American officials like to say that Iran's defiance of international demands that it limit its nuclear activities, its support for terrorism, and the like have led to Tehran's growing isolation. Iranian regime officials see things differently. The Iranian regime has a strategy in the Middle East and believes it is succeeding.
Nowhere in the Middle East is Iran's strategy clearer at the moment than in Syria. Recently, Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, the military advisor to Iran's supreme leader, asserted that Syria is a "confrontation between the strategic policies of the world's great powers and regional powers," with Iran and its foreign allies on one side, and the United States and its regional allies on the other, per a translation by the American Enterprise Institute.
In explaining why Iran is engaged in this confrontation, Safavi noted that "Iran has pursued power and influence out to the Mediterranean three times." Two of these instances, in Safavi's recounting, occurred during the reigns of ancient Iranian kings. The third, however, was the present. He explained that Iran currently uses Hezbollah as "the long arm of Iranian defensive power … to confront a possible Zionist attack against Iran's nuclear energy facilities."
Safavi also explained how successful Iranian approaches to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to Syria, have made Iran a "regional power" in defiance of Western efforts to thwart its ambitions.
It would be easy to dismiss Safavi's claims as bluster. They are certainly selective: Ordinary Iranians are unlikely to find much comfort in his claimed foreign-policy successes while they struggle with rising inflation and unemployment at home. As hyperbolic as his claims may be, however, they are echoed by other Iranian officials and provide a useful guide to understanding Iranian actions and formulating an approach to the region.
Western officials and analysts have a tendency to artificially isolate one problem in the Middle East from another, treating Iran's nuclear program and the Syrian crisis, for example, as distinct problems to be dealt with independently.
This can lead to clouded analysis and false policy choices. For example, some argue that the United States should avoid involvement in Syria to ensure that resources are available to deal with Iran. In reality, both Iran's activities in Syria and its nuclear ambitions are part of a broader Iranian strategy to project power, enhance its regional influence, and constrain the United States and its regional allies.
Likewise, many analysts were surprised by Hezbollah's open admission of its deep involvement in Syria, because they viewed the group as primarily a Lebanese political party or as engaged in fighting Israel. While both of these are true, they neglect that Hezbollah is more fundamentally a group created to project Iranian power into the Levant, a mission with which its Syrian venture -- as well as its activities in Iraq during the last decade -- is perfectly compatible.
Western officials' inattention to this broader picture has real strategic consequences for U.S. interests. No matter how much American policymakers stress that the "military option" is on the table with respect to Iran's nuclear program, Washington's failure to push back on Iranian aggression in Syria, and the European Union's reluctance to penalize Hezbollah for its actions, undercut the credibility of Western warnings. Whatever the view of the West, for Tehran these issues, as well as the West's responses to them, are inextricably connected.
And not just for Tehran -- America's allies in the region also see U.S. actions in different theaters as linked, and they view with alarm Washington's passivity in the region. Consequently, American influence is everywhere diminished as friends and foes alike increasingly factor Washington out of policy decisions, and the force of America's allies collectively is reduced as each pursues policies independently not just of the United States but, to a great extent, of one another.
Once lost, influence is costly to regain, which gives rise to a vicious cycle. Re-establishing U.S. influence and credibility requires actions that, as crises deepen and multiply, become costlier as time passes, which reinforces the argument against taking them. Nowhere is this more evident than in Syria.
Costly interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have soured U.S. officials on further entanglement in the Middle East. But disengaging from the region will only add to the costs of those wars, not compensate for them.
One lesson we must learn from those conflicts, however, is to have clear objectives and to pursue them economically. When it comes to Iran, the objective has never been and should not become merely limiting Iranian nuclear activities, but disrupting the strategy of which both the nuclear program and Syria, as well as Iran's asymmetric actions, are parts. A non-nuclear Iran emboldened by victory in Syria remains dangerous.
The economical way to begin countering Iran's strategy is not to wait for a last-resort strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, or worse yet to continue offering Iran nuclear concessions in hopes it will bite; rather, it is to press Iran in a place like Syria, where it is far from home and perhaps overextended.
Defeating Iranian designs in Syria will not halt Tehran's nuclear ambitions, but it may restore in the eyes of Iranian and allied officials alike the credibility of American power, and force Tehran to reconsider the costs of its strategy. For Iran, Major General Safavi reminds us, has a strategy in the Middle East; the United States must as well.
