Weekend Reader: “Taking On Iran: Strength, Diplomacy, And The Iranian Threat”

Weekend Reader: “Taking On Iran: Strength, Diplomacy, And The Iranian Threat”

Today the Weekend Reader brings you Taking On Iran: Strength, Diplomacy, and the Iranian Threat by Abraham D. Sofaer. Sofaer served as legal advisor to the U.S. Department of State during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. In 1994, Sofaer became a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he also currently teaches. 

Iran’s nuclear threat has long been a foreign policy challenge for the U.S. Historically, U.S. presidents have erred on the side of diplomacy and resisted force. Sofaer’s suggestion in Taking On Iran is that diplomacy alone cannot stop Iran’s nuclear program, and that the U.S. must also embrace a policy of defensive strength. Do you agree with Sofaer’s recommendations? 

You can purchase the full book here.

Whether or not the current strategy of coupling economic sanctions with multilateral negotiations convinces Iran to modify its nuclear program adequately to alleviate security concerns, the United States should adopt as an alternative to preventive attack or containment a strategy based on defending against the IRGC’s support of surrogate and terrorist attacks on the United States, its interests, and its allies.

Defending against IRGC aggression is directly related to the ultimate objective of convincing Iran to accept necessary limits on its nuclear program. To begin with, why would Iran take seriously U.S. threats regarding a nuclear program that has not yet led to the development of a nuclear weapon, when the U.S. has taken no action to curb the IRGC from conducting its fully developed, thirty-year, ongoing, and damaging programs of arming surrogates to actually attack the United States and even engaging in terrorist actions within the U.S. capital? Failing to act against IRGC aggression has led Iran to conclude that, as with North Korea, the option of using force to prevent the development of nuclear weapons will be left “on the table,” where it has ritualistically been placed by every recent U.S. president.

In addition to serving its essential deterrent purpose, defending against Iranian aggression would lead Iran to seek meaningful negotiations with the United States rather than to escalate illegal IRGC activities. Iran reacted to the American navy’s Gulf operations in the late 1980s, and to the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, by seeking broader diplomatic engagement with the United States.

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The need for strength in conducting diplomacy with a belligerent, revolutionary power, like the Islamic Republic or the Soviet Union, stems from the nature of the result being sought. It is futile to seek agreement with such powers in the ordinary sense of the word, that is, with the two sides acting in good faith making compromises to resolve a disagreement. What negotiators must seek instead in such cases, as Henry Kissinger has explained, is the creation of an “‘objective’ situation [that] is ratified by the settlement.” The purpose of responding to the limited war the IRGC has waged against the United States and the West is to make clear that the war may no longer be pursued safely, and indeed that its pursuit would be costly beyond any value it could confer. Iran, like the Soviet Union, sees no value in granting concessions; agreements are made by such regimes only when circumstances demand.

Strength alone, while indispensable, will be insufficient to create a diplomatic process that succeeds in convincing Iran to abandon the use of force, terror, and ultimately the military dimension of its nuclear program. To succeed diplomatically, the United States will have to make substantial modifications to the practices it has applied in U.S./Iranian negotiations. In the present political and diplomatic environment, no administration could convince Congress to support negotiations with Iran on the basis of the principles applied by the Reagan Administration in dealing with the Soviet Union. But defending against IRGC aggression could provide the credibility needed to secure congressional support for negotiating with Iran under the same principles.

Would a two-track approach of strength and diplomacy be effective in dealing with Iran? One cannot know in advance. But, despite the significant differences between the Soviet and Islamic regimes, the principles on which sound defense and effective diplomacy are based should be equally applicable to Iran as it was to the Soviet Union. Both Russia and Iran have deep historical roots and diplomatic experience. Iran has been no more aggressive than the Soviets were in attempting to achieve its objectives and spread its ideology. Iranian leaders are no less likely to be affected by a strong response to their misconduct than the Soviets were, and also no less likely than the Soviets to react negatively to demands that threaten their international legitimacy and domestic standing.
The aversion of many U.S. (and other) political leaders and national security experts to “negotiating” with Iran is based on the consistent failure of the United States to base its diplomacy on strength. The diplomacy that this book supports is the type Ambassador Chester A. Crocker practiced in leading the United States effort to end racism in South Africa, in which the negotiating process is treated as “the engine that converts raw energy and tangible power into meaningful political results.” That sort of diplomacy with Iran has worked on the few occasions it has been tried, and would have a far greater prospect of success than diplomacy that is divorced from the reality that Iran is killing Americans with impunity.

