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To Entice Tehran, Washington Must 'Get Real'

On the issue of Iranian nuclear arms, the U.S. imperils its own national security by continuing to function in a dreamworld, denying the unfairness of its position, which is based on Likudnik propaganda rather than reality. Only after opening its eyes will Washington be able to devise a negotiating position that will attract the serious attention of Tehran.

George Perkovich, director of the Nonproliferation Program at the Carneige Endowment for International Peace, has given an interview on the U.S.-Iranian nuclear dispute that deserves attention as it represents an effort to present to an American audience a relatively thoughtful analysis of a subject that is usually, for Americans, filtered through a highly biased Likudnik perspective. Unfortunately, even this interview remains fundamentally colored by cultural biases. Nuclear war is a fairly serious topic; our national security requires that it be discussed dispassionately and fairly. On this topic, the U.S. cannot afford to operate in a fairytale world. It needs to face squarely its own biases and the weaknesses that undermine its negotiating position. Needless to say, on the issue of Iranian nukes, it remains far removed from reality, mired in a degree of confusion that imperils global political stability and U.S. national security. Perkovich’s interview illustrates some of the problems.

Perkovich begins with a flat statement that fault in the dispute lies with Tehran:

The question isn't our willingness to negotiate or to try to find some resolution with this government in Iran. The real question is whether this government in Iran is at all willing to make compromises on its current posture and take the steps that are required by the Security Council.

Actually, it’s not quite that simple. First, he ignores the 50-year-long record of U.S. efforts to curtail Iranian independence, which cannot but make Iranians highly sensitive to national security concerns. Aside from that history, making demands backed up by none-too-subtle threats of potential aggression against Iran do not constitute “negotiation;” calling current U.S. policy an effort to achieve “negotiated surrender” would be more accurate. It is the U.S. (and its trouble-making ally, Israel) who are making the demands.

Iran is just doing what any number of other countries have done: trying to master nuclear technology that Pakistan and Israel already have in spades, force the world to pay attention to it by a policy of nuclear ambiguity taken straight from the Israeli playbook, and enhance its security via some version of mutually assured destruction. Tehran may want more; it may plan more. Nevertheless, seeking technological parity, asserting nuclear ambiguity, and enhancing its security is what Iran is currently doing: a very weak copy of what India, Israel, and Pakistan have done. The U.S. does not have much legal or moral basis for opposing such behavior by Iran while condoning and even actively assisting worse behavior by India, Israel, and Pakistan.

That is certainly not to say that the U.S. does not have perfectly good security reasons for wanting to see Iran modify its nuclear policy. If the U.S. can make a sincere case to the world that it apologies for having introduced and first used nuclear weapons and that it now understands the importance of eliminating nuclear arms, that would be a contribution to global security. If the U.S. could lead an effective campaign for a non-nuclear Mideast, it would constitute a huge step forward for human civilization and fully justify a Nobel Peace Prize. Given the dependence of the Israeli military machine on American largesse, Washington is in an excellent position to take a solid first step toward a nuclear-free Mideast whenever it so chooses.

Focusing on Iran, however, is something else again. If the U.S. wants non-nuclear Iran to make the extraordinary concession of giving up the pursuit of what its neighbors are already allowed or even encouraged to have, then it is up to the U.S. to make Iran a suitably extraordinary offer. If the U.S. has made an offer comparable to the desired Iranian concession, I’d appreciate having someone identify exactly what that American offer is. Offering to treat Iran with the normal respect due all societies, to stop threats, or to “allow” Iran to have access to the same technology as every other country (including ones that possess nuclear arms) are all nice door-openers but don’t make the cut as a serious negotiating position. If Iran is going to be expected to give up a valuable bargaining card (not to mention a measure of national security), it follows logically that it should be offered something of unusual substance in return. So, the “real question” is whether or not the U.S. itself is “at all willing to make compromises on its current posture.” The question of whether or not Iran will bargain is a secondary one.

What might constitute a reasonable offer? Washington should put the nuclear status of Israel on the table.

Acknowledging that Iran and Israel should be on a level nuclear playing field would first of all be a moral issue designed to open the door to serious Iranian participation in negotiations. It would effectively state that Iran is now accepted as a legitimate society entitled to respect, consideration, and national security. The details of negotiating a practical process of achieving such a level playing field would surely take decades, but it would finally provide Iran with both excuse and serious rationale for negotiating on its core national security issue.

Perkovich is absolutely correct that the critical question is whether or not Iran is willing to compromise, but to answer that question, Washington will need to make Iran a real offer.

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