The situation in Syria is looking grim, and prospects are fading fast for the so-called Geneva II conference. Given recent adverse developments -- the loss of Qusair and the surge of Iranian, Russian, and Hezbollah support for Bashar al-Assad's regime -- it is not surprising that some should call upon U.S. President Barack Obama to abandon not just his plans for the conference, but his Syria diplomacy altogether.
That advice is misguided. The question is not whether the United States should use diplomacy to resolve the Syrian crisis. It is how to make diplomacy succeed.
The popular notion that diplomacy and war are antithetical is deeply mistaken. Both diplomacy and military might are tools that states and, increasingly, nonstate actors use to achieve their objectives, and they are often wielded together. Just as diplomacy is an indispensable tool to avert, win, and end wars, so too is military might a vital tool in diplomacy.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, to see a flurry of military activity follow the announcement of a new round of talks. As outrageous as Russian and Iranian support for a regime brutalizing civilians is, their actions follow a certain ruthless logic. Each side in a conflict will seek to enter negotiations having placed itself in the most favorable position possible and having put the other parties at the greatest possible disadvantage, with an eye toward securing the best possible settlement.
This is precisely what we are seeing in Syria today. The Syrian regime's allies have surged military support to Assad's forces to help them enter the talks with momentum and to ensure that the opposition enters talks dispirited and disorganized. At the same time, Moscow in particular has sought to limit U.S. options in advance of the talks -- first by using its Security Council seat to block any U.N. action, and second by discouraging a U.S. or NATO air intervention by bolstering Syrian air defenses.
What is surprising, on the other hand, is how passive the United States and its allies have been by comparison.
Negotiations are not, contrary to their popular portrayal, about convincing the other parties, through charisma or fine prose, of the superiority of one's position. Negotiations succeed only when all the quarreling parties -- those doing the fighting and those supporting them -- identify a diplomatic resolution that better serves their interests than the best alternative available to each. Successful diplomacy depends on these two things, therefore: the deal on offer, and how the parties view their alternatives (or, in negotiating parlance, their "best alternative to a negotiated agreement," or BATNA).
Judged by these standards, the Assad regime and its supporters appear better positioned at the moment to succeed diplomatically than the United States and the Syrian opposition. With the rebels struggling to succeed militarily and the United States and its allies having all but ruled out various forms of intervention, the regime is unlikely to be in a mood for concessions. The opposition -- most of which would likely prefer military defeat to a deal that allowed Assad to remain in power -- has warned that it may stay away altogether if not provided greater support by the West.
To reverse this dynamic and turn the diplomatic tide in its favor, the Obama administration must do some work away from the table before it starts negotiating at the table. It must start by clearly deciding on its objectives. These should be twofold. On the one hand, the United States seeks to oust Assad and prevent the emergence of another Iranian-allied regime in Damascus. On the other, it seeks to prevent jihadi groups from seizing power in Syria, or even isolated pockets of the country, from which to press their fight against the United States and its allies.
These objectives provide some initial parameters for designing a diplomatic deal: It must specifically achieve Assad's ouster, but also manage to knit together a broad group of Syrians who will resist both Iranian and jihadi influence. Assad will necessarily be excluded from this diplomacy -- he is, after all, fighting to stay in power, not to negotiate himself out of power -- but Washington should nevertheless seek to peel away the support of Syrian constituencies that remain loyal to him. This suggests that the United States will need to offer credible, specific assurances to Syrian minority communities -- the Kurds, Christians, and Alawites in particular -- that they will be included and protected, by international peacekeepers if necessary, in a post-Assad Syria.
A deal of this nature will also appeal to the opposition, which thus far has resisted any notion of a political transition that includes Assad and his inner circle.
Negotiations are not, however, merely about putting an attractive deal on the table. Presented with the deal above, all sides may believe that their best alternatives -- their BATNA -- remains superior to what the United States is offering. To address this problem, the United States must change those alternatives.
