Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Iranian nuclear talks, part 1: Where we are today

By Ali Ezzatyar

I feel like it is difficult to be a casual follower of the Iranian nuclear issue. All related news items are generally tagged with a derivation of one of the following themes: a) Israel is going to attack Iran; or b) the parties are set for nuclear talks. Particularly with respect to the nuclear talks, it is even frustrating for me, an IR nerd of sorts, to see this title every once in a while, as I have every once in a while for the last ten years. Besides dates and parties, they are all a bit of a wash in my head. So let's talk about why no fruit is growing from that tree.

Iran's nuclear program started in the '70s, under the Shah of Iran, with direct support from the United States and other world powers. The idea was that Iran, a large producer and exporter of crude oil, could benefit from a cleaner, cheaper form of energy. It would allow them to sell more of their large but ultimately limited supply of oil, which was good for the world consumer as well, while diversifying their domestic grid. It was tacitly understood at that time that the dual-use nature of nuclear technology as well as Iran's military ambitions meant Iran would one day likely have a nuclear bomb.

The fundamental logic of that energy choice applies even more today than it did in the '70s. The problem is, Iran is now a "rogue state," and so the bomb idea doesn't really fly anymore.

To understand why negotiations have failed, it is essential to recognize that both sides see the entire process as a zero sum game.

News has focused on the potential that Iran will use nuclear technology for the purposes of building a nuclear bomb -- no doubt, that is the biggest concern. But under the zero sum construct and current relations between the two countries, any step Iran takes in the direction of nuclear energy is bad for America; a sworn enemy will have both proven that despite sanctions and a lack of diplomatic relations with the United States, it can accomplish huge technological feats worthy of its desired standing among the world's most powerful nations.

For Iran, every step it takes further emits an aura of self-sufficiency and contentedness that it strives so hard to maintain in the face of what it sees as America's desired monopoly on everything, and dominance of Iran in particular. The threat of having the bomb or the capability to throw one together, Iran's leaders are not too ignorant to notice, has its own cachet.

In a zero-sum game, the only thing that works is force or incentives. Nobody is convincing anyone of anything on the basis of merit. Example: One of the most essential requirements of the United States and other world powers is that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment; what people fail to cite is that Iran did so once, for the purpose of "confidence building," in 2003. It wasn't for confidence building at all; it was because Iran perceived the U.S. as ready, willing, and moderately likely to invade, as they had just done in Afghanistan and Iraq. Force.

As Iraq turned into a quagmire, and Afghanistan too, both with Iran's help, Iran's cooperation dissipated, as if it was tethered to the threat of force which looked more and more unlikely.

Is it any surprise, then, that the recent volume augmentation on the "bomb-bomb Iran" song has led parties back to the table yet again? The difference this time: There is no real threat of force. Simply put, partially for reasons I outlined here, America can destroy Iran's nuclear program and oust its regime (the most scary thought that ruminates under the great Mullah's turban when he sleeps), but won't. And Israel, by the vast majority of accounts, cannot do much alone.

So, then, the second recourse of incentives must be used. A discussion on that in the days to come.

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