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Posts tagged ‘P5+1’

What Can Argentina and Brazil Tell Us About Iran?

By Taylor Marvin

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, March 30, 2015. State Department photo.

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, March 30, 2015. State Department photo.

As the ongoing nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran enter their final stretch opposition to any potential deal is becoming more strident. Building on the efforts of Republican Senators and others wary of a nuclear deal, former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton has a characteristic op-ed in the New York Times calling on the US to abandon the diplomatic process and attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure instead.

Despite the attention Bolton’s call for war has received, there isn’t much in his op-ed that hasn’t been heard before. Like other many arguments in favor of attacking Iran, Bolton doesn’t dwell on the immediate or longer-term consequences of strikes (see Robert Farley for this). More interesting is Bolton’s brief mention of previous American efforts to avoid nuclear proliferation.

Bolton attributes India, Pakistan, and North Korea’s nuclear weapons to American and Western “inattention.” But — despite warning that “Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program” — he writes that sound policies have contributed to ending other states’ nuclear ambitions:

“Successive administrations, Democratic and Republican, worked hard, with varying success, to forestall or terminate efforts to acquire nuclear weapons by states as diverse as South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa. Even where civilian nuclear reactors were tolerated, access to the rest of the nuclear fuel cycle was typically avoided. Everyone involved understood why.”

Bolton mentions these states’ nuclear programs to suggest that the Obama administration’s “increasingly frantic efforts” to negotiate with Iran are considering an unprecedented and dangerous concessions — continuing enrichment. Noting only that US policymakers “worked hard” to avoid nuclear proliferation gives Bolton leeway in these historical examples, but ultimately they are irrelevant to the negotiations with Iran.

South Korea and Taiwan benefit from US security guarantees, vastly reducing the security value of developing their own nuclear weapons. And since apartheid-era South Africa actually built a small number of nuclear weapons, only to abandon them before democratization, this example is only relevant if Bolton is arguing that the US should ignore the nuclear issue and instead focus on on Iranian human rights — something he clearly does not believe.

The South American example is occasionally mentioned in arguments favoring regime change as a means of blocking Iranian nuclear ambitions. (via Rob and j.r. hennessy). The history of Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs is not well known in the US. As Mitchell Reiss writes in Bridled Ambitions: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities, these states pursued clandestine nuclear weapons programs under their military governments in the 1970s and 1980s. Driven by the their rivalry and a desire for prestige, these nuclear weapons programs were shuttered through mutual negotiation and agreements barring weapons but which allow civil and maritime propulsion nuclear activities. Today both countries generate a small portion of their electricity from nuclear power. Brazil is in the process of building a nuclear-powered attack submarine, enriches small amounts of low-enriched uranium (with European involvement), and is generally thought capable of producing nuclear arms in a few years if it chose to do so.

Bolton includes Argentina and Brazil to fill out an otherwise short list and argue that the US should not tolerate any Iranian nuclear enrichment. But the substantial differences between the Argentine and Brazilian nuclear programs and Iran’s make this comparison, even Bolton’s fleeting one, misguided.

First, both Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear weapons ambitions encountered substantial technical issues and had made little progress, which made it easier to negotiate an end to programs that were still far from success and not yet core national prestige projects. These negotiations also took place within the context of both countries’ returns to democracy, which undercut the military factions pushing for nuclear weapons and allowed civilian leaders more leeway to abandon the policies of the previous military governments. Barring a democratic revolution — which might not touch the nuclear issue, if enough Iranians outside the regime support the nuclear program — the dynamics of President Rouhani’s push to build regime support for a deal has little in common with Argentina and Brazil.

Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, who opposed the nuclear weapons program. Agência Brasil photo by Sergio Lima, via Wikimedia.

Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, who opposed the nuclear weapons program. Agência Brasil photo by Sergio Lima, via Wikimedia.

Secondly, again as Reiss writes, the peaceful end to Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs benefited from the United States’ distance from the negotiations. Both countries had refused to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which they viewed as a hypocritical double-standard that barred them from the same nuclear status the superpowers enjoyed. Aside from pushing controls on sensitive technologies (which slowed down Argentina and Brazil’s progress) and pressure to accept safeguards and oversight, America’s low commitment to the process probably encouraged cooperation. America’s leading role in the negotiations with Iran, however, must be reconciled with a revolutionary state which defines itself in opposition to the West.