To influence the Syrian opposition, the United States must make clear that its assistance is conditional upon engaging productively in diplomacy and entertaining reasonable compromise. Washington will need to send the same message to allies, such as Turkey, Qatar, and other regional actors, that are currently acting independently of Washington and one another. Qatar in particular appears to be supporting opposition elements to which the United States is opposed. But we cannot argue against something with nothing -- a more active and decisive U.S. policy will give these allies something to rally behind, and the United States will need to push them to unify their efforts and diplomatic positions.
As for the Assad regime and its allies, the United States must disabuse them of the notion that the alternative to diplomatic bargaining is military victory. To do so, the United States must credibly put on the table the option of military intervention -- both direct (through airstrikes, for example) and indirect, through arming elements of the Syrian opposition whose interests are aligned with those of the United States. This will send the message to those supporting Assad inside and outside Syria that military defeat is the alternative to a negotiated outcome.
Among Syria's supporters, Iran and Russia present special cases. Iran, which has dispatched forces to Syria, will most likely back down when faced with the prospect of confrontation with the United States. Russia, whose support for Assad is both material and diplomatic, presents a different problem. Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to desire an outcome that he can tout as a success at home, rather than one that comes across as a capitulation to Western demands. Collaborating with Moscow -- as the Obama administration is seeking to do -- on one hand, and linking this issue to U.S.-Russia cooperation in areas more strategically vital to Putin might facilitate a constructive Russian approach.
One frequently hears that steps such as these should be avoided because they will undermine U.S. diplomatic efforts. In fact, the opposite is true: Diplomacy is as much, if not more, about what one does away from the table to develop leverage as it is about talks themselves. If Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry desire a negotiated resolution to the Syrian crisis, they have a lot of work to do before they book their flights to Geneva.
KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images
When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow recently to discuss the deepening crisis in Syria, he brought with him the hope that the severity of events in the Middle East would finally be sufficient to spur Russia to reconsider its rigid support for Bashar al-Assad's regime, and plans for a new multilateral diplomatic initiative. What he did not carry with him, however, was leverage; without it, Kerry's latest gambit to bring the Syrian conflict to a negotiated conclusion is bound to fail.
It is right, of course, to prefer a diplomatic resolution of the Syrian conflict over a Western military intervention; and it is imperative, from the U.S. point of view, that whatever resolution is reached leave neither jihadists nor Iranian proxies in charge of Syria. However, successfully reaching this sort of resolution diplomatically depends on the parties to the conflict identifying an outcome that all of them prefer to the alternatives.
No such common ground exists at present, which is why diplomacy has been so unsuccessful and the war has ground on relentlessly. Both the Assad regime and the radical elements of the opposition are externally supplied and believe they can win, and thus be positioned to dictate terms in a post-conflict Syria. More secular elements of the Syrian opposition, on the other hand, are resource-poor and riven by internal differences, and they're unable thus far to mount a sufficient challenge either to the regime or to the extremists.
Outside Syria, Russia and Iran are supporting the Syrian regime, but appear primarily interested in frustrating Western aims, particularly in preventing the emergence of any Western-friendly successor to Assad. America's regional allies are alarmed by the violence in Syria, but are wary of the risks of deeper involvement, are split by rivalries among themselves, and lack the capacity to bring the conflict to a conclusion.
Almost entirely absent from this list of key actors is the United States, despite the vital interests the country has at stake in Syria. Washington has limited itself to the provision of humanitarian aid to Syria through various channels, as well as "nonlethal assistance" to the Syrian opposition.
U.S. officials from the president down have all but sworn off any further American involvement in Syria. They have variously stated that securing Syrian chemical weapons would take tens of thousands of U.S. ground troops, that providing arms to the Syrian rebels is too risky, and that Syrian air defenses are too formidable to consider airstrikes or a no-fly zone, which in any event would require international legal sanction. Other Western officials have echoed these sentiments.
Those who oppose intervention in Syria and instead support a negotiated resolution might find comfort in this. This reaction, however, is misguided. The absence of any significant U.S. involvement in Syria -- or even the prospect of it -- means that the United States lacks the leverage necessary to support its diplomatic efforts. It is easy to take American influence for granted, but that influence depends on neither goodwill nor esteem. Rather, it depends crucially on how others perceive America's willingness to exercise its power to advance its objectives. If other parties sense that the United States is unwilling to act -- whether to advance their interests or set them back -- they will discount the country in their calculations.
