Tag Archives: Iran

Making a Deal With Iran Part II: BATNA & Trust

imagesNegotiations often involve unforeseen events and the U.S. Iran negotiations are no exception.  The United States discovered several overseas companies have been doing business with Iran, which amounted to a violation of the existing sanctions, and sent out a blacklist warning.

            Iran struck a temporary bargain with world leaders that paused some aspects of the nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.  Iran followed by saying that any new sanctions would end the possibility of a long-term negotiated agreement.

            If you recall on Thursday of last week the U.S. announced it was freezing the accounts of several companies in Singapore, Panama and Ukraine and elsewhere for maintain convert business with Iran’s national tanker company.

            Initially Iran walked away from the negotiation table in Vienna only to return with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif stating, “ We will show proper, calculated, purposeful and smart reaction toward any improper and unconstructive action over the past few days, improper actions were carried out by the Americans that we responded in a proper way.”

            The issue of trust has been at the center of these negotiations from the beginning however Iran’s willingness to return to the table speaks volumes about their BATNA.  Iranian negotiators had the opportunity to walk away permanently thus ending the negotiations but came back possibly because their best solution to a negotiated agreement was not very enticing.

           Trust has been an obstacle in the negotiations as Iran views the U.S. as a colonail power that does not want to see Iran develop scientifically.  This narrative has been strengthened by the assassinations of nuclear scientists in Iran.  In other words, can the West be trusted?

            Establishing trust with the party across the table can be difficult and often there in lies the solution.  If Iran’s main interest is being developed in the scientific field then the U.S. can collaborate  with Iran without addressing the nuclear issue.  Iran is highly advanced in the neuroscience department and Western scientists would love the opportunity to collaborate.

            Reaching one’s interests is critical in any negotiation and its seems the these talks may have finally reached a threshold where new ground can be covered.


Making a Deal with Iran Part 1: Coercive Diplomacy

imagesThe U.S. has two tools when dealing with a possible nuclear Iran: threats and promises. Political scientist Alexander George would label the combination of these “coercive diplomacy.” This extremely difficult task of combing these two goes beyond a carrot and stick approach as the U.S. must not alternate between carrot and stick but use them simultaneously with credible threats and real promises.  This dance is even harder to pull off given; the long history of mistrust between the U.S. and Iran, U.S.’s backing of Israel and inherent challenges of navigating Iranian decision-making.  

The U.S. recent attempt’s at coercive diplomacy leaves something to be desired.  A confluence of inspections, sanctions and threats led Saddam Hussein to freeze his weapons program after the Gulf War, but he refused any long-term agreement.  The reasons had to do with his motives and perceptions…both of the U.S. and of Iran. Saddam was suspicious of any long-term goals of the U.S. and couldn’t appear weak to his regional rival Iran.  This was made irrelevant by the threats issued by George W. Bush during the run up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. Again all threat and no credible promise.

The Iraq case may be an outlier however and it should not be assumed that coercive diplomacy doesn’t work.  Former Libyan leader al-Qaddafi stopped developing weapons of mass destruction partly due to pressure and reassurances from the United States.  More often than not however the U.S. has relied on overwhelming force and has missed the mark on the second pillar of coercive diplomacy…promises.  Even much weaker enemies have refused to bend to the sole application of the use of force including Panama (1989), Iraq (2003), Serbia (1998), and Taliban in Afghanistan (2001).  All of these failed attempts at pressure lead the U.S. to fall back on the pillar of threat and military action.  Furthermore, Iran is far from alone in its defiance of U.S. pressure as North Korea has refused to give up its nuclear arsenal.

Threats can prove problematic since if they fail they force the threatening party on a path they may not want to travel.  Obama’s red line on Syria’s chemical weapons back fired as soon as the weapons were used.  Now, to remain credible the threat must be made good often with military force. JFK learned this lesson as well during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy famously joked about warheads in Cuba, “Last month I said we weren’t going to allow warheads. Last month I should have said we don’t care.” Both threats put the ball in the court of the other country.  If the other party (in this case Russia or Assad) bend to the treat, they appear weak however if they cross the “red-line” whatever it may be they may or may not face consequences.  Causing pain on one party and making threats can also raise the question of whether or not the party inflicting pain is serious about a deal at all.

Distances of Major Cites from Cuba

This isn’t to say that pressure is always counterproductive. According to U.S. intelligence agencies, the Iranians temporarily stopped developing nuclear weapons in 2003 in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It appears that what a U.S. diplomat said of North Korea is also true of Iran: “The North Koreans do not respond to pressure. But without pressure they do not respond.”

Why Egypt won’t be another Syria

imagesThe removal of the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Morsi supporters took a violent turn as security forces killed at least 525 people and injured almost 4,000 people nearly all of whom are Morsi supporters.  People who saw the assault have reported  bulldozers smashing camps and security forces opening fire on unarmed citizens.  One protestor is on record stating:

“Some onlookers were standing at the surrounding buildings, terrified by the unfolding deaths. Others smiled at the thought that the sit-in, which paralyzed their everyday lives for over a month, was coming to the end.”