Finally, negotiations to mutually end Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs was just one piece of the process of ending the two countries’ military and political rivalry. Despite Argentina’s war with the UK over the disputed Falklands Islands and its rivalry with Chile — which prompted the widespread mining of Chile’s long border and almost led to war in the late 1970s — Argentina and Brazil were each other’s greatest external rivals. While war between the two was always distant — Reiss titles his chapter “Rivals, Not Enemies” — both countries’ nuclear programs were fueled by the fear that the other would acquire these dangerous and prestigious weapons and the other would not. Aside from the general prestige of nuclear weapons, easing tensions and the return to democracy removed the security rational for nuclear arms.

Of course, none of this applies to Iran, which is surrounded by sectarian and political enemies. US lawmakers regularly threaten Iran, as do its Israeli and Gulf state allies whose actions the US may or may not control. This is a far more complex security situation than that facing Argentine and Brazil in the 1980s. Similarly, the mutual ratcheting down of tensions was critical to avoiding a South American nuclear arms race. As Reiss writes, the “Latin American example strong suggests that resolution, or at least amelioration, of outstanding political disagreements must precede cooperation in the nuclear sphere.” Since the US has little ability to improve relations between Iran and its rivals, this comparison is irrelevant. Bolton certainly has no interest in resolving the political conflicts between the US, its Sunni allies, and Iran.

It remains unclear whether Iran and the P5+1 will reach an agreement, or if Iran has any intention of actually following an accord which trades nuclear oversight in exchange for sanctions relief. It is also unknown if, unlike Argentina and Brazil, Iran’s substantial investment in its nuclear efforts and their importance in the state’s ideology of resistance will even allow it to reach an agreement. The Obama administration, the P5+1, and Iran are in new territory.

Domestic Constraints on Diplomacy

By Taylor Marvin

Why have negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program continued to stall? The simplest potential answer is that Iranian and P5+1 negotiators simply have incompatible minimally acceptable outcomes. Another theory is that fundamental differences between Iranian and Western negotiating styles have led to misunderstandings. Dina Esfandiary highlighted this possibility recently, noting that P5+1 negotiators misread to them-unacceptable Iranian offers “as a sign of their unwillingness to talk rather than an opening to negotiations.”

Another explanation for diplomacy’s slow progress is that one or both countries’ negotiators are too diplomatically constrained to offer, or accept, an otherwise mutually-acceptable bargain. Patrick Clawson recently discussed this possibility in the context of internal IRI divisiveness: what if the Iranian regime is too divided and dysfunctional to actually agree to anything? Even if P5+1 negotiators were to offer a “unilateral US unconditional surrender,” Clawson speculated in Foreign Policy, infighting among factions within the IRI regime might make even this best-case deal unworkable. Even if the P5+1 was willing to offer their counterparts everything they wanted, it’s unclear if Iranian negotiators can actually be counted on to represent the relevant policymakers back home.

But this argument misses the most important ramification of internal Iranian division. The Iranian regime’s disunity may hamper its ability to offer prospective carrots, but it also limits the efficacy of America’s stick — if internal divisions constrain diplomatic options, they arguably also constrain the ability of the American government to coerce Iran. Of course, deterrence will always be an easier face of coercion than compellence, particularly when successful compellence must influence numerous policymakers holding competing preferences. The specifics of Iran’s internal dynamics heighten this difficulty. While the Iranian regime as a body does not appear to derive its legitimacy from opposition to the West, individual politicians certainly can. Infighting gives these politicians a political incentive to avoid a settlement. It’s unlikely the threat of US strikes on nuclear targets will have any practical compellence effect on these domestically-vulnerable leaders, weakening the effect of coercion on the relevant policymaking body as a whole.

Rather than a threatening prospect to be avoided, US airstrikes could a political positive for hardliners alarmed by the prospect of a repeat of 2009’s post-election unrest. “An American strike,” Alireza Nader recently wrote in the New York Times, “would spur the Iranian public to rally around the flag and buck up a wobbling, wheezing theocracy — and an Israeli strike would do so in spades.” This isn’t novel logic. History is full of unpopular regimes that overcame internal legitimacy crises by focusing domestic discontent around an external foe. The same prospect of diversionary conflict drove the unstable Argentine junta to invade the Falkland Islands in 1982, though the threat of domestic unrest and prospect of regime instability is nowhere near as severe in today’s Iran than early-1980s Argentina. But importantly, the US appears to not grasp the implications of this perceived vulnerability: at the exact moment when Iranian conservatives seem more concerned about their domestic position than any time since the 1980s the United States doing everything it can to help the regime credibly present it as an implacable external enemy.

