Henry Kissinger has just delivered another important speech, this week at the Munich conference. It contains a number of important challenges to anyone involved in the nuclear debate. One he rightly focuses on is Iran as a major puzzle within the necessary moves towards zero:
I have long advocated negotiations with Iran on a broad front, including the geopolitical aspect. Too many treat this as a kind of psychological enterprise. In fact, it will be tested by concrete answers to four specific questions: a) How close is Iran to a nuclear weapons capability? b) At what pace is it moving? c) What balance of rewards and penalties will move Iran to abandon it? d) What do we do if, despite our best efforts, diplomacy fails?</blockquote >
These questions sum up the prevailing debate within the west towards Iran, and I would contend hide some important assumptions. The first is that the first two questions matter greatly to the greater disarmament project. While clearly they impact on a sense of urgency and on the political will to act one way or another, unless Iran is decades away from a nuclear weapon capability, does it really make a difference to the willingness of existing nuclear powers to engage in serious disarmament if Iran were, say, two or 10 years away from a capability? Irrespective of their true intentions and the timeline, the potential of Iran’s acquisition of a capability in future both undermines the willingness to disarm, and illustrates the dangers arising from global nuclear arsenals.
The second is that Iran is going to respond to a carrot and stick approach, as if it were a donkey. Of course incentives play an important role, but so too does group psychology – such as national pride. There are also what rationalists would call powerful perverse incentives, and a rational calculus that works against us. Ahmadinejad’s popularity has been strengthened by his national story of unfair isolation by the West and his standing up to the bully. Yet to hold the hand of peace out now, just before the election, could further strengthen his hand by apparently vindicating his position. Timing could be more important when it comes to the negotiation strategy than when applied to the state of Iran’s nuclear program. So it’s not simply a case of rewards and punishments – it’s also how it is sold, how we consider changing our relationship with the Islamic Republic in a way that recognises the traps we have inadvertently laid for ourselves in the past or that have been laid for us.
Lastly, what do we do if diplomacy fails? Perhaps the biggest chestnut of all, and the one that attracts most of the attention in Western capitals. Focusing on failure like this is more likely to ensure it happens. What politician ever goes in to a Presidential election focusing their energies on what to do when they don’t get elected? There is every chance that the current strategy will fail because western leaders are trapped in their own way of zero-sum thinking whereby Iran is going to have to neutralise its threat to us one way or another or face the consequences. If instead we were to spend more time considering the rich variety of perspectives that compete to make up Iran’s perspective and seek to meet some of the more legitimate internationalist aspirations (such as a stable Iran being an important regional player) we are more likely to achieve insights and then breakthroughs in negotiations. Let’s focus on the positive, for a change.