Despite these last few tumultuous weeks and the “Day of Anger” scheduled today Egypt will mostly likely avoid spiraling into a civil war. First off, Egypt is held hostage to foreign influence such as aid from the U.S. and other Gulf States all of whom funnel billions of dollars into Egypt.  It’s unlikely that those external forces would allow one of the most populous countries in Africa and the Middle East to fall into civil war.  Without that outside support its unclear if the military could sustain a civil war like the Assad government, which is propped up by military aid from Iran and Russia.  It’s true that arms have been smuggled into Egypt from Libya using Bedoin underground channels but these are mostly rifles and small arms, not the heavy artillery one would need to combat the Egyptian military for a prolonged length of time.

Second, up to now all signs point indicate that General Abdul Fatah el-Sisi has no interest in actually governing. Instead he is more concerned with the material perks of power, not the day-to-day running of a country such as the dispersal of public goods and managing a hard hit economy.

Lastly, Syria is run by a minority sect while Egypt is mostly Sunni and doesn’t have the deep Sunni/Shite tensions that plague other Middle East states such as Iraq and Syria.  Even the killings of Coptic Christians doesn’t seem to be stirring the embers that would ignite a full-blown civil war.

The conflict now is less of a civil war and more of a propaganda war where the Muslim Brotherhood has gained the world’s sympathy and the military might be pushed by public opinion to allow for more liberal forces to enter the political debate.  If the Muslim Brotherhood can maintain its non-violent stance then Abdul Fatah may back down thus ending one of the most violent crackdowns in history.  However the military must find a way to save face and realize that they cannot eradicate the Brotherhood with violence.

Syria: Military Intervention or Realist Chess Game?

I’m a little late to the party, but I feel the discussion on Obama’s strategy in Syria could use some revising. The death toll in Syria has reached 100,000 and 1.6 million refugees have fled the area. The Obama Administration has evidence of nerve gas used by Assad.  Obama has even stated the Administration will provide weapons to the opposition forces. But to what end?

Arguments abound in the media, both for and against, in predictable points of view for our involvement in Syria. Citing the awful death toll,  the hard drawn line of the use of chemical weapons, and, on the other hand, the dangers of military intervention in such a mission.  While these are all valid arguments, I feel they miss the larger point and therefore the real goal of the Obama White House.   

Obama has long been an adherent to Realism the political theory where states primary goal is the obtainment of resources, act on self interest through military build up, often leading to a security dilemma.   

On paper, Obama has a very clear goal — to support a rebel victory that results in Assad’s removal. He believes that opposition forces are the best way to go about achieving that goal.  He may also be attempting to balance the power in the region with Iran and drain Russia and Hezbollah of resources. In a classic Realism when your enemy gains, you accelerate supplies; when your enemy faces loses, ease back gain.    

If Syria has become a Realist chess board then Obama will have accept some rather dubious claims including that arming the opposition forces will:

1)   Halt the regime’s gains and give the forces a fighting chance

2)   Win influence over the groups and the people they defend

3)   Balance the power that Iran, Al Nursa or any Sunni forces may have gained

4)   Unite the more secular forces and drive out Al Qaeda backed groups

What’s wrong with these points? A few things…

· The Syrian Army uses attack helicopters and tanks to bombard towns from far away so small arms will not help the Syrian forces make gains nor improve defenses

·Interventions like this tend the prolong conflict  

·Research shows that external support generally fractures groups 

·No research has ever proven that a patron or country can reliably “buy” influence from a group or groups 


In order for Iran to lose this chess match, the rebels have to make political and military gains.  For Iran, a victory would just be avoiding an outright U.S. win.  If Obama’s gamble fails it will only reinforce just how weak U.S. influence in the region has become. And then, checkmate.    

Despite the tragedy that is the loss of life, culture and history of Syria, a greater one awaits the Syria population if this power game continues.  They will not be collateral damage. They will not even be pawns. They simply will be the board on which this game of power struggle continues.  

Many commentators, including David Brooks, have made comparisons to a Post 9-11 Iraq. This is folly. Instead, I recommend we view this situation as Afghanistan in the 1980s where President Reagan made the decision to arm opposition forces to combat the Soviet Union. A choice that birthed some the same forces we face in Syria today in the form of Al Nursa and Al Qaeda.

Limiting the discussion of whether or not to intervene not only misses the underlying issue but is short sighted.  Why limit your tools to only rooks and bishops that attack in straight predictable lines?  Predictable military strategies result in a lot of time being wasted attacking and defending positions instead of looking at all the players on the board and seeing what is happening.

Acknowledging where this great chess game is going and getting the players to sit down for diplomatic talks requires a more flexible strategy with more flexible players. If Obama wants to reach any end game in Syria he needs to release his knights. Jump over near by obstacles and get to the heart of the matter. U.S. foreign policy has been here before, a diplomatic response would go a long way improve relations with Gulf States and U.S. standing.