NEGOTIATING WITH IRAN: THE STRATEGIC CASE FOR PRAGMATISM AND REAL PROGRESS
By Anthony H. Cordesman
23 Sep 13. 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.
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 c