March 21st marked the close of the latest round of nuclear talks with the P5+1. In light of the latter development, the US Congress sent a series of letters last month to President Obama, advising him on the continuation of the negotiations. Two identical letters originated from the House of Representatives and the Senate, the former was signed by 395 representatives and the latter, initiated by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, was signed by 22 Democratic senators plus one Independent. A third letter was signed by 83 bi-partisan senators.
The House and Senate documents call for negotiators to insist on an agreement absolutely guaranteeing Iran’s inability to build a nuclear weapon. The document bearing the signatures of 83 senators goes much farther, demanding that Iran agree that it has “no inherent right to enrichment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
Every reasonable observer of the negotiations and of Iran’s internal policy knows that the government would never sign onto such an agreement. But that isn’t to say that US senators are wrong to insist upon it. It doesn’t always pay to be lenient in negotiations. Ultimatums are defensible strategies if you have significant bargaining power and you can reasonably expect that the other part will take undue advantage of a compromise.
What would “taking advantage” look like in the case of the Iranian nuclear issue? Well, we have seen it before. This issue has been something of a foreign policy crisis for the US at various times over the course of more than a decade. During that time, Iran has variously done its part to assuage Western fears, even going so far as to announce a voluntary halt to its enrichment program. But to what end? In each instance, the US has been compelled to start over, knowing full well that despite its posturing, the government of Iran was still earnestly pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
Hassan Rouhani, the lead nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005 and now the president of Iran, explicitly bragged about this. Such brinksmanship – paying lip service to Western concerns while contradicting them in practice – is a point of pride for the Iranian leadership, and it has had more than ten years to practice the craft. What is said at the negotiating table is not the same as what’s said behind closed doors, or, in the present case, in front of one’s own citizens.