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.
In his first press conference after taking the presidency in August of last year, Rouhani was emphatic about the continuation of the nuclear enrichment program, and blithely dismissive of Western demands, all of which he referred to as “beyond the law, unreasonable, or expired.” It isn’t unreasonable to assume, based on Rouhani’s past comments and experience, the current negotiating party is the kind that would take advantage of a proffered compromise.
It’s also well worth noting the overall character of the regime we’re dealing with. In taking a soft approach to the nuclear issue, the Obama administration has evidently pinned much of its hope on the assumption that the Rouhani government is more moderate than its predecessors. But the Rouhani government is the same government as its predecessor. Its ultimate authority remains the Supreme Leader, not the president. And even if this was not the case, Rouhani has always been aligned with Ayatollah Khamenei, and his cabinet is filled with ideological servants of the Iranian Revolution, and participants in the various brutal repressions that have proven the mullahs’ regime to be a dangerous force in the Middle East.
Accordingly, Rouhani’s Iran has kept up support for the terrorist organization Hezbollah and for brutal dictators elsewhere in the region, chiefly Bashar al-Assad of Syria. It continues to maintain the largest number of executions per capita in the world – approximately 650 so far under Rouhani’s presidency. And it has directed violent attacks against organized opposition to the regime, not only in its own country but in partnership with the government of Iraq. Fifty-two members of the Iranian opposition group the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) were killed in Camp Ashraf, Iraq last September, and several more have been killed in rocket attacks on Camp Liberty.
Those who promote a tougher approach in dealing with the threats posed by the Iranian regime seem to be cognizant of something that escapes President Obama’s attention: short term successes at the negotiating table do not necessarily signify a genuine change in Iran’s attitude towards the West, democracy or human rights. In this context, the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Elliott Engel (D-NY) are to be commended for introducing bi-partisan legislation to hold the Iranian regime officials accountable for their egregious human rights abuses and export of terrorism to the region.
It will take a more than a nodding head and a grudging signature to prove that the nation’s requests for compromise should be taken seriously. The West has to look at the whole picture in order to understand what it is dealing with. And if it finds it is dealing with a duplicitous and intractable force, then ultimatums are a better strategy than compromises.