Mark Hibbs“Engage Iran” — What Does It Mean?

During the second half of this week there will be a flurry of meetings in Washington on the subject of negotiating with Iran about its nuclear program. These will include this one hosted at the Stimson Center and held by the Arms Control Association, and a discussion at the University of Maryland with former Iranian negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian, now a visiting scholar at Princeton. Just before, there were two treatments of the same subject in Brussels: one a panel discussion during the IISS-led EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Conference, on Saturday, February 4, and thereafter a public discussion on Monday, February 6, featuring three Carnegie Endowment colleagues: James Acton, Shahram Chubin, and Jessica Mathews.

I was in Brussels for the EU event this weekend but I won’t be in Washington for the meetings this week. Instead I will be here in Berlin and, in fact, when Mousavian is being introduced at Maryland I’ll be arriving at Herbert-von-Karajan-Str. 1, on occasion of Sir Simon Rattle’s presenting the long-awaited Samale/Mazzuca/Philips/Cohrs version of the completed Symphony Nr. 9 by Anton Bruckner. On February 24, they’ll be at Carnegie Hall where they will perform the American premiere of this work.

The focus of all the meetings in Brussels and Washington is on doing diplomacy with Iran, a subject which–to remain in central Europe for a moment–might have inspired Theodor Fontane a century ago to call it ein weites Feld, a pet phrase he used to describe a topic which was difficult to sum up in less than a 500-page novel.

On Saturday we had a good discussion on Iran in Brussels, and since I’m not going to be at any of the events in Washington this week, I’ve jotted down some notes from that discussion, and included a few points which came my way during some recent meetings in other Western capitals. A good deal of this may seem ho-hum to some readers who are following this subject daily at close range. But it might be worth reiterating for a more general audience because the recent escalation of the Iran crisis has perhaps deterred people from asking tough questions about what the advocates of “engaging Iran” exactly have in mind. Let’s hope the meetings this week will drill into these issues.

  • Crisis management or conflict resolution?  At the Brussels EU meeting, Prince Turki Al Faisal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud suggested in simple terms that what engagement means needs to be clarified: “Crisis management and conflict resolution are not the same.”  The recent escalation of the war of words and deeds–Iran beginning uranium enrichment at  Fordo, threats by Israelis to bomb targets in Iran, Iranian war games and threats to block the Strait of Hormuz and counter-posturing by the United States–has inevitably shifted attention away from the quest for what looks like the holy grail–an ultimate peaceful resolution to the Iran nuclear dilemma–and instead toward what’s called for right now to prevent a war with Iran during the first half of 2012. The interest of P5+1 states in preventing a war is not necessarily identical with the kind of commitment which would be required from them, and from Iran, to achieve a comprehensive negotiated settlement.
  •  Are Iran’s Six Interlocutors on the Same Page?  So far, it doesn’t look like it. US-Israel shuttle diplomacy and the wave of bilaterals held by China and Russia with Iran the last two months suggest that none of the P5+1 wants a war with Iran. But it is far less clear that the U.S., the U.K., France, and Germany are on the same page about what a roadmap for a negotiation would look like and about what opening gambit they would present in any negotiation with Iran about the kind of “comprehensive solution” which the EU’s last letter to Iranian leaders seems to imply would be the endgame. To say nothing about differences between the Western powers and Russia which have emerged in response to the Lavrov proposal back in mid-2011.
  • What endgame do the players want?  That’s not clear either. Regardless of what Ashton’s October letter to Iran says is the desired outcome, at least a few important people in Washington will tell you they would prefer regime change to a negotiated solution. Likewise, in the trenches you will sometimes hear the view that the U.S. should go into any negotiation with Iran aiming for a 2003 Libya-type outcome–where Iran gives up its nuclear assets. My understanding is that Iran would never agree to that. On the basis of the Ashton letter, and the things in the Lavrov proposal which Western officials say they liked, I’m assuming instead that a negotiated solution would imply that the parties basically agree that, at the end of the day, the Islamic Republic of Iran 1.) would have a nuclear energy program under IAEA safeguards including the Additional Protocol, 2.) would retain some nuclear assets which support a cliff-edge nuclear weapons capability, 3.) would be enriching uranium, 4.) would not be subject to international sanctions, and 5.) would benefit from an imprimatur from the IAEA (“broader conclusion”) following from implementation of the AP, expressing  the IAEA’s confidence that Iran’s nuclear activities are exclusively dedicated to peaceful use. But is everybody who matters on board with this?
  • Role of  top-level decision makers in the U.S. administration. After doing the rounds in Washington a  month ago, I take it as given that some key players are clearly not enthusiastic about launching any ambitious diplomatic initiatives with Iran at the present time. There will be no U.S. move in this direction unless some very senior officials in key U.S. agencies–at or just below the secretary level–take the initiative and assume the political risk. But is that going to happen in 2012?
  • Iran’s obligation to suspend enrichment is at the crux of any negotiation toward a settlement. When Lavrov floated his Iran roadmap last year, Western states didn’t like the provision permitting Iran to resume enrichment and the heavy water (a.k.a. plutonium production-related) activities after suspending these activities for just three months. Were something like the Russian plan to go forward in the future, Western states would want Iran to demonstrate its credibility over a far longer period before the suspension obligation under UNSCR would be lifted. What’s more, some Western states would likely want the UNSC, where they have veto power–and not the IAEA, where they don’t–to be the ultimate arbiter of when and on what terms sanctions against Iran would be lifted. That would be a bitter pill for Iran to swallow.
  •  The IAEA November report moved the goal post. When the IAEA put out its report on Iran’s nuclear weapons-related activities in November, there was a lot of fretting on the sidelines about the wisdom and indeed, the legality, of the IAEA having done that (during the IAEA board meeting the governors witnessed what sounded over my cell phone like  the Russian diplomatic equivalent of a hissy fit over this). But in fact, three months later it would seem that the IAEA report has re-framed the debate: We might argue about whether Iran is doing weaponization work now, but in the wake of the IAEA report there are not a lot of people out there who express doubt that Iran since 1989 has done work putting them on the cusp of a nuclear weapons capability. The IAEA report appears consistent with the view that in 2003, Iran took a high-level decision to suspend activities which could have only a nuclear weapons rationale, but also to continue with those dual-use activities which in theory could be explained, if they were to be exposed, by a peaceful application. So does the IAEA report imply that the 2007 U.S. NIE on Iran is now out of date? Nope.
  • Lack of trust remains the biggest impediment to a negotiation. In May, 2010, Turkey, Iran, and Brazil negotiated the Tehran Declaration. The U.S. found the result wanting on two main points: there was no agreement by Iran not to enrich uranium to 20% U-235, and no legal assurances that Iran’s LEU would be taken out of the country as agreed. So the U.S. then had a choice to make: Renegotiate that deal with Iran to cover those two points, or instead scuttle it and impose UNSC sanctions. The U.S. chose sanctions over a renegotiation. Why? Two main reasons: They prior to this effectively squared the circle and persuaded Russia and China to agree to sanctions, and they concluded that Iran never intended to implement the Tehran Declaration in the first place but instead aimed to dodge imminent UNSC penalties. The U.S. might make that same choice again. To be sure, China and Russia haven’t agreed to further sanctions, but the U.S. has probably less confidence now than it did in 2010 that Iran’s leadership, having marginalized or eliminated moderate voices, is serious about negotiating a comprehensive solution.
  • Why is the West confident sanctions will work? There is certainly evidence that the sanctions regime so far has hurt Iran’s economy but little to show that the sanctions would compel Iran to comply with UNSC resolutions. So what are the possible rationales for the West imposing new and more severe sanctions on Iran, as the West plans? Two possibilities come to mind: 1.) As diplomats suggested at the Brussels EU meeting, sanctions are prompted by the need of the nonproliferation regime to be credible. 2.) There is also the possibility that Western governments have information from people on the ground in Iran which provides them high confidence that imposition of draconian sanctions against Iran’s oil economy and central bank will result in political changes inside Iran, either because Iran’s hardline leaders fear a wave of popular opposition, or because they are confident that the new sanctions will prompt opposition forces in Iran to take matters into their own hands. Does the U.S. and its allies have such information? They’re not telling.
  • A new Turkish-Brazilian thrust? Since last fall some people in Vienna will tell you they want to see a restart of an intermediated negotiation with Iran. Mostly you hear about Turkey but sometimes also Brazil. For sure, some Turkish diplomats have in recent weeks been keen, even premature, in saluting what looked like a restart of diplomacy based on an Iranian reply to the Ashton letter. But at the working level, both Turkey and Brazil in 2010 experienced first hand the difficulties of negotiating with Iran. Back then Turkey had a policy of “no problems with its neighbors.” They have problems now, including with Iran’s ally Syria. Brazil’s decision in 2010 to negotiate the Tehran Declaration was a presidential decision. Brazil’s current president might have a different appreciation of the cost and benefit of such an approach.