It should be little surprise, in this context, that Russian officials announced a major arms sale to the Assad regime shortly after pledging support for Kerry's peace conference. The move does little to bolster Assad's effectiveness in the fight against opposition forces; rather, it serves to embarrass the United States and undermine U.S. military options while underscoring Moscow's own commitment to its policy, bolstering Russian leverage in advance of any eventual negotiations.
If Barack Obama's administration is serious about achieving a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian conflict that advances U.S. interests, then it must develop leverage of its own. There are two ways to do this. First, the United States could link Syria to other issues in which Russia and other supporters of the Assad regime have stronger interests; for a host of reasons, this is unlikely.
Second, the United States could boost its involvement in Syria and alter how other parties perceive the prospects of even further U.S. involvement. Doing this would require two major changes in policy.
First, the United States must get serious about supporting the Syrian opposition, politically, financially, and militarily. Washington can strengthen the position of secular opposition leaders by channeling assistance through them. This assistance should include funding to allow the opposition to begin governing areas it holds inside Syria, as well as arms to tip the military balance against both the regime and extremists. In addition, Washington should be more hands-on in helping the opposition to overcome its internal rivalries.
This assistance should come, explicitly, at a price. The opposition should offer assurances to the minority groups that fear for their future after Assad's fall, and it should engage meaningfully in a diplomatic process aimed at ending the conflict.
Second, the Obama administration should stop swearing off military involvement in Syria and instead leave the possibility of intervention open. This could decisively change the calculus of the elites surrounding Assad as well as that of Russia and Iran, which may prefer a diplomatic resolution to Western intervention.
These steps would also finally provide U.S. allies in the region a strategy to rally around and a chance to spread the risk of increased involvement in Syria, perhaps finally bringing the policies of countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey into greater alignment with one another.
Increased support for the Syrian opposition and credible threats of military force are not steps that should be taken lightly. It would be a mistake, however, to see such steps -- or even more serious actions -- as alternatives to a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict. Instead, they should be viewed as vital to diplomacy's success, insofar as they alter the calculations of the parties to the conflict. Diplomacy and coercion are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing; there will be little hope of a diplomatic breakthrough on Syria until U.S. actions measure up to U.S. pronouncements.
MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images
The failure of the latest round of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program will likely bring calls for changes in the American approach -- for bilateral engagement, for an "endgame proposal," or even for reconsideration of the merits of "containment" of a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran. One such proposal -- focusing on strengthening the US "diplomatic track" with Iran -- was put forward recently by The Iran Project, a group of distinguished former U.S. officials.
There is much in the report with which I agree. In particular, the report is correct to observe that neither sanctions nor engagement alone will accomplish U.S. aims and that a combination of policy tools will be required. It is also right to begin with an assessment of U.S. and Iranian interests and objectives, which should be the starting point for any successful policy.
However, I would differ with the report on four vital issues and thus reach different conclusions regarding the way forward on Iran policy.
First, the report conflates the objectives and interests of Iran writ large with those of the Iranian regime. The principal-agent problem that bedevils even democratic governments is particularly pronounced in authoritarian regimes, such as Iran's, which are not accountable to an electorate. Care must therefore be taken to distinguish between Iranian national interests and regime interests.
When it comes to sanctions, the Iran Project report's own conclusions illustrate this distinction -- the economic costs imposed upon Iran have certainly set back Iran's national interests but have had little apparent impact on the regime's own calculus, likely in part because Iran's leaders are relatively sheltered from the impact of sanctions compared to ordinary Iranians.
This distinction must also, however, be applied when designing incentives. What the report lists as Iranian aims -- respect, acknowledgement of nuclear "rights," etc. -- appears based on the rhetoric of regime officials. That rhetoric has multiple audiences in mind -- especially public opinion in Iran and the Middle East -- and therefore deliberately obscures the gap between the interests of the regime and those audiences. An examination of Iran's policies and actions, on the other hand, suggests that the regime is primarily interested in the enrichment of regime elites, the projection of power throughout the region to ward off potential foes, and especially in the survival of its "velayat e-faqih" system of rule.
