Countries with decade-long histories of pathological distrust of the West and a latent fear of encirclement don’t lend themselves well to being taken at their word.
Negotiations this month being held in Geneva, between representatives of the Iranian government and permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council (USA, UK, France, Russia, and China), as well as non-permanent member Germany, have been punctuated by a barrage of conciliatory words from Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, but so far little in the way of hard evidence the regime is willing to prove its nuclear program is non-military in nature.
This coming from a regime that has hardly proven itself trustworthy in the past, feeding the West a steady diet of deception and boatloads of abrasive rhetoric over the years with regard to nuclear technology. Still, the fact the Iranians are at the negotiating table should count for something, that is if their actual sincerity matches their lofty words about the pursuit of nuclear energy for “peaceful purposes only.”
The development of a modern missile delivery system over the past decade, among other provocations, would seem to suggest otherwise. Insincerity in negotiations can also serve a legitimate tactical purpose for regimes like Iran. Appearing at the bargaining table and talking softly about a need for mutual peace is the perfect atmosphere in which to covertly arm for war without the threat of Western military hardware raining down on cities, military installations, nuclear power plants and uranium enrichment facilities. It has happened before.
If the appeasement powers of Europe had attacked Hitler’s Germany in 1936, when it reoccupied the Rhineland, or in 1938 before handing over Czechslovakia, it might have stopped the Nazis in their tracks.
Instead, those leaders came away from negotiations with useless paper promises, which did little but allow Hitler a free hand in Central Europe and gave him vital time to enhance his still-developing military strength in an atmosphere of relative peace. It may appear cynical, but peace can have its tactical advantages for individuals and nations motivated to try to obfuscate the real truth from prying Western eyes, and by romancing Western leaders and negotiators by appearing to give them everything they want with only a whiff of quid pro quo. What should be asked is what cards are Western leaders really holding in these negotiations?
The answer, while complicated, is something less than a stacked deck. While ultimately the threat of military action by the West, should the Iranians become increasingly belligerent with a potential nuclear stockpile waiting on the launchpad, is a potent deterrent. However, it would also be an action of last resort by Western powers, one which would allow the Iranians to push hard before being pushed back, as recent developments in the Western reaction to the Syrian situation would seem to suggest.
The lifting of economic sanctions that are squeezing the Iranian economy would be the other major card being held by Western negotiators. While an attractive plum to acquire from the perspective of Iran, we must be careful to not read too much into its value. From our perspective, free and easy access to Western goods might seem like a virtual necessity. In more marginal societies, already used to hardships imposed by the West, the promise of a lifting of sanctions loses something of its intended edge.
Notwithstanding the fact the Iranians might have much to gain from development of a nuclear weapons program.
If the North Korean experience should serve as any example, countries in the West seem much more willing to negotiate for aid and other concessions, once they’re staring at the business end of a nuclear device across the Korean demilitarized zone. Not to mention the fact nuclear devices serve as the ultimate insurance policy against attack.
If we can trust the word of the Iranians remains to be seen. What should be determined going into these negotiations is on which side of the scale of benefits versus concessions do the Iranians really sit? If the solution to that equation is they have more to gain than to lose from merely paying lip service to the West — we most likely have our answer.