  1. John Hallam (History)

    Seems to me that quite possibly the Iranians themselves do not realy know what they want.

    They know what it is they do NOT want, namely to be monstered by the ‘west’.

    But I feel more and more that it isn’t only the side of the ‘west’ that does not really know what would be a satisfactory outcome, but that Iran itself is unable to articulate, even to itself, what they would be.

    John Hallam

  2. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Since it seems the usual suspects are beating the war drums again I have to ask this. Are the usual players building up for a real war? I don’t suppose the US end’s intel aparat or gosh forbid policy aparat actually thinks US troops would be greeted with flowers and sweets again? I would think that if military strikes were really about to start we would see massing troops, and the beginning of a draft. Maybe I’m really misreading the Iranians, but I don’t think they’ll react like Iraq in the early 80’s or Syria a few years ago. Maybe the current Iranian administration would sit back, turn the other cheek, and use this for shoring up public support, but if I read the Iranians right, I think they’ll pour troops across a few borders. I’m ready to be wrong, but given how wrong the hawks were the last time around …..

  3. Mark Gubrud (History)

    “some Western states would likely want the UNSC, where they have veto power–and not the IAEA, where they don’t–to be the ultimate arbiter of when and on what terms sanctions against Iran would be lifted. That would be a bitter pill for Iran to swallow.”

    It would be a deal-breaker. The Iranians saw what happened to Iraq 1991-2003.

    • anon (History)

      Among international organizations, Only the UN Security Council can impose real sanctions, and only the Council can decide when to lift them. Even if the standard for lifting sanctions is a determination by the IAEA, the Council would need to decide whether that requirement had been met, as with the lifting of WMD sanctions on Iraq in 2010 by UNSCR 1957.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Other organizations can and do impose sanctions all the time. But OK, UNSCR sanctions are the strongest and the only ones that can be militarily enforced. Is there any reason the UNSC can’t write a sanctions resolution that automatically expires when certain objective conditions (e.g. an IAEA certification of some kind) are met?

      The problem with requiring a second UNSCR to end sanctions imposed by the first one is that it only takes one P5 power to veto the second resolution, even though all of them had to at least acquiesce to the first.

      This is exactly what happened to Iraq. Despite the enormous suffering imposed on the Iraqi people by a sanctions regime whose primary original purpose was to force Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, and despite the fact that anyone who actually cared knew, or could easily obtain public information showing, that Iraq was substantially in compliance with its disarmament obligations by at least the mid-1990s, the US and UK refused to allow the sanctions to be lifted. Which is what provoked Saddam Hussein to defy the UN and block further inspections until faced with invasion in 2002.

      No way is Iran going to accept any deal that puts it in that same hole, guarded by enemies determined to bring down its government. If the US insists on that, it will not be a bitter pill but a poison pill intended to scuttle any possible deal.

    • kme (History)

      This is a good point (and not for Iranian sanctions in particular, but for any similar action taken by the SC). The easiest path to solve it would seem to be putting a sunset clause in all such sanctions, requiring the SC to act to renew them if the objectives have not yet been met.

  4. Daryl Kimball (History)

    Thanks for the food-for-thought and notes on the EU conference in Brussels. We’ll try to take much of this into account in our session this Thursday, which will be transcribed and posted on ACA’s web site next week.

    For those looking for further discussion of the issue and options, I would recommend Pierre Goldschmidt’s thoughtful new Carnegie analysis and Peter Crail’s piece “Charting a Diplomatic Course” online here .

  5. Allen Thomson (History)

    I’d add another bullet:

    What if all other attempts to resolve the situation fail, and things go seriously bad? Suppose Iran attacks Israel or Israel preemptively attacks Iran or someone makes a really bad mistake. War ensues.

