Commentary

Washington’s Dubious Offer of Negotiations with Iran

The Obama administration supposedly wants to use diplomacy to resolve the long-running crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. But Washington’s apparent negotiating strategy raises serious questions about the sincerity of that position.

The New York Times reported yesterday that the United States and its European allies are prepared to offer a new deal to Tehran. However, that proposal includes conditions that are tougher than those contained in the version that the Ayatollah Ali Kamanei rejected last year.

That is a curious negotiating strategy if the goal is truly to strike a deal on the nuclear issue.

There are two possible explanations for this puzzling stance. One is that U.S. and European Union officials are not sincere about wanting a negotiated settlement and are instead perfectly willing to see tensions escalate. The second possibility is that Western policymakers are extremely confident that the latest round of multilateral economic sanctions is beginning to bite, and that the Iranian regime will, sooner or later, have to capitulate. According to that logic, toughening the provisions of the new offer is a way of conveying to the clerical regime that the longer it waits, the worse will be the deal it eventually gets.

If the former explanation is true, the conduct of Washington and its allies is both reprehensible and dangerous. At a minimum, it risks the breakdown of diplomacy and increases the possibility of a military showdown — with all the negative consequences that would imply for the entire region.

If the latter explanation is true, Western negotiators may be overestimating — perhaps wildly overestimating — the impact of the latest round of sanctions. The new penalties are clearly causing more problems for Iran than previous rounds, but that is a rather low bar to clear. Moreover, the history of economic sanctions shows that, while they are capable of causing inconvenience to the target country, they have a poor record of getting regimes to abandon high-priority policies. And for Iran, the nuclear program is a very high-priority policy.

Instead of toughening their negotiating stance, the United States and its allies need to move in the opposite direction. If policymakers honestly want a peaceful settlement to the Iranian nuclear crisis, concessions and compromise are the necessary ingredients, not the State Department’s version of macho posturing.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America.