This has been a busy week, although officially at least we are supposed to be in the silly season. Though thinking about the nonsense debate on repealing the 14th amendment this might well be where we are. David Ignatius had an interesting piece in the Washington Post in which he argued that Obama was right in giving diplomatic talks with Iran another try. Which indeed he is. The best reponse to the David Ignatius op-ed was delivered by Peter Feaver at Shadow Government that made a wonderful argument on the different schools of thought when it comes to negotiations with Iran. Describing the first school as the school of non-believers in any diplomatic overture to Teheran, the second school was equally naive:
The second school thinks that diplomatic engagement is hard but doable, provided that the United States faithfully makes ever larger concessions and offers ever larger carrots. This school believes that the Iranian regime has several times made sincere offers that belligerent Bush officials foolishly ignored or rejected. This school wanted Obama to reset Iranian relations and pursue an approach that began with unconditional carrots and only threatened vague and imprecise sticks should the Iranian regime reject U.S. concessions. The problem with this school is that it offers no hedge against Iranian negotiators pocketing the concessions, moving the bargaining space accordingly, and stringing out the negotiations while the Iranian nuclear weapons program inches ever closer to a fait accompli. Like the quest for the Holy Grail, the quest for Iranian moderates who would cut a deal was tantalizing and never-ending. Not surprisingly, this school ends up consistently arguing against applying sanctions, and instead proposes new concessions as the way out of diplomatic impasses. The best gimmick this school has in this regard is pretending that sanctions are the alternative to diplomacy rather than acknowledging that they are part and parcel of a robust diplomatic approach. Thus, second school apologists consistently argue "let's give diplomacy a chance and not pursue sanctions just yet," which is sort of like arguing "let's try to swim the English Channel but let's not use our legs just yet, let's wait until we are drowning first."
All of this, of course, is Feaver's way to introduce a third school that takes sanctions as part of the diplomatic approach. And here I would agree. However, I do remain sceptical when it comes to the feasibility of talks with Teheran. All things being equal I have seen no evidence in any piece today that would make the case for the Iranians seeking substantive negotiations. I might be pessimistic on this, but there are a couple of issues unresolved, so I might as well raise the questions: Whom are we going to talk to? Khamenei might be a political ally of Ahmadinejad in domestic affairs, but it gets murkier when it comes to foreign affairs. There the two Iranian leaders don't always appear to move in lockstep. Second, yes, the sanctions might have an impact on the Iranian economy. But with negotiations the Iranian leadership would have to give away a couple of things it needs more than the lifting of sanctions: a claim of legitimacy that it currently only gets from its firm stance on the West. So, yes, Peter Feaver, it might be too late. But then again, it might have been to late for thirtyone years now.