The latest round of negotiations with Iran – with meetings in Almaty, Istanbul, and Almaty again over the past couple of months – has ended in failure, with the two sides as far apart as ever. Diplomatic sources continued to express cautious optimism regarding a possible breakthrough even when it became clear that the final meeting in Almaty was not going well. These sources insisted that talks on the last day – Saturday – would be the true test of where Iran is going. But as we have seen so many times before, the "true test" never comes; every failed negotiation has been the prelude to renewed statements about the ultimate test of Iran's intentions that will come – with the next round.
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Many commentators have by now taken note of this frustrating deja vu dynamic. Much less attention, however, is focused on a basic misconception about the nature of the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, U.K., France and Germany) nations. That misconception currently resonates in the debate on this topic, and ironically lends strength to the pattern.
Although Iran is very determined to acquire a military nuclear capability – a goal rejected outright by the P5+1– prominent Western commentators continue to advocate the need to build confidence between the parties and to make a greater effort to identify common ground.
But when Iran wants to develop a military nuclear capability, and the P5+1 wants to convince it to give that up, it makes little sense to try and search for common ground. Moreover, as far as confidence-building is concerned, the situation is not symmetrical: The crisis is a direct result of Iran cheating on its explicit nonproliferation commitment. It is Iran that broke the rules, not the P5+1. But with confidence-building so prominent in the P5+1 rhetoric, Iranian negotiators feel they can demand reciprocal assurances from the other side, not surprisingly in the form of lifting all sanctions. But these sanctions are punishment for Iran's defiance, and the only leverage the P5+1 have in a very difficult negotiation. Iran's demand that these sanctions be lifted as a "confidence-building measure" is ludicrous.
The dynamic of this negotiation is more accurately characterized as a war of wills between two parties with mutually exclusive agendas. It is a negotiation where only the interests of one of the sides will win. The role of biting sanctions and threats of military consequences is to create enough hardship for Iran so that accepting the position of the P5+1 feels like the best option. But this approach has yet to show results, and for the international community time is running out. Iran has built up its nuclear infrastructure, and will continue to do so until a decision to move to nuclear weapons is unstoppable. Time works in Iran's favor as long as it can string the international community along, and ward off military action by convincing it that cooperation is just around the corner.
The question is: What next? Now more than ever the answer to this question depends on the approach of the United States. Assuming that U.S. President Barack Obama is indeed determined to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state, that he recognizes that Iran is gradually creating a fait accompli nuclear infrastructure, and that there are no realistic grounds for continuing to expect that an agreement through negotiations can be reached, at some point he will realize that the negotiations route in its current format – including the pressure of biting sanctions – has failed.
Ignoring this reality and repeating the mantra "there is still time for diplomacy to work" is always an option, but there is reason to believe that the U.S. is losing patience with Iran, although it is not eager, to say the least, to declare negotiations over. Nevertheless, if Obama is truly committed to stopping Iran, the lack of any reasonable prospect for a negotiated settlement after 10 years of efforts should make it clear that the U.S. has no choice, and it's time for more forceful options.
Military action carries costs and risks, and success does not necessarily spell an end to Iran's program or its ambitions. Nevertheless, a limited, surgical strike to Iran's nuclear facilities would send a serious message, perhaps one that would bring them to the table looking for a deal. Military action is far from the preferred option, but it is beginning to look like the one that has a realistic prospect of compelling Iran to seriously consider changing course.
Negotiations – carried out in numerous formats over the course of a decade, including both generous offers of inducements to Iran and later threats of consequences – are simply not working. The dismal reality is that U.S. options are dwindling. At this late stage its choice is to either move toward taking more forceful action against Iran's growing nuclear infrastructure, or accept that Iran will sooner or later become a nuclear state – at a time of its own choosing.
Dr. Emily B. Landau is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). She is the author of "Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation" (2012).