    What then?

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Allen writes:

      War ensues. What then?

      War with whom? Saudi Arabia is likely to at least close their eyes and let Israeli aircraft over, perhaps covertly or overtly assist. But if Iran goes after its land neighbors, the correlation of forces is pretty poor. They can rumble Kuwait, with a lot of hard fighting, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE have at least as much ground hardware and would be fighting on home territory.

      An extended air war won’t go well for them either. They’re outclassed and supplied and numbered.

      Things are close enough that I don’t see their neighbors successfully invading them either. It would take the US and a large coalition to try that, and much foolishness on our part.

      So what kinds of war could actually be fought?

      Perhaps I’m being overly willing to rule out scenarios where they decide to attack someone. Their calculation of the correlation of forces and situation is going to be an internal one. And I might have miscalculated.

    • kme (History)

      It is extremely unlikely that there will be a conventional ground war. The same geography that is the underlying reason why Persia hasn’t been successfully invaded in something like 1400 years also mean that it’s hard for Iran to project direct power much beyond its borders.

      If Iran attacks anyone it will be via proxies like Hezbollah, and if Iran is attacked it will be through air strikes and via proxies like internal militant groups.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Well, if Israeli bombs start falling on Iran, I’d expect Iranian missiles to head the other way – and yes, if Iran has nuclear weapons at the time, some of them will be riding the missiles.

      Beyond that, the obvious Iranian targets/strategies are to use Shiite proxies in Iraq to turn that nation into a de facto Iranian province, to use Hezbollah and Hamas and perhaps a cooperative Syrian regime to cause general mayhem in the Levant, and to do exactly what they have promised to do – close the Straits of Hormuz. Possibly accompanied by missile or “terrorist” attacks on Gulf state oil infrastructure.

      At this point, the Arabs and the West would basically have to make peace on Iranian terms, or dramatically increase the scope of the warfighting. Keeping the straits open would basically require bombing any truck or speedboat in the vicinity, without any chance to discriminate between civilian and military targets. Alternately, invasion and occupation of the Hormozgan Province. Imposing peace on Arab or Western terms would require regime change, and regime change by air power is almost unprecedented – nor does Iran seem have any equivalent to the Misurata or Zintan rebels to handle the ground fighting for us.

      If “Engage Iran” means we get to avoid all this fun, I’m thinking it might be a good plan.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      I discount the long-term Straight of Hormuz threat. It’s essentially a suicide move by Iran’s leadership, because it places the gulf states’ and the world’s stability at immediate risk, and then the coalition required to launch a credible ground invasion / occupation / regime change becomes almost impossible to avoid. Whereas that coalition seems non-credible without a long-term straight closure, it becomes almost automatic with one, and then it’s all over.

      In lesser extended wars, Iran is at high risk due to infrastructure vulnerabilities. One B-2 with a load of 500 lb JDAM bombs can drop a bomb on every major power generator in the country, and 2-3 of them on every generator and every major electrical transmission grid node. Their petroleum refinery and storage facilities are also inadequate for extended war, and are small enough in number to be conventionally destroyable.

      The suffering this would impose on the Iranian people would be immense, but it would end the regime’s ability to wage war, as soon as the diesel ran out in the individual military facility generators and the fuel in the navy and air force bases ran out. They’re not going to launch human wave infantry attacks across their western border again.

      I would not recommend this as a coercion strategy for anything short of a general war, due to the horrible human consequences, but in a general war it would be hard for someone involved to avoid choosing it. And a long-term straight closure is a general war.

      This WOULD end the enrichment program, even if the regime didn’t fall, as there would be no power to spin centrifuges.

    • anon (History)

      Iran’s response to an Israeli attack would likely include proxy attacks on Israel by Hamas and Hezbollah, notwithstanding the recent statement by Hezbollah’s leader Sheikh Nasrallah that Iran would not ask it to attack Israel. Iran wouldn’t have to ask. This is one reason Iran is particularly nervous about the future of Syria, which is Iran’s main link to Hamas and Hezbollah.

    • mike (History)

      @shilling: “Well, if Israeli bombs start falling on Iran, I’d expect Iranian missiles to head the other way – and yes, if Iran has nuclear weapons at the time, some of them will be riding the missiles.”

      I’m not really seeing why you think Iran would respond to a conventional attack with a nuclear one – assuming they have a limited number of warheads and a means to deliver them with reasonable accuracy. Why would they invite a massive nuclear retaliation by Israel, who they know to have both the weapons and delivery systems? Even were the Israelis to destroy some portion of the current Iranian nuclear program, it would not be long before it was reconstituted more securely.

      I think it would take far more than a few bomb runs by Israel to provoke a nuclear retaliation.

  6. Captain Ned (History)

    Engage Iran.

    As if this has squat-all to do with boundaries and geopolitics. You lot have so abandoned religion to the point where you refuse to see what is happening here. Shiite Iran’s nuclear program is not aimed against the US or Israel (though they make wonderful stalking-horses), it is aimed at winning, once and for all, the Battle of Karbala, destroying the Sunnis, and reestablishing the Caliphate in the succession of Ali.

    When it comes to Persia/Iran vs. the rest of the Arab Middle East, everything must be measured in terms of the Sunni/Shiite split. No one does other than the wealthy Sunni states who all of a sudden need nuclear power reactors (for the obvious reasons).

    International diplomacy is impotent when it comes to the Sunni/Shiite divide. Stop pretending otherwise.

    • Mohammad (History)

      This is fanciful and more in line with typical Western-believed stereotypes, not the reality on the ground. The Islamic Republic has worked hard since 1979 to avoid Shia-Sunni conflict and promote an “Islamic unity”. In doing so it has alienated, in some cases even pressured and prosecuted many of the more traditional Shia clerics who did not observe the sensitivities regarding Sunni beliefs or saw the call for Islamic unity as bowing down to Sunnis. You can never find any anti-Sunni or pan-Shia rhetoric from Islamic Republic officials or high level pro-Islamic Republic clerics; on the contrary they have gone to great lengths to promote pan-Islamism and unity between Sunnis and Shias.

