Negotiating with Iran: The Strategic Case for Pragmatism and Real Progress

The United States needs to be extraordinarily careful in dealing with Iran. Iran has now spent well over a decade using delaying tactics and negotiations to move towards a nuclear weapons capability. It also has strong reasons to continue. Quite aside from the issue of national prestige, Iran needs nuclear weapons to give its largely obsolete conventional military forces credibility.

While Iran’s asymmetric military forces are highly capable and it has a large army, Iran lacks modern air, air defense, and sea power. Far from being the “hegemon” of the Gulf, it comes close to being its largest military museum in the area that really counts: the sustained ability to fight a major conflict against the United States, Arab Gulf, and British, and French power projection forces. Moreover, Iran’s conventionally armed missiles are still far too inaccurate to pose a critical threat to Iran’s neighbors without nuclear warheads.

The terms of any agreement needs to be clear enough to ensure it is verified and subject to continuing inspection, and acceptance by the 5+1, and a lifting of United States, EU, and UN sanctions must be contingent upon these conditions. As with Syria, even the best agreement will only be the start of a process that must extend indefinitely into the future.

The wrong negotiation could allow Iran to move to the point where it has enough fissile material for a weapon, and/or improve and disperse its centrifuge and other nuclear capabilities to the point where even a U.S. – much less an Israeli – preventive strike would no longer credibly degrade Iran’s weapons program.

It could also further weaken the trust of our Arab allies, Israel, Turkey, and European states at a time when many feel the United States has failed to take the right sides in Egypt, has shown serious weakness and indecision in dealing with Syria and Iraq, suffers from war fatigue, and cannot find a meaningful solution to its internal debates over its budget and defense spending. These reservations already range from popular conspiracy theories that the United States intends to betray the Arab world for Iran, to serious distrust by every friendly Arab government.

The Challenges

Trading an end to U.S., EU, and UN sanctions for a credible rollback of the threatening aspects of Iran’s nuclear programs will be a very complex exercise in arms control, and implementing any agreement will be an extraordinarily complicated task. But, real progress in creating good relations between the United States and Iran will not be easy for other reasons.

Neither side can forget its own history, whether it is the 1953 coup that brought back the Shah, or the U.S. embassy takeover and 444-day hostage crisis. The United States and Iran became entangled in the so-called Tanker War -- a low-level naval-air engagement on the edge of the Iran-Iraq War, and the United States backed Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran after 1984.

Quite aside from the nuclear issue, they are currently divided over the build-up of Iran’s asymmetric forces and threats to close the Gulf, Israel, the Syrian civil war, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, the overall military balance in the Gulf and U.S. support of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) military forces, and low level U.S. efforts at regime change. Iranian efforts in Afghanistan, and the role of the Al Quds Force – a special unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – and other Iranian government activities in the support of what the United States sees as a major form of state terrorism.

These are real, substantive policy issues and talking about instant rapprochement, any real mutual trust, and a meaningful end to U.S. and Iranian tensions will do more harm than good. Even if some all-encompassing “Grand Bargain” could be negotiated, the bitter legacy of aggression and reaction from both sides has created mistrust, suspicion, and doubt that will likely color the relationship for years to come.

The Last Real Hope before Iran Goes Nuclear

Nevertheless, it makes no sense at all to reject Hassan Rouhani’s opening or condemn the Obama Administration’s response. Iran’s nuclear programs have moved to the point where it is extremely doubtful that there will be another chance to begin what may be a long and difficult process for all nations involved, and an attempt at resolution is far better than any of the real world alternatives.

As long as any negotiations that follow are realistic in terms of their content, and do not endorse indefinite delay in a U.S. response while Iran’s nuclear programs move forward, they offer what will be the last real hope of avoiding preventive strikes or a process of containment that would lock the region into an Iranian-Israeli nuclear arms race, a probable Saudi effort to acquire its own nuclear weapons, and a U.S. commitment to extended deterrence.

