Whatever the difficulties or failings in the attempts of the President Obama administration to negotiate an end to Iranian moves towards nuclear weapons, the recent letter to Iran by 47 Republican Senators seems to me like an act of ill thought through madness.
But setting that to oneside, there is the key question when anyone criticizes a negotiation strategy: what is your alternative strategy? I haven’t really heard one, and when I raise this issue with Republican critics of the President’s strategy on line, they tend to fall silent or talk about endless much tougher sanctions and they are equally silent when I ask what their alternative to a negotiated agreement is: their BATNA in technical negotiation analysis: the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement which is your walk away option, what you will do if you can’t make a good agreement and what you can do unilaterally.
I thought it might be interesting to reflect on this issue as a way to critique the critiques of the negotiating strategy and give some thoughts on the factors at play:
- The US has not traded with Iran since 1979, with the exception of President Reagan who broke his own countries sanctions to trade arms for hostage releases in the Lebanon as part of the Iran Contragate scandal
- The US is therefore not really in any position to increase or continue damaging sanctions on Iran, without the support of other countries most critically the EU, China and Russia who did or do trade with Iran.
- So any negotiating strategy based on sanctions needs international support, whether the Republican Party leaders or its base like it or not. That is the reality.
- So far the sanctions currently in place with international support seem to be working to force the Iranians to negotiate. What and how we negotiate is harder to know.
- But clearly agreement would need to include strong provisions to prevent current Iranian nuclear capacity leading to its possession of nuclear weapons and for onsite inspection to monitor and verify this. This is not easy work.
- For those who argue against any negotiations at all, or who are trying to sabotage the current multi-nation negotiations, I would ask what their BATNA is, their Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement is? In the context of these other realities:
- Iranian nuclear facilities are widely distributed, and unless the Iranians have only half a brain, built underground in long tunnels that make it hard even with bunker buster bomb strikes for them to succeed. They must have been expecting air strikes on these facilities for a decade or more.
- Moreover, Iranian air defenses are not 1980s Soviet era Iraq level defenses, but 2000s era Russian defenses: mobile best in the world air to ground S-300s etc, mobile radars which are protected by hundreds of decoys rendering HARM anti radar missiles useless.
- So air strikes will likely be both useless in eroding the nuclear capability and costly
- A ground invasion is a deeply forbidding project, requiring huge numbers of ground troops, $ trillions and based on the Iraq invasion, would take maybe 6-12 months to prepare for, more than enough time for Iran to actually build the damn bombs and deploy them against an invasion, use them on Israel or whatever suicidal acts the opponents of negotiation attribute to them
- To me, watching Iran over the last 30 years or so, their leaders seem deeply strategic, cautious and patient. They are difficult people to negotiate against for these reasons. Fanatical and stupid they don’t seem to be, whatever terrifying things they occasionally say to distract their people from domestic discontents, and much as I might dislike what they stand for.
- So I don’t actually see a military BATNA, a military solution that makes sense, though you might want to leave it as a sort of hinted at unspecified option, it doesn’t seem to me a credible one. And for negotiationg power BATNAs have to be credible or you just look foolish.
- So we are left with the President’s strategy:
- Negotiate with international support backed by international sanctions to achieve a no nuclear weapons agreement on Iran with appropriate verification
- Recognize that the only real BATNA is indefinite continuation of sanctions
- In the event we opt for long term sanctions without an agreement, I don’t see the incentive for Iran to not just go ahead and develop a bomb, knowing it has the sanctions with or without developing a bomb.
- Not a negotiation place I would like to be in.
- Or of course, we could move away from focus on the nuclear weapon issue to try to achieve a grand bargain to sort out the middle east once and for all. Good luck with the US leading that when the Republican opposition only includes a few grown ups any more. This is not President Eisenhower or even Reagan’s Republican Party.
I would welcome critique of my analysis.