  7. Ayhan Evrensel (History)

    Thanks Mark,
    On your last point (Turkey-Brazil): In 2010, Turkey and Brazil not only “experienced first hand the difficulties of negotiating with Iran”, but also with the US. How? They realised how quickly they could be left alone. How encouraged would one be to launch a new initiative, when the first one was disowned and shredded by the US within a few hours? We all know (especially through Lula’s public outcry) that D.C. was consulted before the TRR fuel swap negotiations started and was very well informed, at the highest level, until the end…
    Ayhan Evrensel

    • mark (History)

      Thanks, Ayhan. This was a blog post and not a 500-page novel so I left a lot out! But in fact, yes, it would be fair to conclude that, based on their experience in dealing with the U.S. when they negotiated the Tehran Declaration in 2010, both Turkey and Brazil (or any other third country which would insert itself into a negotiation with Iran) would want to make crystal clear in advance where it stood with the U.S. and the other P5+1 before they started negotiating with Iran. Apparently that didn’t happen then and the result was mutual recrimination, which would demotivate Turkey or Brazil from trying this again.

    • Alan (History)

      The sequence of events around the Tehran Declaration appeared to be dictated by the circulating of a new UNSCR. Hadn’t Erdogan effectively given up on a worthwhile deal? Then the proposed text for the UNSCR was circulated, Iran moved, and Erdogan decided to go to Tehran.

      The US did scuttle it of course but the UNSCR was already in motion. It would have been handing Iran a major victory if they had abandoned it. Didn’t their official reply to the TD also state they wanted to further discuss the anomalies in it?

      Regarding why the US is confident sanctions will work, is there any belief that a third possibility exists – that the latest round of sanctions voted but not yet implemented are of a type that the Iranian leadership really fear? There are already, for example, numerous ships off Iran holding cargo that can’t unload because the Iranian buyers can’t afford it any more because of currency devaluations.

      Things are on the brink. These new sanctions can only be a prelude to war if implemented. Could they be a last high-stakes gambit to kick off a negotiation?

      And finally, if that were true, what would the Israelis do if the odds on a deal dramatically narrowed?

  8. Cameron (History)

    I’ve been speaking with my (mainly Left/Center) Israeli friends about this quite a bit. There are two issues that come up:

    They are in a mindset that peace is best BUT, they have no trust for Iran as a rational actor, and a coresponding discounting of the usefulness of the nuclear deterrant in preventing a conflict with Iran. This frankly shocked me, whats the point of deterrance if you don’t have faith in it? And what’s driving the narrative of Iran as somehow undependable internationally?

    Secondly they are concerned (ironically?) that Iran going nuclear forces Turkey/Egypt/Saudi to aquire nukes as well.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Israel’s nuclear deterrent was initially driven by the Arab, rather than Iranian, threat, and the Arabs of the time were generally rational actors who were reliably deterrable. I would argue that they still are, and that Israel still believes the Arab nations to be rational and reliably deterrable. If your Israeli friends feel otherwise, that would be interesting (and disturbing) news.

      Whether the Arans still need to be deterred is a different question; arguably that requirement has diminished, but if there’s serious talk of an Egyptian or Saudi bomb, the issue comes back to the forefront. Any requirement to deter Turks or Iranians is a relatively new thing, piled on top of the old requirement to deter Arabs.

      It likely is the case that Israel feels it has many enemies, some but not all of which can be deterred by Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal.

    • Cameron (History)


      While we never touched on it specifically their concerns regarding their arab neighbors were largely about the threat of proliferation IF Iran had nukes and what that would mean in terms of the strategic stability of the region.

      Iran however was being treated as a non-rational actor, one who an assumed Israeli nuclear arsenal would not deter from a possible nuclear attack on Israel. I can see the worry about using their nuclear forces to deter a conventional attack from a nuclear armed state, but Iran isn’t in a position to launch that kind of attack.

      In the end I’m confused by their thinking, which worries me because confusion doesn’t work well with deterrance.

    • Brian (History)

      You’re confused why Israel might think Iran isn’t easily deterrable? There’s a laundry list of reasons why its not unreasonable to assume the Iranians might be irrational actors, chief among them being the regime’s religious fanaticism. There are others such as no one really knowing who has the reigns of power and the chance of renegade Republican Guards officers getting control of the weapons; both relevant worries in a theological, military dictatorship.

      Here’s the more germane point and main problem: it’s highly likely that Iran will be deterred by the idea of mutually assured destruction. But what if they aren’t? What if there’s a 90% chance that Iran will be successfully deterred by Israel’s nuclear arsenal? Should they be comfortable with a 10% risk that, if it comes to fruition, wipes out the country? What is the threshold beyond which you just live with this tiny chance of annihilation?

      Let’s say you start with the premise(i think ridiculous) that those who currently hold power have a 100% chance of being deterred. There is still some small chance, especially in a regime structured as Iran is, that those who have power are lose control the country and thus of the nuclear weapons. The Republican Guards contain some nasty, fanatical elements. They have no problem killing their own people to hold on to power. Who’s to say that some factions wouldn’t then have a problem letting millions die if it meant they were able to achieve destruction of Israel?

    • John Schilling (History)

      Doesn’t seem all that confusing to me, really. Israel faces a number of military threats. Some of these come from rational political actors – both nations and subnational groups – which may derive local political benefit from attacking Israel if the cost is not too high. Others come from irrational fanatics who view the ethnic cleansing of Palestine to be a divine mandate such that no price is too hig – either the Hand Of God will miraculously thwart Israeli retaliation, or the targets of said retaliation will be immediately assumed into a literal and eternal Paradise.

      The former series of threats is deterrable, the latter is not. Thus, Israel’s defense includes but is not limited to a modest strategic nuclear deterrent force.

      I would disagree with your friends in presently classifying Iran as a non-deterrable fanatic enemy, but it certainly gives the impression of being a regime which could devolve to such a state in the future. In any event, against non-deterrable threats which may or may not include Iran, Israel must defend herself by other means. This does not eliminate the utility of strategic nuclear weapons in dealing with other, deterrable, threats.

