, with as much as possible in the way of suspicions and supposed dangers being thrown around in the hope that something will stick. Some of that confusion is between what each side might do unilaterally and what would be done as part of a mutual agreement.
Much is being said about how no sanctions relief should be given until and unless the Iranians place specific and significant restrictions on their program. But that is exactly what seems about to come out of the talks in Geneva.
Probably the most important thing honest, concerned Americans can do in listening to all of this is to keep in mind how much of it is coming ultimately from the saboteurs, and what the saboteurs’ motives are. The chief motive is not to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon; it is to keep Iran in a hated, pressured, isolated status, and maybe even eventually to wage a war against it.
The current Israeli government is unmistakably the ultimate protagonist in sustaining the hostility toward Iran, in order to prevent Iran from being an independent and accepted player in the region, to avoid giving the United States more diplomatic and political options in the Middle East than it has now, and to continue to divert attention from Israel’s clinging to, and colonization of, occupied territory (a matter on which the Israeli prime minister has been so obstinate as to drive Secretary of State Kerry, before he left Israel for Geneva, to deliver a burst of angry honesty on the subject).
With that as the Israeli posture, the posture of many others in the American political system automatically follows. Added to that are some other players in American policy debate who need Iran as a bête noire or who yearn for another war in the Middle East.
To emphasize awareness of all of this at least as much as the substance of what the saboteurs are saying is not an ad hominem cop-out; it is a way for the honest Americans to be wary of dishonesty, and to avoid being hopelessly confused by the barrage of tendentious commentary. When someone is throwing up a smokescreen it is best not to try to analyze the smoke but instead to move away from those throwing it up.
There also needs to be accountability. If the goal of ensuring the Iranian nuclear program stays peaceful is not achieved, responsibility for that outcome needs to be assigned clearly to those who — either as saboteurs or those who are too politically pusillanimous to stand up to the saboteurs — are working today to kill the best possible chance for achieving that goal.
Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)