A Circular Negotiations Game?

Senior Fellow
John R. Bolton

Iran's nuclear weapons program will necessarily be high on the foreign-policy agenda for newly inaugurated President Obama. During the campaign, Candidate Barack Obama argued strenuously that he could do a better job negotiating with Iran than his opponents. His task now, however, is significantly complicated by the three weeks of recent fighting in the Gaza Strip, and the impending Israeli elections on Feb. 10.

With the Bush administration out of office, whatever remote chance there ever was of an American attack against Iran's nuclear program has disappeared entirely.

Given its longstanding and extensive financial support, arms supplies and other aid for Hamas, Iran's reaction to the three-week pounding administered by Israel will be significant both for Gaza and for the larger question of Iran's hegemonic aspirations in the Middle East. In fact, during the intense fighting, many wondered why Iran seemed to confine its response to the purely rhetorical, calling for Muslims to support Hamas, assassinate various Israeli officials, and, as usual, eliminate Israel entirely.

Once the fighting stopped, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki proclaimed "the victory of the Islamic resistance and the heroic people of Gaza" against Israel. That may come as news to Hamas terrorists who remained in Gaza and survived (as opposed to many of their leaders who fled during the Israeli attack), since Israel unquestionably did major damage to Hamas' forces, weapons supplies and infrastructure.

In Iran's peculiar calculus, however, as with Hezbollah during the 2006 war with Israel, having Hamas merely survive nonetheless constitutes a victory. After all, Hamas remains viable as a terrorist threat to Israel, which has yet again withdrawn from Gaza, and in some international circles Israel has been damaged by negative reactions to its self-defense against years of terrorist rocket attacks, a perverse but tangible public-relations victory for Hamas.

Perhaps most significantly for Iran, Israel has not attacked its nuclear weapons program, attention necessarily having been concentrated on operations in Gaza, and the threat (which never materialized) of a coordinated attack by Hezbollah against Israel's northern border region. Moreover, with the Bush administration now safely out of office, whatever remote chance there ever was of an American attack against Iran's nuclear program has also disappeared entirely. In short, Iran had little to gain by responding forcefully to Israel's attack on Hamas, and much to lose.

Now, although Hamas has been weakened, Iran is well-positioned to respond to early Obama administration overtures, widely predicted, for direct U.S.-Iran talks, perhaps in the context of the ongoing European Union negotiations, or perhaps bilaterally. Contact may begin at lower diplomatic levels initially, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an accomplished politician, cannot be blind to the newsworthiness of that first picture of her shaking hands with Foreign Minister Mottaki. Another possible approach is the prompt creation of an American interests section in Tehran, something former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice clearly wanted to do in the Bush administration's waning days.

Moreover, given what many analysts have seen so far as the Obama administration's surprising continuity with aspects of Bush administration policy, such as Iraq, President Obama has strong reason to show the "change" he promised during the campaign. Iran may well be the beneficiary of that domestic U.S. political imperative, a development it would clearly welcome. During the presidential transition, Venezuela was often rumored as the first contrast for Mr. Obama's diplomacy, but that is now highly unlikely after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently said Mr. Obama has "the same stench" as George W. Bush.

Iran fully understands the international political benefits of being seen as a legitimate interlocutor with America, since negotiations play to its benefit far more than to the United States. Moreover, a new U.S. diplomatic initiative by a new team will undoubtedly consume considerable time, which also works to Iran's advantage. Time almost invariably benefits would-be proliferators, and Iran is no exception, having well used the last five-plus years of negotiations with the Europeans to overcome many complex scientific and technological obstacles on the path to creating nuclear weapons.

In fact, the Obama administration's Iran strategy of diplomacy combined with the threat of more sanctions and the potential for military force is no different than the failed strategy that Europe and the Bush administration followed for more than five years. Direct U.S.-Iranian negotiations will not change the fundamental policy equation, or the reality that there are no incentives that will dissuade Iran from trying to acquire nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, keeping the United States "at the table" will play to the Obama administration's every instinct to show that its diplomacy is better than Mr. Bush's, thus prolonging the negotiations and giving Iran all the time it needs to perfect its weapons and delivery capabilities.

Moreover, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have already also made clear that they want to distinguish themselves from their predecessors on the Arab-Israeli dispute, right after Inauguration Day. In material ways, negotiations over Lebanon, Syria and the status of the Palestinians, could well trump negotiations with Iran, both as a media attention getter and a consumer of presidential energy in the foreign-policy arena. In an administration desiring to concentrate on domestic economic matters, there is only so much time to go around. Once again, Iran benefits if its own negotiations with the United States are a second priority, as long as they continue at some level.

The Gaza war and Iran's nuclear program are thus closely related. Those linkages play to Iran's benefit in ways that will come back to haunt the new Obama administration, considerably complicating their optimistic diplomatic plans, and perhaps sooner than they realize.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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