Bargaining from the Bottom

By all reports, the recent nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries—the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany—went well. And more talks are coming up. And that raises the question, Why now?

The answer is provided by history. History has taught Iran that she cannot negotiate with the United States from a position of weakness. Bitter experience has taught Iran that America will not listen unless you bargain from a position of strength: you have to have something the U.S. wants, and you have to have demands about what you want from her.

Iran learned this lesson through two painful previous attempts under two different Iranian presidents. In 1989, Hashemi Rafsanjani became president of Iran. He wanted to reshape Iran’s position and break out of her international isolation by improving relations with the United States. He attempted to win U.S. approval and friendship by showing Iranian friendship while demanding nothing in return. Iran went to America with an offering of peace. Rafsanjani offered America her friendship in two ways. The first was his successful intervention to secure the release of the Americans being held hostage in Lebanon. The first President Bush had promised to return goodwill with goodwill, but then did nothing for Iran when the hostages were released thanks to her efforts.

Then Iraq invaded Kuwait. Iran maintained neutrality. But, as she made clear, neutrality was really a pro-American stance. Mahmoud Baezi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister at the time, said that Iran spurned Iraq’s pleas for help on the grounds of that neutrality, meaning the neutrality was, in fact, against Iraq. Reinforcing his claim that Iranian neutrality was really Iran siding with America are the facts that Iran allowed the United States to use Iranian airspace and refused to return the jets that Iraq had flown into Iran.

But despite Iran’s significant assistance to the United States both in Lebanon and Iraq, when the U.S. convened the Israeli-Palestinian Madrid Conference, she invited nearly every affected nation while snubbing Iran, closing the door on her face, and once more isolating her internationally, when the whole point of Iran’s actions had been to end the isolation under the belief that her goodwill to the Americans would end America’s hostility. The American snub in response to the Iranian offer put an end to Rafsanjani’s chances of détente with the U.S.

From this failed experience at approaching the Americans, Iran learned that when she gave to the U.S. without asking, she got nothing in return. Iran extended a hand and the U.S. didn’t shake it. The experience produced a feeling of hopelessness in Iran, and Rafsanjani’s sincere attempt to patch relations up with America withered. Iran approached with no collateral and no demands and she got nothing. Iran was learning not to negotiate with America from a position of weakness.

One more President, one more try. America’s best hope for friendship with Iran came with the election of Seyyed Mohammad Khatami in May of 1997. Like Rafsanjani, Khatami wanted to improve relations with the outside world. And that hope included America. Khatami rejected any sort of terrorism and went so far as to express a willingness to accept a two state solution if that’s what the Palestinians wanted. In expressing that willingness, the President of Iran implicitly expressed the willingness to recognize the state of Israel. Despite these clear offers, America once again ignored Iran.

Then came 9/11. And Iran again saw the chance to help America and smooth the ground for friendship. Iran offered her air bases to the U.S. She offered search and rescue missions for downed U.S. planes. She went after al-Qaeda and offered to help rebuild the Afghan army. President Bush offered Iran nothing back.

Instead, in return for Iranian goodwill and assistance, in January 2002, President Bush included Iran in his Axis of Evil speech. Khatami was stunned. And the hardliners who opposed his efforts used this speech of Bush’s to argue that you can never deal with the United States from a position of weakness

Iran is no longer in a position of weakness. And perhaps that is why this round of talks may be different. Iran learned her historical lesson and strengthened her position. First, Iran has enriched uranium. She has been enriching uranium to 3.5% for energy and to 19.5% for medical isotopes needed by her hospitals for imaging and treating cancer. But the stockpile of enriched uranium is also collateral.

If the West wants to get rid of that stockpile of enriched uranium, one of three things is going to have to happen. Either Netanyahu is going to bomb Iran, Obama is going to push Iran with sanctions and one sided diplomatic demands, or the U.S. and the other members of the P5+1 are going to have to give something in negotiations. But Iran is now in a position of sufficient strength to try to prevent the first two from happening and force the third. And that means Iran will agree to give what the West wants—assurances of no nuclear weapons program and full access to IAEA inspectors to back those assurances—if the West agrees to give Iran what she wants—a peaceful, civilian nuclear program and recognition of her role in her region. In other words, Iran wants to try to force the West, from her position of strength, to negotiate in good faith under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which denies her the right to a nuclear weapons program while assuring her the right to a peaceful, civilian nuclear program.

Iran came to the table this time with demands of her own and collateral to negotiate with. Iran will talk, but for the first time in history, America will have to listen. And Iran’s position of strength is enhanced by internal situations that have weakened the American and Israeli positions.