Second, the report draws a false distinction between "diplomacy" and "pressure." There is a widespread misconception that diplomacy means "being nice," which leads to engagement being seen as a reward. In fact, diplomacy is just the conduct of relations between states -- a means of communication. A skilled diplomat will use these communications both to pressure and to entice, as well as to learn about his counterpart. Whether any particular action constitutes a disincentive or incentive depends on whether it damages or advances the Iranian regime's interests, which is why understanding how the regime truly views its interests is critical to diplomatic success.
Third, the report treats Iran's nuclear ambitions as the result of U.S.-Iran hostility. In reality, both likely arise from the regime's desire to preserve itself. Anti-Americanism was a founding pillar of the current Iranian government, and abandoning it would undermine the regime's raison d'etre. As for nuclear weapons, they would under the right conditions provide Iran with a powerful deterrent to external attack. Furthermore, the regime may calculate -- based on U.S. policy toward North Korea during its recent leadership transition, as well as U.S. policy toward Pakistan -- that fears of "loose nukes" would cause outside powers not simply to be deterred, but give them a vested interest in the regime's stability. Because the threats to that stability emanate from within as well as without, Western security guarantees are unlikely to be regarded as an acceptable substitute for a nuclear arsenal.
Fourth, and most problematically, the report assumes that a nuclear agreement could result in a broader strategic shift by Iran. In fact, a nuclear agreement -- and any improvement in U.S.-Iran relations -- is more likely to be a consequence of such a shift than a cause of one. As noted above, both Iran's nuclear ambitions and its hostility toward the West are elements of a strategy to advance the regime's interests, as it conceives them. For a strategic shift to occur, the regime must be convinced that this strategy is no longer tenable.
Far from compelling the regime to rethink its strategy, however, the current Western approach is likely seen in Tehran as vindicating it. U.S. policies at the negotiating table and across the region -- a reduction in our military posture, our inaction in Syria, and our continually improving nuclear offers -- are interpreted as successes by the regime and perceived by it as indications not of good will but of desperation or decline.
Seen in this light, rather than forcing the regime to face a stark choice, the U.S. and our allies have given Iran's leaders the impression that they can have their cake and eat it too: retain an implicitly acknowledged nuclear weapons capability and not only maintain but expand its regional influence without having to adopt a posture of international cooperation.
The U.S. objective, therefore, should be to reverse this dynamic. Such an approach would require a firmer posture in the nuclear arena -- refraining from further improvements to our offer, setting red lines for Iran's nuclear program, taking steps to enhance the credibility of the U.S. military threat, and leaving open for now the question of whether we will hold further talks.
But it would also require putting the nuclear negotiations in their appropriate regional and strategic context. The regime should come to believe that a confrontational, rather than cooperative, approach to its own security will come at a price, exacted by the U.S. and our allies. There are a number of ways to send this message -- pushing back against Iranian support for terrorism, greater support for the Iranian opposition -- but the most important way to do so is through greater involvement in Syria, where Iran has much at stake.
None of these steps exclude continued or even intensified diplomacy. Successful policies should combine a range of tools employed in coordination. But the goal of all of these actions should be the same. A strategic shift by Iran -- from a zero-sum policy of confrontation to one of cooperation -- would benefit the U.S. and the region whether or not a formal nuclear agreement is reached. A nuclear agreement without such a shift, however, will prove a hollow achievement.
LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images
Yesterday, I testified on Syria at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on the Near East and South and Central Asia. The topic of the hearing was Syria's humanitarian crisis, but I made the case that we could not successfully address the humanitarian crisis without a successful policy to resolve the conflict which gives rise to it. I proposed a strategy comprising three pillars -- people, funding, and military support -- each of which should have an element focused on the regime and one focused on the opposition. Among other things, I suggested that we channel more support through the opposition, that we provide arms to the opposition, make the case in NATO for strikes on regime military assets.
In the months before the latest round of P5+1 negotiations in Almaty, many analysts had been urging the United States to adopt what became known as a "more for more" approach. That is, offer Iran more relief from sanctions in exchange for more nuclear concessions by Tehran.
It is now evident that Washington instead adopted a "more for less" strategy. More relief from sanctions was indeed offered (according to reports -- the U.S. terms have not been made available for public scrutiny), but in exchange for fewer, not more, concessions by Iran. In particular, the P5+1 has dropped its previous demand that Iran shutter its second enrichment facility at Fordow.