The Uncertain Outcome of Preventive Strikes

The United States, Iran, and all the other nations involved need to be far more pragmatic about what will happen if time does run out and Iran does go nuclear. Iran may well face a series of preventive strikes – triggered by Israel or planned by the United States – that will destroy far more than its nuclear facilities. This may or may not actually halt the Iranian nuclear effort.

A limited set of Israeli preventive strikes could either force the United States to follow up, or create a situation in which Iran rejects all arms control and UN inspection and carries out a massive new disperse nuclear program or a crash basis. It could also drive Iran to lash out into a new wave of confrontation with the United States and Iran’s neighbors.

A U.S.-led set of preventive strikes would be more successful, but the United States could only be sure of suppressing a meaningful Iran nuclear effort if it quickly re-strikes any known target it fails to destroy the first time, carries out constant surveillance of Iran, and repeatedly and thoroughly strikes at the targets created by any new Iranian initiatives.

The United States would need regional support to do this and probably prolonged regional agreement to U.S. basing. At a minimum, the result would be years more of a regional arms race, military tension, and Iranian efforts to find ways to attack or pressure the Arab states, Israel, and United States.

As the current conflict in Syria makes all too clear, no one can predict how much support the United States will really get from any of its allies, its own U.S. Congress, and no one can predict the limits to Iran’s reactions, ability to use third parties, and willingness to confront the United States and the region with new nuclear, missile, and asymmetric threats.

The United States would face an almost certain challenge in the UN from Russia and China, and there is no way any U.S. action against Iran could be separated from Iran’s efforts in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon; Afghanistan, or any other issue where Iran could try to find some form of revenge.

This is not an argument for not acting. The risk of a fully nuclear Iran is simply too great. It is a very strong argument for finding a good alternative if one can be negotiated on realistic terms.

The Uncertain Outcome of Iran Nuclear Weapons and Containment: The Most Likely Outcome is a No Win Escalation Ladder Contest

If there are no preventive strikes – or preventive strikes fail to halt Iran – what is now a largely quiet one-sided nuclear arms race would become far more threatening. At one level, this arms race would become one between Iran and any allies it could find and the United States and its Arab allies in or near the Gulf.

A nuclear Iran could change the balance in terms of the credibility of U.S. and Arab willingness to engage against Iranian threats, intimidation, and use of its asymmetric forces. It would inevitably make Gulf petroleum exports the scene of an ongoing arms race and constant tension, and risk a clash that might escalate in untended ways.

What is less apparent – and needs far more realistic attention in Iran and outside assessments of the Iranian nuclear threat – is the impact of Iran actually going nuclear.  One or several crude nuclear devices do not create a nuclear force. Iran cannot produce enough capable nuclear forces for at least the next decade to pose more of an existential threat to Israel than Israel can pose to Iran.

Israel would scarcely be passive, however, and Israel already has far more capable missiles than Iran. Israel also has thermonuclear weapons, rather than the early fission devices Iran will probably be limited to for at least the next half-decade. As a result Israel will pose more of an existentialist threat to an Iran as dependent on the survival of Tehran than Iran can pose to an Israel dependent on the survival of Tel Aviv.

As the United States and former Soviet Union both learned during the Cold War, even Iranian parity or superiority would be meaningless. The problem with mutually assured destruction is that no state can ever win an existential strike contest.

As for the rest of the Middle East, if Iran shows it is going nuclear to enhance its power and dominate the Gulf region – as may be Iran’s real motive – the resulting threat to world oil exports and the world economy is not likely to intimidate to any degree that will benefit Iran. It will push both the United States and Arab states into responding.

The fact Iran succeeded in acquiring nuclear weapons might increase the level of deterrence of a direct invasion, but would not lead the United States, or surrounding Arab states to passively accept the result. The United States already is transferring more than ten times the value of Iran’s total arms imports to its Gulf allies. Its ties to Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman already give the United States and its Gulf allies the ability to devastatingly defeat Iran in any direct military confrontation.