  9. Ben (History)

    Good post Mark, one point that you didn’t mention in your blog piece is the policy of ‘zero enrichment’ that the Israeli government and the Israel Lobby are pushing for. David Bromwich has written a really excellent piece which I think everyone should read…

    • mark (History)

      Ben, the question of “zero enrichment” is critical to the larger question as to how the P5+1 would proceed in any negotiation with Iran toward what I call here the “comprehensive” Ashton outcome. It is clear that Russia and China are highly comfortable with an ISI which is enriching at the end of the process in the not-too-distant future. It isn’t clear that all of the Western P3+1 are comfortable with that outcome with the current cast of characters in power in Tehran. There are regime change advocates in some quarters. Some of the people who strongly advocate “engagement” with Iran in my view may be downplaying that fact, since we haven’t seen any initiative embraced by all the Western powers to get to a comprehensive solution as suggested by the Ashton letter. The only roadmap we’ve heard about so far since Istanbul is the Lavrov roadmap, and important facets of that plan are rejected by the West.

  10. Ben (History)

    Also as an aside, I think it’s important to acknowledge the rise of Mara Karlin within the neocon establishment, a person who has distinguised herself by nuking both Pakistan and Iran in the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced and International Studies (SAIS)war games simulations.

  11. Cyrus (History)

    A well informed post, but it ignores a hugely important point: the domestic politics in Iran, not to mention the changing geopolitical dynamics in the broader region. High-level US officials are not as enthusiastic about new diplomatic ventures vis-à-vis Iran because it has been tried and failed before. It is easy to restart a conversation about “engaging Iran” after the blood has dried on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities, but does engaging Iranian leaders over the nuclear issue in a post-2009, Persian/Arab Spring context undercut Iran’s 100+ year struggle for democracy? As Ramin Jahanbegloo once wrote, the IRI’s brutal crackdown on Iranian civil society has swept away its legitimacy as “popular” and “Islamic”; why risk legitimizing the leadership when it is at its weakest?

    • mark (History)

      Cyrus, I intentionally left out the issue of Iran’s domestic politics for this blog post in the interest of focusing on the matter dear to the “engagement” advocates of whether the West–and especially the US–will do anything significant in 2012. But you are right that the issue matters significantly. Western officials will tell you that they can’t do anything unless they have someone in Iran to negotiate with and, in their view, that hasn’t been clear since the Istanbul meeting over a year ago, as the cold war between Iran and the US has intensified. They will tell you as well that, in their appreciation of Khamenei, he fears to negotiate because he suspects that a negotiation about the nuclear program will inevitably result in a negotiation about other issues (human rights, transparency…) which will put Iran on a slippery slope with the West and then result in the demise of the Islamic Republic. Expert narratives portray Khamenei but also other hardliners as people who are ultra-suspicious of the US and the West. They may be at least as unwilling to “engage” us as some Western officials are to “engage” Iran. As I have suggested in the blog post, the sanctions issue should also be seen in this context. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad both claim that Iran doesn’t need the West and the US and that Iran’s nuclear program will not bend to penalties or sanctions. I suspect that some Western officials see sanctions therefore not as a stick to force Iran to comply with UNSCRs but instead as a potential can-opener to promote regime change. But as I suggested in the blog post, I have no idea whether that kind of thinking is based on hard facts on the ground in Iran or is simply wishful thinking.

  12. Mohammad (History)

    (To add an Iranian perspective) The negotiated outcome you described (copied below) would be an ideal outcome for Iran. Iran was actually working towards this goal when it began implementing the Additional Protocol in 2004. If the West had not sent Iran’s case to the UNSC, everything would be fine now.
    But the West does not seem to be ready to accept Iran’s right to low-level uranium enrichment and heavy water reactors for peaceful use, even if Iran is fully transparent about its nuclear activities.

    “the Islamic Republic of Iran 1.) would have a nuclear energy program under IAEA safeguards including the Additional Protocol, 2.) would retain some nuclear assets which support a cliff-edge nuclear weapons capability, 3.) would be enriching uranium, 4.) would not be subject to international sanctions, and 5.) would benefit from an imprimatur from the IAEA (“broader conclusion”) following from implementation of the AP, expressing the IAEA’s confidence that Iran’s nuclear activities are exclusively dedicated to peaceful use.”

    An other issue is that Iran is reluctant to suspend its nuclear activities since it already did that in 2003-2005 without bearing any fruit.

  13. Mark Lincoln (History)

    The USA and Israel will settle for nothing less than regime change.

    Both have been engaged in a covert war with Iran for years.

    There is no possible diplomatic solution.

  14. Barmak (History)

    “the Islamic Republic of Iran 1.) would have a nuclear energy program under IAEA safeguards including the Additional Protocol, 2.) would retain some nuclear assets which support a cliff-edge nuclear weapons capability…

    NPT says Iran is already entitled to have all of this, with even fewer restrictions than this proposal. The negotiations had been finalized when Iran signed NPT ages ago. Why the heck Iran should re-negotiate to get less than what she is entitled to?

    Besides Iran already went through all of this in addition to suspending the entire nuclear program. US responded by escalating its threats against Iran.

    Also leaving AP has a heavy cost. Iran left AP once, and got away with it lightly because the treaty had not been ratified by parliament. Next time it can get worse. I don’t think Iran will touch it again.

    The military threats is hollow anyway. The only military option to destroy Iran’s indigenous nuclear industry is full scale war and full scale ground invasion of Iran. In reality this is not an option. An airstrike by itself will not delay anything, it will only provoke Iran to start a nuclear weapons program, that’s not a practical military option either. Iran has no incentive to negotiate for a bad deal, US won’t accept any Iranian nuclear technology anyway. It’s a dead end.

    • Nick (History)

      You are absolutely right. It is a deadened, at least until the November election in US. Obama will not jeopardize reelection by loosening the noose on Iran. In his foreign policy debate with GOP nominee must reiterate Iran is “isolated” more than before to get the support of Iran haters in US.

      I am also amazed that Lavrov plan includes temporary suspension. As bush said: “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.”
      I assure you Iran will not accept it. P5 needs to get used to the fact that not all UNSC resolutions are carried through, recall 242 from decades ago and Israel complete disregard for it.

      With all options on the table as the policy of USG, which includes nuking them, contract killing of all the officials, and other horrible deeds, Iran should be dumb to accept AP. Unless they want folks killed in iran deliberately by foreign forces. AP will identify new human and building targets.

      Finally, what US really wants, not sure will get, is a reverse India deal. Iran a signed member of NPT with no complete freedom to enjoy ALL aspects of article 4.