Even discounting the fact that the P5+1 appears to be negotiating with itself -- Iran did not respond to the P5+1's last offer and by all accounts made no formal response to the new offer -- the group's approach to negotiating is flawed. To understand why, one must consider the underlying dynamics of negotiations (for a longer version of this analysis, see this article I co-authored with Prof. Jim Sebenius in the latest issue of International Security).
Success in any negotiation depends on the existence of a "zone of possible agreement" (ZOPA) -- in other words, a range of possible outcomes which both sides judge to be better than not making a deal at all. To use a simple example, if the seller of a house will accept a minimum of $200,000, and a prospective buyer will offer at most $250,000, the ZOPA is between those two figures -- $200,000 to $250,000. The existence of a ZOPA does not guarantee that a deal will be made -- there are still plenty of obstacles to reaching agreement -- but it does mean that a deal is at least possible. If there is no ZOPA, then even the most skilled negotiator will be unable to broker a deal.
In the P5+1 negotiations, analysts have frequently sought to blame the long stalemate between the parties on mistrust, miscommunication, or other tactical matters. But in fact the underlying cause of the talks' failure to produce an outcome has more likely been that no ZOPA was present -- the least Iran would accept was a far more expansive nuclear program than the U.S. and its allies could tolerate, rendering the discussions futile.
Faced with the absence of a ZOPA, there are three ways to create one. First, by exerting pressure that imposes upon the targeted side an additional cost associated with failing to reach an agreement. To return to the home-buying example above, if the seller is moving and has another house under contract for which he requires the proceeds from the sale of his current home, the costs of failing to make a deal rise. This should cause him to reconsider his bottom line, and perhaps accept a less generous offer than he would have previously. While the stakes in a nuclear negotiation are much higher, the principle behind sanctions and other forms of pressure are the same -- they raise the cost of failing to make a deal and incentivize the targeted side to reconsider its negotiating position.
The second way a ZOPA can be created is through incentives or deal sweeteners. Just as home-sellers might offer to help with financing or even to throw in a new car or a vacation to motivate prospective buyers, the P5+1 has offered Iran a range of incentives to motivate it to compromise, from assistance with civil nuclear power to science and technology cooperation. In principle, such incentives improve the value of an agreement and thus pry open a ZOPA that much more.
The P5+1 has tried both of these avenues for creating a ZOPA, though undoubtedly has recently focused far more on pressure than on incentives. These efforts, over the course of many years, have nevertheless foundered, likely because the Iranian regime values a potential nuclear weapons capability -- and the prestige and security that it could bring -- far more than even the oil exports and economic opportunity it has sacrificed to pursue it, and certainly more than Western incentives that Iranian officials have previously characterized as a pittance.
There is, however, a third way to open up a ZOPA in negotiations -- to change one's own bottom line. The temptation to do so will be familiar to anyone who has been involved in a negotiation, during which the impetus to make a deal for its own sake can override previous calculations of one's interests. This appears to have been the P5+1's approach in the Almaty round -- faced with Iranian intransigence, the group decided to accept what it had previously declared unacceptable, namely the Fordow enrichment facility. The existence of this facility had been secret until it was revealed with much fanfare by President Obama, French President Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Brown in a 2009 press conference, at which they described Fordow as "a direct challenge to the basic compact at the center of the non-proliferation regime."
Sometimes a negotiating party revises his bottom line because of pressures or incentives served up by the other side. Sometimes it is done unilaterally in pursuit of a deal or as a result of reconsidering whether one can really stomach the consequences of failing to reach a deal, which may now be the case with the P5+1.
There are good reasons, however, to avoid unilateral changes in one's bottom line. First and foremost, there were presumably good reasons for staking out that bottom line in the first place. This is certainly true regarding the P5+1's previous insistence that Fordow be dismantled. This facility, more than any other element of Iran's nuclear program, offers Iran a clear path to a nuclear weapons capability, as it is buried deep underground and hardened against aerial attack. Allowing Iran to maintain centrifuge cascades there -- even under IAEA seal -- means that they retain the option to make a nuclear weapon.
Second, negotiations are about perceptions, and continual, incremental shifts in one's bottom line can convey to the party across the table that your "true" bottom line has yet to be reached. In other words, Iran may be excused for thinking that if only they hold out longer against international pressure the demand that they suspend enrichment at Fordow or that they cap enrichment at 20 percent, may fall by the wayside just as the demands for shuttering Fordow, suspending enrichment altogether, and refraining from operating centrifuges have in the past.
Iran may thus misperceive the size and scope of a ZOPA, and may be willing to wait a long time to secure the best possible outcome, having taken eight years to extract the Fordow concession from Washington. In effect, this means undoing whatever progress was achieved through sanctions and incentives in opening a ZOPA by conveying a (hopefully) false impression of the P5+1's own flexibility and bottom line.
Most ominously for the P5+1, it is possible that no ZOPA will ever be opened in the Iran nuclear negotiations because the Iranian regime cannot brook the idea of any compromise with the United States, enmity or "resistance" toward which was a guiding principle of the regime's founding ideology. If this is the case, Tehran will simply pocket the concessions offered by the P5+1, and Fordow will be lent legitimacy just as the October 2009 "TRR deal" lent legitimacy to Iran's low-level uranium enrichment activities. In this case, the U.S. and its allies may find themselves in the unenviable position of advocating a military strike on facilities that they have now declared no longer outside the bounds of international law, but tolerable under the right conditions.
STANISLAV FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images
As I wrote in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, calls for direct talks with Iran have been on the rise, in large part due to the lack of movement in talks between Iran and the P5+1, which includes the United States, the United Kingdon, France, Germany, Russia, and China. The P5+1 is entering its eighth year of discussions with Tehran, yet has made little progress toward a nuclear agreement while Iran has vastly expanded its nuclear capacity. This raises a question I do not address in the op-ed -- is there a continued role for the P5+1?
For diplomats, large international coalitions hold an irresistible allure, especially when dealing with troublesome regimes. Acting in concert through groupings such as the P5+1 improves international compliance with sanctions and reinforces the target state's isolation, in theory amplifying the pressure upon it and enhancing the prospects for achieving the coalition's objectives.
Such a broad grouping has downsides, however. First, coordination -- whether on carrots or sticks - takes time, and lots of it. A host of factors, from each state's domestic politics to unrelated international disputes among the members, prevents quick resolution of differences.
Second, the states all have different interests at stake. The United States sees Iran as a broad threat, given its support for terrorism and its destabilizing activities in the Middle East, which is only magnified by Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Russia and China see the issue differently. Tehran may target restaurants in Washington, but it avoids entangling itself in Chechnya and Xinjiang. As a result, many in Moscow and Beijing see Iran not as a threat, but as a potential (if difficult) partner in constraining Washington's exercise of power and influence in the region.
The result of these varying interests is a lowest-common-denominator approach, whereby the group focuses on the one thing that they can all agree upon. In this case, that is Iran's compliance with the international nonproliferation rules, which all of the major powers would like to see preserved. Any agreement the P5+1 reaches is likely to focus narrowly on Iran's nuclear capabilities; other issues of interest to the United States and the European Union -- whether Iran's regional activities or human rights record -- are left to be pursued by separate, ad hoc coalitions of likeminded countries outside the official negotiations.
Given these downsides and the plodding pace of the negotiations, it is little wonder that calls for direct U.S.-Iran talks are on the rise. But the dismissal of such talks by Iran's supreme leader and the long and unsuccessful history of U.S.-Iran contacts suggest bilateral talks would not prove any more of a silver bullet than multilateral ones have been. The US offer of direct talks with Iran is likely to make more of an impression on our coalition partners -- convincing them that we are going the extra mile on diplomacy and hopefully pushing them to do the same on pressure -- than on the Iranian regime.
Indeed, while we should not hesitate to employ diplomacy creatively and flexibly in service of our policy aims, Iranian truculence likely ensures that the P5+1 will remain the most meaningful forum for talks on Iran's nuclear program. Tehran appears to see compromise as more dangerous than maintaining its confrontational stance toward neighbors and the West; Iran's leaders must be persuaded that in fact failing to compromise is the greater danger. Doing so will require various forms of international pressure -- diplomatic, economic, and military -- which must be marshaled through multilateral diplomacy. As I note in the Times piece, a broader U.S.-Iran breakthrough, if it occurs, is more likely to be a consequence of a strategic shift by Iran than a cause of one.
