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Bombs Away

The only credible threat Obama can leverage against Iran

At the Non-Proliferation Treaty meeting beginning today in New York, Iran will try to shift the discussion to Israel’s nuclear weapons by proposing that the Middle East become nuclear-free. As historian Jeffrey Herf wrote at TNR Online last October, this is similar to a ploy the Soviets used in the 1980s:

Our negotiations with Iran are not off to a good start. After the initial meeting in Geneva on October 1--with Iran on one side and Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the United States on the other--Iranian representatives said they had agreed to send processed uranium to Russia. Then, a day later, one of the Iranian negotiators denied they had agreed to any such thing. Iran, it seems, is in no mood to make genuine concessions. But, then again, why should it be? The sad fact is that Tehran holds most of the negotiating cards right now.

The essential problem is an old one in the history of negotiations between dictatorships and democracies. As was the case in the famous negotiations over intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe in the 1980s, there is a fundamental asymmetry whenever a dictatorship sits down at the table with a democracy. Criticizing their government's march to the bomb brands Iranian citizens as tools of foreign powers and possibly as traitors. This dynamic has only worsened in the wake of Iran's recent crackdown on protesters. There seems to be a widespread assumption that Iran's internal turmoil has somehow weakened the regime's nuclear negotiating position. In fact, the opposite is true: The crackdown means that speaking out against the regime from inside the country is now riskier than ever. Tehran is therefore unlikely to feel any domestic pressure to make concessions during the coming negotiations. All the domestic political pressures of the debate will be asymmetric: They will have an impact only on the governments of Britain, France, Germany, and the United States.

Iranian negotiators have proven themselves to be skillful tacticians, and they are likely to exploit this asymmetry by doing two things: playing for time and raising the issue of Israel's nuclear weapons. Their rationale for doing the former is obvious: The absence of freedom in Iran will only become more and more of a tactical advantage the longer negotiations continue, as pressures for compromise build up on only one side. As for the latter: By pointing to Israel's nuclear weapons, Iran knows that it can exploit the existing hostility toward Israel in many European countries.

The Soviet Union tried an analogous gambit during the battle over the Euromissiles in the 1980s. In the late 1970s, Moscow had deployed intermediate-range SS-20 missiles capable of striking targets in Western Europe. In December 1979, President Carter and our NATO allies agreed both to counter the new Soviet weapons by stationing American intermediate-range missiles in Europe and to propose a new round of arms-control negotiations with the Soviets, offering a scaled-backed NATO deployment in return for a reduction in their SS-20s. The USSR, however, demanded something more: that the nuclear weapons of Britain and France be counted in any negotiations. Under the Soviet scheme, Britain and France would have to pay the price for reductions in Soviet missiles by reducing or eliminating their nuclear arsenals, thus creating a "nuclear-free" Europe. Ultimately, the Soviet ploy failed, in part because Moscow overplayed its hand and caused a backlash among electoral majorities on both sides of the Atlantic. But the proposal caused considerable tension in the Western alliance; some Social Democratic politicians in West Germany, for example, suggested that the British and French seriously consider the Soviet proposals. The anti-nuclear demonstrations in Western Europe around that time were some of the largest protests in its postwar history. François Mitterrand, France's socialist president, who supported the NATO deployments, famously remarked that "the East has developed missiles, and the West has developed pacifists." In other words, the asymmetry of democracy and dictatorship meant that there was internal pressure only on the NATO negotiating position. The Soviet strategy may not have worked, but it was a shrewd tactic, one that suggested a keen understanding of how to take advantage of the West's open political systems.

Today, the Iranians know that Israel is deeply unpopular among parts of the political and intellectual establishment in the West. They surely know that the same European establishment that eventually stood firm against Soviet pressures to create a "nuclear-free" Europe might be less unified and stubborn when faced with similar proposals for the Middle East. So it is no wonder Iran keeps talking about Israel's nuclear weapons. Over the summer, a spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry said that the United States should tell Israel to "dismantle its own 200 nuclear warheads." More recently, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA called the passage of a resolution criticizing Israel's nuclear weapons a "glorious moment" and "a triumph for the oppressed nation of Palestine." Iran knows that such complaints about Israeli nukes will earn a favorable reception from many in the West. Indeed, Obama's recent statements about wanting to work toward a world without nuclear weapons unintentionally lent support to this Iranian strategy. When Israel continues to refuse this demand to abandon its nuclear weapons--as, of course, it must--Iran will claim that it is acquiring a weapon only to balance out Israel's nuclear capability. This will look eminently reasonable to many in Europe. In the face of such apparent sensibleness from Iran's leaders, the necessary political will to maintain a tough negotiating line will be harder and harder to maintain.

So what is the United States to do? The sole possible solution is to level a threat grave enough to upend the inherent negotiating advantage enjoyed by Iran. And the "severe" sanctions currently on the table don't come close to doing the trick. First, Iran has endured economic difficulties before, and its leaders seem to regard economic concerns as secondary to their larger nationalist and religious project. These leaders would clearly be willing to use their still-intact apparatus of repression to stifle protest due to economic difficulty. Second, Russia and especially China have shown no enthusiasm for imposing economic difficulties on Iran. Indeed, China is increasing its economic involvement in Iran's oil and gas sector. Any sanctions imposed by the United States, Britain, France, and Germany will be weak from the start because Iran can simply turn to Russia and China.

This brings us to the one policy option that Tehran truly fears--and thus the only one that gives these negotiations any realistic chance of success: a credible threat of military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities by the United States, perhaps joined by Britain and France, or Israel. If the Iranian leadership believed that such an attack was a real possibility, it, or some parts of it, might be persuaded to change course.

If President Obama were to make this threat, he would enrage the base of the Democratic Party that made possible his nomination for president, antagonize liberals in Congress, and infuriate the New York Times editorial page. In the eyes of many of his admirers, he would appear to be yet another unilateralist, imperialist American president. So Obama has a choice: He can look out for his popularity or he can do what is necessary to defend the national security of the United States, our European allies, the moderate Arab states, and, yes, Israel. He has reached the point in his presidency when it has become clear that he cannot do both.

Jeffrey Herf is professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland in College Park. He is the author of War by Other Means: Soviet Power, West German Resistance and the Battle of the Euromissiles and the forthcoming Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World.