  15. mark (History)

    Alan, sure (to your question about whether West would put their just-concluded and announced fresh sanctions on the table in a near-term negotiation with Iran). That happening would require two conditions I think: 1.) that Iran comes up with a narrative to explain that they aren’t “giving in” to the West out of fear of sanctions (which Khamenei has in the last weeks denied again and again that Iran would do) and 2.) that the West would be satisfied that shelving the sanctions for now would be justified by a serious commitment by Iran (maybe one or more of the things that Nackaerts went to Tehran to try to get). Because Russia and China are not on board these sanctions, it would be far easier for the Western P3+1 to sacrfice deeper sanctions in exchange for Iranian commitments. This could be the way to do it, in theory.

  16. b (History)

    To get a better feel about Iran’s standpoint it might help to read Khamenei’s recent speech.

    Supreme Leader’s Friday Prayer Address 03/02/2012

    The following is the full text of the Friday prayer sermons delivered on February 3, 2012 by Ayatollah Khamenei the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution.

  17. boindub (History)

    ” the strong (USA) take because they can,
    The weak (rest of us) give because they have no choice”
    Power in action.
    The USA and Russia had peace because both were armed. Since Israel has hundreds of Nuclear weapons Iran MUST have them for peace. Or disarm Israel.
    The USA intelligence say that there is NO IRANIAN Nuclear weapons program. CAN NO ONE understand that. This is about US Power in the Middle East.

  18. Allen (History)

    Can we get back to some logic and sense?
    Iran is a signatory of NPT and therefore has the right to ENRICH uranium for peaceful purposes. Pay attention, The treaty gives them this right! The NPT treaty was written by those Superpower countries that are pressuring Iran right now. They entitled every signatory of this treaty to enrich uranium for civilian aims. There has been no evidence of Iran’s nuclear activities that are aimed toward military use. You can’t just blame someone and push their throat on the grounds that MAYBE some day they MIGHT develop nuclear weapons, can you? Bring some common sense to the table and you’ll see that Iranians will listen.

  19. yousaf (History)

    The US position can be inferred from reading the legislative text of the sanctions: the USG is not interested in resolving the nuclear issue.

    The nuclear issue is a pretext.

    US congress, laws signed by President — are interested in influencing the internal political affairs of Iran. i.e. regime change.

    The US congress has put a Fatwa on the current Iranian regime:

  20. mark (History)

    Mark, Anon, and John:

    An Israeli decision whether or not to attack Iranian nuclear installations in coming months will be informed primarily by its assessment about how Iran will respond. If Israel concludes that Iran will escalate and attack with great violence and destructive force, that might deter an Israeli attack. If Israel however concludes that Iran will in fact acquiesce or that the Iranian response will be very limited, it may be inclined to attack nuclear targets. What’s spilled out into the Israeli media over the last few months testifies to an internal debate inside the Israeli government about the nature of Iran’s threat/response. Ultimately, it will up to Netanyahu to decide–not the other people in and outside the Israeli government who are giving TV and newspaper interviews.

    • shaheen (History)

      Mark – having recently spent some time in Israel discussing this very issue, I think you’re missing parts of the equation.

      First, the decision will be based not so much on the nature of the Iranian response than on the cost-effectiveness of military action, that is: (1) how much destruction/delay can the intelligence and military chiefs can guarantee to the civilian leadership? (2) how likely is it that, assuming Tehran is tempted to cross the threshold, Iran can be stopped (or will stop by itself) through other means?

      Second, the decision will also be based on the civilian leaders’ view of their historical responsibility vis-à-vis Israel and the Jewish people in general; some of them fear that they might miss an historical opportunity and that History will not be kind to them. (Of course, the argument cuts both ways.)

      Third, such a decision will certainly not belong to Netanyahu alone. He will not – and probably cannot – order it without a modicum of consensus within the Cabinet. The fact that Barak expresses itself publicly – and one can discuss the reasons why – does not mean that he, for instance, would have no say in the final decision.

    • WFR (History)

      Shaheen’s second point is salient. Is it conceivable that Netanyahu will leave office having not made every attempt – even if not successful – to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability on his “watch”? Having listened to this man’s speeches, I believe the answer to that question is “no”. But perhaps more informed Israel experts can reassure me?

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Perhaps the Feb. 14 bombing in New Delhi, and the apparent failed bombing plot in Bangkok, should be viewed in this light, assuming that the Iranian state was indeed behind them. The latter remains both uncertain, and dubious given the apparent incompetence, but let’s assume it is true. It would appear then to be direct retaliation for the assassinations of Iranian scientists, and other recent acts of sabotage and near-warfare apparently committed by Israeli or American agents or proxies. Coming at a time when threats of an imminent Israeli attack have been raised to a new height, it should be interpreted as a signal that the Iranian response would not be to just hunker down and bear it.

      Iran would probably prefer that war with the US and Israel not result in too much destruction of Iranian infrastructure, let alone the demise of the regime, but they would certainly retaliate and try to impose as high a price as possible on the aggressors. This is human nature, after all. Iran’s religion says that martyrs go to Heaven, but if they were Americans they might say they’d see us in Hell before accepting that anyone has the right to attack them with impunity.

      The Israeli cabinet are fooling themselves if they think they can calculate where this would end, or that the outcome would be favorable to the security and interests of Israel. The same can be said of Iran or of the US, but only one of these three is currently seen as likely to initiate a major war. I find it bizarre that anyone can speak of the Israeli government possibly opting for war out of a “burden of responsibility.”

      Some of the commenters here fall into the same trap — ‘No need to worry about the Straits and the oil flow, no ground war, just a nice clean bombing campaign and maybe some trouble in Lebanon.’ Uh-huh. But of course, that is the kind of thinking that has led to so many wars that have ended disastrously for those who initiated them.

  21. mark (History)

    WFR and Shaheen,

    I have been asking people in Israel about whether Netanyahu is (as a few Israelis have told me they strongly believe) determined “not to be the Israeli prime minister who goes down in history as the one who gives up Israel’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the region.” The people in Israel I have asked about this don’t seem to want to go there–the conversational equivalent of NCND.

  22. Hairs (History)

    I think “engage” with Iran is very soon going to mean accepting it as a nuclear weapon state – much as India, Pakistan and North Korea have been (grudgingly) accepted as such.

