How should we measure success in the talks with Iran that begin today? I propose the following sliding scale.
1. Breathtaking, mission accomplished victory: Iran agrees to abandon its nuclear weapons program, submit to a rigorous verification and safeguards regime, and open substantive dialogue on its support for global terrorism. If this is achieved, President Obama would be a shoo-in for the Nobel Peace Prize. Chance of this happening: I would guess near zero.And in an op-ed in yesterday's Boston Globe, Nicholas Burns argues that the revelation of the previously secret uranium enrichment facility near Qom "gives the United States the most important opportunity in years to pressure Tehran to forgo its nuclear weapons ambitions:"
2. Demonstrable and significant progress: Iran's continued recalcitrance is identified early by all the relevant players, especially Russia and China, and the UN Security Council responds within a few weeks with a substantial ramping up of de facto sanctions on Iran -- sanctions that involve the effective participation of Iran's chief trading partners, the EU, Russia, China, and India. Chance of this happening: I would guess not zero, but maybe just a 1-in-10 chance.
3. No progress beyond what the Bush team already achieved: Iran's continued recalcitrance provokes a range of global rhetorical censure ranging from Chinese tut-tutting to American (or French or British) bluster. The United States unilaterally increases sanctions pressure, but only incrementally because U.S. unilateral leverage over Iran is minimal. Europeans agree to review their options for an incremental increase of sanctions pressure themselves, but do not commit irrevocably to a ramp up in pressure. Russians and Chinese acknowledge that Iran has not been forthcoming, but block further sanctions on the grounds that these would be counterproductive. Chance of this happening: I would guess this is the most likely outcome, so maybe a 4-in-10 chance.
4. Less progress than what the Bush team already achieved: Iran's continued recalcitrance even after the U.S. has played its "hole card" of the evidence of Iranian duplicity concerning the second enrichment site splits the international coalition and key members, likely Russia or China, blame the United States for its mishandling of the negotiations. Chance of this happening: I fear this is the next most-likely-outcome, so maybe a 3-in-10 chance.
5. False progress is achieved: Desperate to show progress, the United States accepts a fig-leaf arrangement, or merely declares the negotiations fruitful when they are not, and so there is neither true progress towards Iranian relinquishment of their nuclear program nor increased leverage imposed on them to make a deal in the next round more likely. Chance of this happening: I don't think this is as likely as some Obama critics think, but there is a non-trivial possibility of this happening, perhaps barely a 2-in-10 chance.
6. U.S. capitulation: Desperate for a deal, the United States follows the advice of some and signs a grand bargain agreement that "resolves" the issue by preemptively conceding to all of Iran's demands, including the demand that the world community stop complaining about the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Chance of this happening: not likely, probably only marginally more likely than outcome #1.
Prior to any argument about what will or will not result from the current negotiations must be an understanding of why Iran wants nuclear weapons (assuming, contrary to Iran's claims, it is in fact developing its nuclear energy program with the eventual goal of weaponization). Only if we understand Iran's interests and preferences can we even hope to make progress in talks.
...the United States has significantly greater credibility to take advantage of Iran’s mendacity and to lead an international coalition toward comprehensive sanctions should talks fail. But, Obama must now turn to a more tough-minded policy. He should ratchet up the pressure on the Iranian government by moving from a strategy of engagement to one that combines continued negotiations, tough new inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the threat of much more powerful sanctions.
So, why would Iran want nuclear weapons? I can think of at least five reasons (none of which are necessarily mutually exclusive): for defense and deterrence, for aggression, to ensure its regional power, as a bargaining chip, and as a key to international status. Any chance of getting Iran to cease developing nuclear weapons depend on which these is the primary motivation. Let's consider each in turn.
Defense/deterrence: It shouldn't come as any surprise that states see nuclear weapons as the only means by which to defend themselves against the United States. Going back to the aftermath of the first Gulf War, an high-ranking Indian military officer who conducted India's after-action report noted that the first lesson of the war should be that if your national interests may run afoul of the US, be sure to get a nuclear weapon. Clearly, Iran looks at what happened to Iraq and Afghanistan and worries about what the US could do to Iran if the US so desired. Iran's national and regional interests obviously are often in conflict (although not necessarily as much as people assume) with those of the US; thus, Iran very well could be seeking nuclear weapons to prevent the US from attempting regime change. It wouldn't even necessarily take a large arsenal to deter the US. War games in which I participated when I worked in the defense industry in the mid-1990s concluded that a credible threat against even a close US ally (like Turkey or Israel) could be enough to deter the US from attacking. If this is the primary reason Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon, there is little the international community will be able to do to prevent it as nuclear capability is essentially an end unto itself. There's no other way Iran could really develop enough military capability to deter the US.
Aggression: As many in Israel seem to fear, its certainly possible that Iran is seeking WMD for aggressive reasons. Perhaps it wants to incinerate Israel, perhaps it merely wants to be able to employ a "keep out" strategy against the US in the event it embarks on a more conventional military adventure. If this is motivating Iran's nuclear ambitions, there is a better chance of getting Iran to cease, unless it simply wants to attack Israel out of some millenarian concern. In that case, Iran would be undeterrable and it's probably impossible to move Iran off of the path towards nukes. But, if Iran sees nuclear weapons as merely another weapon, or as a deterrent cover to launch a conventional war, that suggests some kind of cost-benefit analysis that can be applied to change Iran's assessment. If Iran can be made to see aggression as too costly or as unlikely to succeed, nuclear weapons become less appealing. It doesn't make for a high likelihood of success, but the door isn't shut either.
Regional power: Perhaps Iran was nuclear weapons to cement itself as the dominant power in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Like the aggression option, this implies that while Iran may have a strong interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, it's doing so as a means to a different end. And, like in the aggression option, it's then possible to change Iran's calculations. Not easy, but possible.
Bargaining chip: If Iran's nuclear program is really designed to be used as a bargaining chip, this obviously presents the best scenario for getting Iran to give up the program. The problem in this scenario is, of course, determining what Iran wants.
International status: As India long argued, the key to being accepted as a serious player on the world stage is nuclear weapon status. Perhaps Iran feels slighted and is seeking a nuclear weapon to push its way into the highest levels of international politics. In this scenario, the question becomes whether Iran can get that status and respect without developing nuclear weapons. India certainly never believed it could.
As I see things, I believe Iran's primary motivation is the first one on the list: defense and deterrence. If this is correct, it means both good and bad news. The bad news is that it will probably be impossible to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. If Iran has decided that the best, if not the only, way to ensure its national security is to proliferate, it's hard to imagine that decision being altered by any combination of international sanctions or pressure (especially the kind of sanctions or pressure likely to emerge from a disparate coalition of states with unaligned interests).
The good news, however, is that Iran proliferating may not be such a problem. If Iran's main motivation is defense, proliferating may in fact stabilize the regional situation, as a state not fearful for its continued existence can be a more rational and well-behaved state. Indeed as Thomas P. M. Barnett notes:
if history is any guide, both the United States and Israel are looking at the first real chance for a durable regional security architecture to emerge (now that you should expect a nuclear Saudi Arabia and Turkey to show up at the negotiating table, too). Yes, the hotheads on all sides seem desperate to freak out over this prospect, but, again, read your history: With the exceptions of our allies in Britain and France, the U.S. has looked down upon every rising power to ever get the bomb as constituting a loose canon capable of all manner of nefarious acts and strategic stupidity. And yet we're the only one that's ever pulled the trigger.