Netanyahu’s answer to Iran’s collateral is to bomb it. But, in a rational world, that solution should be harder to sell with the entire Israeli military and intelligence community discrediting it. In the past few weeks, Yuval Diskin, the man who headed Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, for six full years, accused Prime Minister Netanyahu of “misleading the public on the Iran issue”. He went on to oppose Netanyahu’s solution by arguing that “many experts say that an Israeli attack would accelerate the Iranian nuclear race”. Then Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, insisted that Iran has not “made the decision” to pursue a nuclear weapons program and that the “Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people” who are unlikely to build a bomb. That’s the army, that’s domestic intelligence, and now add foreign intelligence. Meir Dagan, who headed Mossad for eight full years, trumped all the others for directness. Referring to the bombing of Iran, Dagan thundered, “This is the stupidest idea I have heard in my life”. How does the Prime Minister go ahead with his idea after that? And lest you think that three is not enough to constitute an authoritative rebellion, Israeli journalist Uri Avnery reports that one after another past security chiefs have come out and allied with these three against Netanyahu, including the current head of Mossad, the current head of Shin Bet and the whole choir of recent military chiefs of staff.

And if military and intelligence still isn’t enough, then throw in the politicians. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has stated that “it is not the case” that “Iran is determined to . . . attempt to obtain nuclear weapons . . . as quickly as possible”. He then asked rhetorically, “To do that, Iran would have to announce it is leaving the inspection regime and stop responding to IAEA’s criticism . . . . Why haven’t they done that? . .”. And even Israeli President Shimon Peres said in Toronto the other day that “It is better to start with non-military efforts than to go straight to war. . . . The fact that Iran is ready to enter negotiations shows [sanctions] are having an impact.” A few weeks before, he implied that Iran should be addressed as a world problem and not as a problem for Israel to settle alone.

The American attempt to coerce Iran diplomatically and through sanctions is weakened by a similar credibility gap. How can Obama push Iran when neither his intelligence nor his military community backs him either? Former CIA director and current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta publically asked himself the question in January, “Are they [Iran] trying to develop a nuclear weapon?” and succinctly and pointedly answered, “No”. His Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Martin Dempsey, and the current CIA director, David Petreus, agree. In his January 31 senate testimony, James R. Clapper Jr., the Director of National Intelligence, said that there was no evidence that Iran had made a decision on making a concerted push to build a weapon. He added that “[W]e have not seen indications that the government has made the decision to move ahead with the program”. The most recent National Intelligence Estimate, the view of all sixteen of America’s intelligence agencies, which was provided in 2011, expressed with high confidence the same opinion. So how, in a rational world, do you push Iran when you have no weight behind you?

If the Israeli bombing solution is weakened and the American coercing solution is weakened, then Iran may hope that the third option, that the P5+1 will have to give something to get something—that is that they have to actually negotiate—is strengthened. They may hope that it is further strengthened by having collateral. Having a demand, having collateral and bargaining from a position of strength is the lesson Iran has learned from her history of trying to make friends with the States. Perhaps that’s why she’s willing to try again. Perhaps that’s why this time may be different.

Interestingly, the U.S. finds herself in this unfamiliar position in other parts of the world too. At the recent Summit of the Americas, the U.S. found herself engaged in a struggle. At past meetings of the Organization of American States, the U.S. had used her position of strength to compel the members of the organization to do whatever she wanted. This time, the nations of Central and South America, confident that they now have something and are in a position of strength, simply said that if America doesn’t give in, they simply won’t come anymore. 

Latin America is no longer negotiating from a position of weakness. Latin American nations have turned inwardly toward each other instead of outwardly toward America. While America’s economy has committed suicide, their economies are booming. Brazil is one of the fastest growing powers in the world. Argentina’s economy has grown at a rate of 7.7% a year since 2004, and her unemployment rate has plunged from 20% to only 8%. In Venezuela, where the economy has grown by 47.4% in the past ten years, poverty has dropped from 49% of the population to 27%, and extreme poverty has been reduced from 27.4% to only 7.3%. Unemployment, which towered at 14.6% in 1999, is 7.7% today.

While the Organization of American States was a forum for America to control policy in the hemisphere by preventing positions the Latin American countries wanted, the region has now created a thirty-two nation strong organization into which America and Canada are not invited. This time, the countries of Latin America, with their new economic and political network of alliances simply told America that if she wouldn’t cooperate and negotiate as a partner instead of coerce as a bully, they would simply replace the OAS with the new America-free organization.

Interestingly, that thirty-two was exactly the number of countries that voted for Cuba’s inclusion next time, and Canada and the States were the two that voted no. Several countries, including, but not limited to, Brazil, Bolivia, Columbia and Ecuador, said they would not attend another Summit of the Americas unless the States gives in and invites Cuba.

Like Iran, Latin America thinks it can negotiate a new relationship from a position of strength. Pakistan, who has offered America much in Afghanistan, including crucial supply access to that neighbour, may have learned something similar. So far, Pakistan has been unable to make the U.S. take seriously her demands to cease the drone strikes. But the length of time the Americans have ignored her, is the length of time that Pakistan has withheld access to Afghanistan from NATO.

All of this points to an interesting pattern emerging that finds America bargaining from the bottom and other countries hoping that things may be different this time around if they can negotiate from a position of strength. 

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