Iran can only vastly increase the scale of the resulting destruction that the United States and its allies inflict if Iran ever actually escalates to the use of nuclear weapons. But the United States, the Arab allies, Israel, and other regional states will suffer as well – along with the global economy – if the end result is a major interruption in the flow of Gulf petroleum exports.

The Comparative Value of Pragmatism

The other side of this particular coin, however, is real world strategic interest. Iran does not need a nuclear arms race it cannot possibly win, and if it is looking for some form of deterrence, it would be far better off by acquiring precision guided conventional weapons that can be “weapons of mass effectiveness” against key oil and infrastructure targets, have some credible chance of use, do not create the same reaction to any increase in Iranian capability, and do not provoke the target into destroying Iran.

No one benefits from today’s conventional arms race in the Gulf and the region. Iran cannot push the United States and its allies out of the region, nor can it stop the Arab Gulf states from a far more rapid modernization of their air and sea capabilities and buying their own missiles and far more effective missile defenses than Iran can currently acquire.

Asymmetric forces and defense in depth can probably defend Iran from invasion, but it should now be clear that the United States and its allies will put missile and airpower on target, and not boots on the ground. If Iran ever does act on its threat to close the Gulf – or conducts a more realistic campaign of low-level attacks and intimidation – it will find that the United States, Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, and nations like Britain and France will respond much more seriously to a threat to petroleum exports than the crisis in Syria, and Iran cannot close the Gulf or threaten to do so without potentially losing its own ability to export and undermine much of its petroleum infrastructure if escalation becomes serious.

No one – especially the United States – wants to pay for such an arms race and certainly not for a war. The fact remains, however, that Iran is far more economically vulnerable than the United States or Arab GCC states. It already has suffered deeply from sanctions in terms of both its current economy and its economic development. Iran also faces massive structural pressures that pose a far more real-world threat than any U.S. efforts at regime change, the cult-like remnants of the MEK, or the “Baby Shah” Reza Pahlavi, son of the deposed Shah of Iran.

Iran has a sharp growth in population in spite of its past efforts in reducing this trend. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Iran has grown from only 16.4 million people in 1950 to 79.9 million in 2013 and will grow to 100 million by 2050. Its birthrate dropped from 1.4% in 1995 to 0.7% in 2003, but has since risen back to 1.3% in 2013. In spite of its potential oil wealth, its per capita income averages only $13,300, which ranks Iran 100th in the world per capita income, far below the wealthy oil exporting state in the Southern Gulf.

The CIA also estimates that over 18% of its population remains at the poverty rate. Job creation fell far below the necessary level, particularly if youth underemployment is considered in a country where some 24% are 14 years of age or younger, and over 40% are 24 years of age or younger, and over 1.3 million Iranians reach the age the enter the job market each year.

Iran desperately needs relief from sanctions, to cut security expenditures, to reopen its trade structure, gain access to foreign civil technology, and get foreign investment. It needs this almost as much as it needs to eliminate the risk of a nuclear arms race with Israel, the Arab states, and the United States and even the limited risk of nuclear war.

Common Strategic Interests

Other converging strategic interests are involved, many of which now involve areas of tension between the United States and Iran where the United States and Iran actually have common interest along with that most of Iran’s neighbors:

  • Arab-Israeli Tensions and Conflict: Nothing Iran has done in Gaza, Lebanon, or Syria has improved the life of the Arab populations, and it has done much to reduce and limit Israeli belief in a peace process and reduce the willingness of outside states to push a threatened Israel towards a stable peace agreement.  A U.S. agreement with Iran will only have a limited impact but any impact at this point serves the strategic interest of Iran, the United States, every Arab state, and Israel.
  • Afghanistan: Both the United States and Iran have a strong common interest in a stable Afghanistan that does not export Sunni Islamist extremism, terrorism, or narcotics. The same is true in general of all of Central Asia and the Caspian, for that matter. These are “great games” which both Iran and the United States can best win by not playing against each other – if at all.
  • Iraqi and Gulf Security: Iran will never dominate another Gulf state with any security or lasting impact and will never be the “hegemon” of the Gulf. It has already, however, contributed to renewing the sectarian and ethnic nightmare in Iraq, and made itself the target of Arab Gulf military development and targeting and United States, British, and French military contingency plans. A U.S. –Iranian agreement would lead the United States to shape its presence accordingly, a Iranian return to seeking improved relations with the Arab Gulf states would be far more credible, and cooperation in a creating a stable Iraq would be far easier.
  • Islamic Extremism: Despite the initial revolutionary fervor that accompanied the Shah’s overthrow, Iran has learned the hard way it cannot export its Islamic revolution. At best, it can only win limited support by providing arms, advisors, and money whose value is generally offset by the reaction of far larger Sunni populations and fueling the Sunni Islamist extremism that is a common threat to Iran, moderate Sunni regimes and populations, and the United States and other outside states. Cooperation, common efforts at anti-terrorism, removing the causes of sectarian violence, and building religious tolerance are to the strategic interest of all.
  • Other Sectarian and Ethnic Divisions: As is the case with religious extremism, and end to state-driven efforts to exploit the divisions within Islam and cooperation in counterterrorism offer Iran the best way of achieving internal stability, and benefit the future of Shi’ite and other minorities in countries like Bahrain Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen – if not the entire region. At the same time, they offer the best path to stability, development, and security to every Sunni state, and the best hope of both dealing with terrorism and help the region achieve social progress to the United States, Europe, Russia, China, and all other outside states.
  • Petroleum development and transportation: The United States benefits as much from stable, market driven petroleum exports as Iran and the other exporting states. Stable high-volume production caps or lower prices while providing higher levels of total export revenues. Lower military expenditures can finance development and higher living standards. Freely opening up pipeline routes to Pakistan and India would reduce the risk of maritime chokepoints, benefit Afghanistan and South Asia, and offer India and Pakistan an incentive for cooperation.
  • Regime change: Iran’s current rulers have every interest in preserving the religious character of the state, but no clear interest in avoiding progress, reform, and social change. The United States can slightly influence Iran’s internal political evolution, but has no real hope of changing the regime from the outside, and neither do Iran’s small exile elements, supporters of the now elderly “Baby Shah”, or the remnants of the MEK. The paradox of a more open Iran is that it offers both the regime the best hope of future survival and the Iranian people the best hope of incremental progress, reform, and improved social conditions.
  • Syria and Lebanon: As is the case with Iraq, creating sectarian division and violence serves no one’s strategic interest. Neither does backing extremist factions or inept authoritarians like Assad.
  • Trade: Reducing Iran’s ability to trade, and forcing it to seek endless ways around sanctions and to use transit ports badly strains its financial sector, ability to finance development, overall import costs and capacity and the value of Iranian market to outside exporters.

The Search for Rational Bargainers

History provides a grim warning that it is usually pointless to remember the past. In actual practice, history ends up being misused as a rationale for violence, revenge, anger, and hatred. It is probably even more unlikely in any given case that two nations that already remember the past in the way that Iran and the United States do can learn from it and deal as rationale bargainer in the present.
The fact remains, however, that playing the equivalent of a two-person zero sum game offers neither power an attractive chance of winning a victory worth anything near its cost. While it is true that one definition of a “pessimist” is anyone with experience in the Middle East, neither the United States nor Iran should ignore these strategic considerations.

The United States and Iran both have the best chance of actually winning by putting an end to their current confrontation and working towards finding a real world way to trade the end of Iran’s nuclear weapons programs for an end to sanctions, a viable compromise over nuclear power, and the incentive offered earlier by the 5+1. The parties must also disregard enough of the past to effectively move forward in all of the areas they share common strategic interests with the Arab states, Israel, and neighbors like Turkey and Afghanistan. Grim as history may sometimes be, history shows that some efforts at rational bargaining do succeed and how much the end result can serve the common interest.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy