Iran nuclear talks will not – and cannot – succeed
Watching the almost certainly doomed negotiations between Iranian and EU leaders in Vienna this month is to witness a real-time end to efforts to use diplomacy to bypass the nuclear weapons program. from Tehran. When these talks inevitably collapse, they will bury decades of illusion and expose the mutilated edifice of American foreign policy. America’s well-deserved reputation will be in tatters, our increasingly ugly internal divisions will no longer be hidden under a diplomatic sheen.
Negotiations are on hold as of this writing and are expected to resume next week, but EU diplomats already seem deeply pessimistic. US leaders are returning to veiled threats of force – “We are either going to comply with the deal,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday, “or we are going to have to address this problem. another way “- while Iran increases its demands. Tehran wants higher enrichment thresholds as well as a guarantee that the United States will not question the deal the next time a raging Republican is elected president.
You don’t need to have passed the foreign service exam to see why this is going to be the problem in the future: Iran has a new hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi, who doesn’t trust the United States. to keep up with any good deal, with good reason. In 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, for no reason other than arrogance and resentment. The deal had limited Iran’s enrichment activities and subjected the country to intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in return for sanctions relief. While most Republicans have always opposed the framework of the deal, no one has ever produced credible evidence that Iran is cheating.
Former President Donald Trump’s petulant maneuver has brought down the Iranian economy, inflicting untold suffering on the Iranian people without getting anything. After the United States effectively destroyed the JCPOA, Iran redoubled its efforts to improve its enrichment capabilities and restricted the ability of inspectors to monitor its nuclear activity. Today Iran may be enriching uranium – a complicated process needed to increase the concentration of the U-235 isotope that powers nuclear power plants – to 20 percent. At 90% you can start making bombs, although Tehran has always denied that it intends to do so.
It should be remembered that the primary purpose of the deal was to prevent Iran from reaching this stage, and that the deal that Trump broke represented the culmination of more than a decade of often vindictive diplomacy and false starts. The Trump administration has claimed, with logic almost too tortured to be taken seriously, that the Iran deal did it. Following likely that Iran will pursue and acquire nuclear weapons. They argued that the withdrawal would force Tehran back to the table, where Islamic Republic negotiators would easily surrender to US conditions or face the wrath of airstrikes.
Needless to say, Iran did not negotiate with the Trump administration and no targeted strikes came from the United States. The most important long-term consequence, however, is that Trump may have permanently damaged American credibility. Why would negotiating partners believe that US foreign policy decisions and agreements can survive changes in executive power in Washington? Other governments will not spend half a dozen years negotiating a deal that will only survive two or three years.
The situation Trump created is something like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a thought experiment used by scholars of international relations to understand the inherent difficulties states have in trusting each other in the anarchic realm of world politics. Imagine that you and a friend decide to commit a light crime and agree in advance not to say anything if you get caught. Unfortunately, you turn out to be terribly inane con artists and get caught, after which detectives immediately break you up in different interview rooms.
If the two of you don’t say anything, you could face a short one-year prison sentence. However, if you blame your friend and she stays silent, she gets three years and you walk, and vice versa. If the two of you sell each other, your sentences will be two years – worse than if you had stuck to the deal, but better than being the sucker. If you don’t trust yourself, you the two end up worse.
Many international relations scholars believe this basic logic applies to all manner of interactions between countries, including climate change negotiations, arms control agreements, and fishing restrictions. States would be better off sticking to the terms of, for example, an agreement to reduce stocks of nuclear weapons or protect tuna populations. In exchange for a little discomfort, both parties avoid a worse outcome. But just as there is no one to enforce the handshake agreement between two petty criminals, there is no world ruler to punish the cheaters who secretly build thousands of nuclear weapons or loot the world. ocean of every fish in sight.
It all sounds pretty dark! But the smart game theorists who concocted this little fable believe there is a way to tweak his basic, Kobayashi Maru-style catastrophe calculation which is to have the exercise be iterative over and over again. In other words, if you plan to collaborate with your friend again, you are more likely to keep your promises to each other. Creating lasting relationships and routine opportunities for collaboration and conflict resolution between states is how observers think international institutions mitigate conflict even when there is no sheriff in town.
The deal with Iran could have been the start of a self-reinforcing relationship of trust between Washington and Tehran. Instead, Trump made Iran the sucker of the game.
And it wasn’t the first time either – starting in the 1990s, the United States moved away from treaty after treaty, sometimes withdrawing from existing agreements (like the Anti-Missile Treaty). ballistic), failing to ratify formal treaties in the US Senate (such as the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty), or, more recently, demanding unilateral reviews of an existing agreement (as the Trump administration insisted on to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement).
Collectively, these shenanigans have made it harder for other states to trust US diplomacy, especially the ruling Republican Party. The long history of enmity and conflict between the United States and Iran makes it even more difficult to overcome past betrayals, especially when that same Republican party rather openly prepares a coup for 2024. Tehran knows that the Middle East is the last place the Biden administration wants to spend its limited political capital, and after nearly two decades of the threat of a bombing campaign that never materializes, Iranian negotiators can be forgiven for thinking such threats are theater.
Ultimately, Iran will not get the guarantees it wants here. Washington is not directly participating in these talks, and President Biden cannot control what his successor will do. And so, in the absence of a stroke of genius in Vienna, this crisis is likely to falter in its current form, with all parties worse off, until Iran finally builds a nuclear weapon or that a future American president launches another brutal, of several decades, no. -Win the war with Iran as a target.
At this point, it will be pretty clear who the sucker was from the start.