    Although I wish it were not the case, it’s now hard to imagine that Iran is NOT developing a nuclear weapon; I mean, given the current level of hostility towards Iran plus the fact that Iran has already mastered many of the key technologies, why would they not push on with some secret programme rather than go the way of Iraq or Libya, who either never had (or else gave up) any WMDs and thereby left themselves open to outside forces.

    As for whether the Iranians (or indeed the Israelis) could be deterred from attacking the other, I don’t know enough to say. However, what I do seem to recall from various documentaries is that during the Cuban missile crisis some of Kennedy’s advisers were advocating strongly for an invasion of Cuba on the basis that it should be done while the Russians were still weak on the island and before they landed their first nuclear warheads. Meanwhile (and unknown, it seems, to the USA) Russian nuclear warheads for artillery rockets and bomber aircraft were ALREADY on the island, and orders had been issued for their use if the Americans invaded. Similarly, American ships dropped small-sized depth charges on a Russian submarine that was running out of air and whose commander was (again unknown to the Americans) considering the use of nuclear tipped torpedoes that he had on board.

    All in all, no matter how confident Israel or other countries might be that Iran doesn’t already have a weapon, and that therefore now is the time to bomb, nobody outside of Iran knows for sure whether Iran already has something and is willing to use it.

    It’s an awful calculation to get wrong, and personally I’d far rather live with Iran as a declared and known nuclear weapon state than suffer the unintended consequences of someone bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities and then finding out their intelligence hadn’t been quite as good as they thought…

  23. Alan (History)

    I don’t believe the talk of irrational actors so far adequately considers where Israel falls on the scale of rationality. Israel has a history of extreme military recklessness, and a political spectrum and population that has progressively moved further and further to the right over the last 40-45 years. Sharon and now Netanyahu was/is the culmination of that process.

    Propping that up is Israel’s nuclear stance. It is said by many that Iran needs nuclear weapons in order to ensure they cannot be bullied by outside powers. This applies in equal measure to Israel. It is a primary consideration for Israel, and is focused on the perceived threat of the world powers as opposed to the Arabs or Iranians. No world power can make Israel do anything Israel does not want to do – it is another much less spoken about form of deterrence Israel’s nuclear weapons provide.

  24. Amy (History)

    How to engage with Iran? Do nothing.

    Iran is not doing anything that Brazil and Argentina are not.

    But Israel and the Likud lobby in DC wants to make sure US/Israeli “full-spectrum dominance” is not impacted by any possibility of a future Iranian nuclear deterrent.

    US/Israel want to have complete freedom of movement in middle east — even though the middle east is not part of the US of A.

    There is no need to engage Iran: just buzz off.

    See also:,27325/

    • mark (History)


      I’d love to compare notes with you on Argentina and Brazil. I ask because I have spent a lot of time in my former professional incarnation investigating nuclear programs in both these countries during the 1970s and 1980s, before both countries joined the NPT.

      Do you have documentation of anything recent or current in Argentina and Brazil that look like the kind of activities which the IAEA says were going on in Iran until recently and which the IAEA said might be continuing there now?

      I underline my words current and recent because we know that Argentina and Brazil did a lot of undeclared things related to fissile material production and (at least in the case of Brazil) weaponization-related R&D before they joined the NPT. Unlike Iran, when Argentina and Brazil did these things they were subject to no comprehensive peaceful use commitments.

      Iran now, unlike Argentina and Brazil then, is subject to peaceful use commitments. So your comments would be quite relevant if you had any evidence that Argentina and Brazil right now or recently have been engaged in weaponization-related R&D.

    • barmak (History)

      IAEA is monitoring Iran’s nuclear facilities and has no evidence of a nuclear weapons program, past or present. The duel-use aspects of Iran’s nuclear program are allowed under NPT.

      US/EU demand is that Iran should forfeit its NPT privileges. They don’t demand Iran should end the nuclear weapon program, because there is no nuclear weapon program to begin with.

      IAEA’s dispute is mostly in regards to Iran’s lack of transparency, which might have something to do with assassination of Iranian scientists, etc. Iran is still meeting its minimum NPT obligation.

      Other NPT countries have had weaponization R&D, for example South Korea experimented with highly enriched uranium and got away with it. Or for that matter, North Korea totally ignored NPT yet they face fewer penalties than Iran.

    • masoud (History)


      With all due respect, I think the right question is whether or not you have any evidence, short of Amano’s fufillment of his pledge, as documented in Wikileaks’ Cablegate, to remain in the US’ orbbit on all major strategic issues in return for the US having rammed his nomination through of historically unimaginable opposition from the wider world community?

      There is all this talk about Iranian weaponisations programs, and when they’ve started or stopped, and at the end of the day there’s less evidence than we had on Iraq.

      If the IAEA isn’t nitpicking about Brazil’s centrifuge program, it might have something to do with the fact that it’s hard to inspect centrifuges when you’re not allowed to be in the same room with them. Oddly, the IAEA doesn’t complain about that particular restriction put in their way by their Brazilians. Quite a contrast with the IAEA’s insistence than Iran applying it’s original code 3.1 SA’s rather than those associated with the AP, is a violation of Iran’s first order violation of her obligations. No serious person wonders why there is a discrepency between theese two standards of inspection stringency.

      If Brazil’s case doesn’t float your boat though, why not try explaining why South Korea, or Brazil, or Lybia, all of which blatantly pursued weaponization studies while under NPT safeguards, and have since been treated with kid gloves by both the IAEA and western press?

      Saying that Amano or the US’ current quarrel with Iran has anything to do with a nuclear weapons program is like saying Newt Gingrich’s Freddie Mac cheques have something to do with history lessons. Those who beleive such things are either comically naeive, or are paid to beleive them.

    • masoud (History)

      That second last paragraph show read:

      If Brazil’s case doesn’t float your boat though, why not try explaining why South Korea, or Egypt, or Lybia, all of which…

  25. moeen (History)

    what you talking about!!
    Us or Israel have numerous nuclear weapon that can fire all the earth and human is shameless

    but does Iran hase any one nuclear bobms???????