The Iranian style of negotiating differs from that of the Soviets; Americans are more accustomed to the dry sarcasm and directness of the Soviets than the exaggeration and sometimes feigned sincerity of the Iranians. Among negotiators, a larger cultural gap exists between Iranians (particularly those who claim to be guided by religious doctrine) and Americans than the one that prevailed in President Reagan’s time between Soviets and Americans. But U.S. officials come from diverse backgrounds, and there are diplomats on both sides who can overcome such differences.

U.S. leaders would do well in any event to temper their reliance on Iran “experts” in making decisions that relate to the protection of essential national interests. Every president has one duty above all: to safeguard the American people. Failing to defend America against IRGC aggression based on speculation that a particular Iranian leader or group might be offended by such actions may not only be wrong, but may also end up being counterproductive. The failure to respond to IRGC aggression to avoid the danger of alienating President Khatami was a mistake. The lack of response enhanced IRGC power and influence, which the IRGC used to prevent Khatami from improving U.S./Iranian relations and ultimately to destroy any influence he was able to wield.

Equally mistaken is an approach that fails to defend against IRGC aggression on the theory that limited, defensive uses of force would be inconsequential in dealing with the nuclear threat. The legality, legitimacy, and effectiveness of a policy of limited, defensive uses of force give such a policy significant advantages relative to resorting to preventive attacks, which would inevitably be criticized as “unprovoked.” And the failure to take defensive measures will continue to convey the impression, true or false, that the United States and the West will not go beyond economic sanctions in attempting to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

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U.S. analysts have observed that Iranians tend to seek concessions “up front,” without giving assurances that they will provide any quid pro quo. Pocketing concessions is something negotiators from all cultures love to do. The technique can readily be countered by offering relatively modest concessions until Iran has reciprocated at an adequate level. Iranians are also inclined to stretch out negotiations, to engage in verbal dexterity that masks their intentions, to repeatedly revisit issues that appeared to be settled, and to treat negotiations like a Middle Eastern marketplace, all of which can be frustrating. But these qualities are characteristics of negotiators with various cultural backgrounds; they demand patience, firmness, and good humor on the part of the negotiators across the table. Iranian diplomats are as capable of calculating their national interests and reaching binding agreements as the diplomats of any state, as indicated by the many settlement agreements reached between the United States and Iran since the Algiers Accords. It is baseless to assume that Iranians, because of their culture or religious doctrines, are any less likely to abide by their agreements than other states; agreements by any state can ultimately be relied upon only when they remain in the state’s interests to enforce. Iran’s commitments are no more or less trustworthy than were those of the Soviets, which is to say that agreements with Iran warrant adherence to the Reagan principle applied to the Soviets of “Trust but Verify.”

One aspect of negotiating with Iran that poses particular difficulty is the strong likelihood that any Iranian leader who makes a concession on any matter of significance will be attacked domestically. We dealt with this problem in negotiations at The Hague by working on sets of claims advanced by each party, so that cases could be settled in a process that could not effectively be attacked as one-sided. In addition, we avoided formal agreements or understandings on sensitive matters. Discussions about the fatwa ordering the killing of Salman Rushdie, for example, led to an informal understanding that the fatwa would be treated as unenforceable outside Iran. That understanding was as good as any formal treaty, as long as it represented Iran’s actual intent. Informal understandings enable Iranian negotiators to take steps without appearing to have capitulated to some U.S. demand. Once a process of reconciliation is underway, greater openness and formality will become possible, and the parties will be able to address matters and make commitments that require formal arrangements.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.

Reprinted from Taking On Iran: Strength, Diplomacy, and the Iranian Threat by Abraham D. Sofaer, with the permission of the publisher Hoover Institution Press. Copyright © 2013 Abraham D. Sofaer.

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