This doesn’t imply the Iranian regime faces any real prospect of collapse. Nader’s characterization of the regime as wobbling and wheezing is overblown, and American hopes the Iranian government will conveniently collapse are chimerical. But unqualified American hostility that empowers its adversaries is simply bad US foreign policy. “What Iran’s leaders would like more than anything,” Matthew Duss recently argued, “is another Dick Cheney or John Bolton, someone willing to play the villainous role that Iran’s anti-American propaganda narrative requires.” For Iranian political figures benefiting from the America-as-aggressor narrative, the positive (for them) implications of a US strike is a powerful incentive to avoid a diplomatic settlement.

This is why the “stick” argument Clawson embraces is so misguided. Clawson closes his piece by warning Iran that it should either “accept a generous offer to resolve the nuclear impasse or be prepared for the consequences.” But the same internal division Clawson highlights makes these “consequences” an entirely uncompelling threat! Given that the status quo favors the Iranians — the decision to escalate the crisis rests on the Americans and Israelis — relying on threats to coerce Iranian compliance over diplomacy isn’t likely to succeed.

But part of why these arguments persist is that, barring a unexpected breakthrough, diplomacy doesn’t appear to be workable. This impasse can be partially attributed to Iranian disfunction, but internal politics arguably constrains American diplomacy as much as it does Iran’s. The Obama administration’s Iran policy is limited by a domestic political arena that is at once too united and too divisive. The American foreign policy establishment’s reflexive hostility towards Iran makes it difficult to imagine the US proposing a feasible diplomatic solution, and partisan politics works to prevent the administration from moderating its demands.

Foreign policymakers inhabit a broader establishment that constrains their actions. These constraints are significant, and the specifics of American agenda-setting within divided government allow US hawks to constrain politically acceptable diplomatic options to their own preferences to a greater extent than their dovish peers. Most voters don’t care about foreign policy and embrace exceptionalist rhetoric that legitimize interventionist policies and makes threat inflation politically valuable. Just as IRI internal divisions allows hardliners’ preferences to limit both diplomacy and the compellence value of American sticks, in America the spectrum of credible diplomatic offers is benchmarked around the most hawkish members of the US foreign policy establishment. While this is no reason to discount the very valid reasons for opposing the Iranian regime — its barbaric human rights record is the most obvious — it is important to recognize that institutionalized hostility towards Iran within the American governing establishment significantly constrains P5+1 diplomacy.

The constraints these attitudes place on policymakers is obvious. After all, much of the Republican hostility to Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel is based on his view that a destructive war would represent a fundamental failure of foreign policy; a complete truism to dispassionate observers. Worse, when Jennifer Rubin claims Iran — home to a population a quarter of America’s, bereft of international allies, and armed by a decrepit military — is “our greatest national security threat” she is voicing a mainstream Republican talking point, not a fringe position. Commentators may persuasively argue that the dangers of nuclear proliferation are hugely overblown, but their arguments makes little practical difference because the political constraints built into the modern American foreign policy establishment marginalize challenges to nuclear alarmism.

Clawson contrasts Iranian divisiveness by noting that American bills targeting Iran “typically enjoy stunning levels of support,” but discounts the possibility that this too is a barrier to successful diplomacy. If American threats do not appear sufficient to compel Iran — and they do not — successful diplomacy must involve some degree of mutual compromise. But again, it’s unclear if American policymakers possess the domestic political capital to accept a potentially mutually satisfactory deal. While “sanctions relief” is reportedly on the table in the next round of talks, Republicans are sure to view dialing back sanctions in exchange for anything less than complete Iranian capitulation as another example of Obama’s “unserious” attitude towards national security.

These domestic political constraints aren’t limited to setting the boundaries of plausible diplomatic options. It’s worth remembering that American attitudes have already blocked potentially workable solutions. As related by Trita Parsi in his history of the Obama administration’s first term diplomacy with Iran, the potentially mutually-agreeable Iran-Brazil-Turkey-led Tehran Declaration was derailed in part by US domestic political pressures. “The impression, right or wrong,” Parsi quotes an Obama administration official as saying, “that was created was that we could not take yes for an answer”; an example of constrained diplomacy if there every was one.

Compromise is an integral part of diplomacy. Unfortunately, it’s possible diplomatic constraints on both sides of the negotiating table make that necessary mutual trade a nonstarter.