  26. Nick (History)

    It is a misrepresentation of facts to say that Brazil was forthcoming with their interactions with the IAEA. From what has been publicly reported, they refused inspectors access, for many years, to look at the design details of their centrifuges. On the other hand, Iran has shared design details as part of the CSA. For many years in Brazil, inspectors were asked to look at the centrifuges behind glass windows in Resende. This is a far cry from what the Agency is doing in Fordo and Natanz, based on the recent reperts.

    As for the topic of intentions, why isn’t anybody questioning the fact that Brazilian navy is building centrifuges for Resende.

    • mark (History)

      Nick, the Brazilian Navy owns the centrifuge technology in Brazil. That technology is being leased (in an agreement similar to that governing Areva’s use of centrifuge technology owned by ETC) to INB, the company which owns and operates the enrichment plant in Resende. So I wouldn’t conclude that the Navy’s ownership of the centrifuges is a problem per se.

      Brazil wasn’t particularly forthcoming over what they were installing and preparing to operate there. It’s all under SG now but there may still be some issues.

      There is a problem between Iran and the IAEA on access to design information, pertaining to the Arak reactor.

  27. Amy (History)


    What do you mean by recently? pre-2003 RESEARCH activities that Iran did that involved no diversion of nuclear material?

    That is neither _recent_ nor an abrogation of the NPT.

    It is all politicized propaganda from IAEA.

    Check the relative amounts of funding for the IAEA from US vs. Iran and you will have most of your answer.

    What is Iran doing now that is against the NPT?

    What is Brazil doing? e.g. Building nuclear powered subs which typically mean they are intended for use with nuclear missiles.

    A US Naval Institute proceedings magazine article ponders why Brazil desires such submarines:

    It concludes that:

    “The National Defense Strategy the government of Brazil released on 17 December 2008 provides little plausible military justification for the recently accelerated nuclear-powered submarine project.”

    In 2009, then vice president Jose Alencar – who also served as defense minister from 2004 to 2006 – said in an interview with Brazilian news media that while Brazil does not have a program to develop nuclear weapons currently, it should in the future: “We have to advance on that….The nuclear weapon, used as an instrument of deterrence, is of great importance for a country that has 15,000 kilometers of border to the west and a territorial sea”

    Brazil is merely a political decision away from going nuclear.

    Brazil has still not accepted the Additional Protocol in relation to its safeguards agreements with the IAEA. This is mainly due to its naval nuclear propulsion program: enriched uranium (beyond power reactor levels) may remain outside safeguards while it is being used in a vessel at sea. According to a 2004 Science magazine article, Brazil’s nuclear enrichment facility at Resende has the potential to separate sufficient 235U for ~28 implosion type warheads per year. This is forecast to rise to ~58 such potential warheads per year by 2014.

    Two years ago, the Brazilian army’s Military Institute of Engineering published a thesis by the physicist Dalton Ellery Girão Barroso titled “Numerical Simulation of Thermonuclear Detonations in Fission-Fusion Hybrids Imploded by Radiation” (“Simulação Numérica de Detonações Termonucleares em Meios Híbridos de Fissão-Fusão Implodidos Pela Radiação”)

    Please let me know if I can clarify anything else in the comparison.

    If Iran did anything remotely as provocative as Brazil RECENTLY has, it would be bombed — in flagrant contravention of UN Charter.

    • shaheen (History)

      Iran apologists are getting tiring. The factual (emphasize: factual) Brazil/Iran comparison leaves Brazil in a pretty good place.

      – “Building nuclear powered subs which typically mean they are intended for use with nuclear missiles”. What is the evidence for that? SSNs are not SSBNs.

      – Brazil has a much better rationale for nuclear enrichment than Iran has.

      – The IAEA has never found or had any evidence of weaponization work by Brazil. To call Iran’s activities in that domain “research” is to adopt an extraordinarily extensive definition of that word.

      – At least some of these activities have continued AFTER 2003. In the absence of a structured program post-2003, such activities become more difficult to discover.

      – One cannot have it both ways: claim that the IAEA reports are “politicized” and emphasize that the IAEA has never discovered diversion of nuclear material (which is true, though only valid for nuclear material under safeguards).

      Finally, the US gives much more money to the IAEA than Iran does because it is a much richer country. Duh.

    • Amy (History)

      Sorry, yes, I noticed that the law can be ever so tiring for US-apologists.

      There was never any diversion of nuclear material in Iran either.

      Can you name another nuclear powered sub that does NOT have nuclear missiles?

      Why is the IAEA not “concerned”? Because Brazil is a US-ally or at least US-approved nuclear technologist.

      Iran is not.

      This is a bias from the US: it’s greater funding of the IAEA has led to politicization.

      The IAEA is outside its mandate — its “concerns” are well, its concerns. That is fine. It is not illegal though.


      The law supports Iran: so people who advocate for the law are now also known as Iran apologists.

      Great. I take a bow.

  28. Anon (History)

    do you think that an argument over design information of a civilian reactor warrant talk of bombing Iran in contravention of UN Charter?

    You — and many others, including the ACA — have lost all sense of proportion.

    Arms Controllers — like in Iraq ca. 2002 — are being useful to war hawks.

    If anything the US and Israel should be sanctioned for the threat of use of force — illegal under Chapter 7 of UN Charter.

  29. Mohamed - Algeria (History)

    Engaging iran means (in my humble opinion) that iranians need to crank up their centrifuges … fast

    Because even their new generation spinners are still not fast enough

    This is totally unacceptable, and they should outlaw and execute without trial any of their students who study anything other than science and engineering at school, these useless students can redeem themselves by researching maraged steel techniques

  30. Mohamed - Algeria (History)

    so iran needs to engage its students, that’s the real engagement that’s needed in my opinion, they tow the line or they get shot by dawn

    Also what they need to do is send out covert special forces out (known as QUDS) to topple puppets such as the king of jordan & saudi arabia in particular, bahrain ect

    They should do it just for fun, that’s the only way to engage the west, topple US backed puppets (they’re all hanging on to power by a thread anyway)

  31. Mohamed - Algeria (History)

    In order for iran to be engaged by the west, it needs proper protection first, and for a country that protection isn’t rubber, it’s U235

    And I’m outraged at the pace of iran’s tech developments, I know they are under sanctions but come on, they have been under siege for the past 30 years,

    They should have learned to ban in their school curriculum up and down the country anything at all that’s not related to science and engineering by now