Mohammed Ameen - Pool/Getty Images
The back-to-back Senate testimonies of secretary of state nominee John Kerry and sitting Secretary Hillary Clinton served up quite a contrast: the former outlining the big policy ideas he intends to pursue; the latter delving into the details of bureaucratic information-dissemination and decision-making. There is an important lesson in this disparity: a secretary of state's legacy can depend just as much on management of the State Department as on foreign policy acumen.
America's foreign policy agenda has ballooned to encompass countless issues, many of which are little noticed domestically yet can consume enormous diplomatic effort for the U.S. government. The secretary of state is responsible for around 60,000 employees, hundreds of U.S. diplomatic missions, and a multi-billion dollar budget. It is inevitable that he will succeed or fail not merely on the strength of his personality or individual effort, but through the decisions and actions of those subordinate to him and often working at a vast distance from Washington.
Handed the responsibility for this sprawling diplomatic apparatus, it might be tempting for the new secretary of state to insulate himself within a loyal inner circle and leave management to others. This would be a serious error. It would likely exacerbate rather than ameliorate the management deficiencies identified by the recent Accountability Review Board (ARB), and lead to a disconnect between the secretary's personal diplomacy and the broader efforts of the State Department, weakening the efficacy of both. It would also limit the secretary's access to the enormous reservoir of talent found in the foreign and civil service, which can be a powerful instrument for American interests if provided with good leadership.
As he prepares to take the reins as America's top diplomat, Senator Kerry should therefore consider not just the foreign policy initiatives he will emphasize, but how to effectively manage the State Department to get the most out of U.S. diplomatic resources and ensure that he is aware not only of the issues on his agenda, but those not on his agenda which might take him by surprise. Doing so will not only help him to avert or at least defuse the next unforeseen crisis, but to identify and seize opportunities which might otherwise remain hidden.
To that end, Senator Kerry should consider the following steps:
1. Set priorities, and communicate them clearly. Only the secretary of state can cut through the miasma of issues, initiatives, dialogues, and summits which can shroud the State Department and set priorities for American diplomacy. The secretary's strategic guidance should not only outline his vision of American interests, but his vision of how the State Department is to pursue them.
The secretary's words and actions can make the difference between a culture in which problems are brought to the surface quickly and resolved head-on, and one in which they are swept under the rug. As in the case of both Iraq and Libya, reality frequently can clash with an administration's preferred narrative; American diplomats must feel empowered to make policy based on the former rather than the latter.
To be useful to diplomats in the field, such guidance must be both concise and realistic. Current planning documents do not fit the bill. State's Congressional Budget Justification is 853 pages, with a 174-page executive summary. Another document titled "State-USAID Agency Priority Goals for 2012-2013" is commendably brief, but many of the priorities it lists stand at odds with the reality of how U.S. officials spend their time and resources.
In the real world, strategic guidance must also be adaptive. The secretary cannot just set priorities and put the Department on cruise control; he should implement a process of regular (if informal) review with his senior staff to assess progress and make any necessary adaptations to his strategic guidance.
2. Empower your lieutenants. It is not enough to merely issue sound guidance, however; it must be enforced through lieutenants.
This means, first and foremost, appointing a personal staff which understands both the State Department and the secretary, and can serve as an effective liaison between the two. In practice, this means employing a combination of political appointees and talented Foreign Service officers (FSOs) in the secretary's staff. Including the latter is key; political appointees are often wary of career FSOs, but their familiarity with the quirks of State and experience in the field can help the secretary and other appointees navigate the bureaucracy and bring to their attention issues which might otherwise pass unnoticed.
Beyond the secretary's personal staff, it is important that the secretary have an empowered and trusted cabinet of assistant secretaries. Much of the heavy lifting in the State Department is done by assistant secretaries, especially those responsible for the geographic regions. The secretary should place top-caliber officials in these roles, regardless of whether they are career officials or political appointees, meet with them regularly and work through them, and hold them accountable for their portfolios.
Special attention should be paid to the Policy Planning office. The director and staff of Policy Planning should be foreign policy scholars willing and able to challenge policy orthodoxy and mine the broader analytical community for fresh ideas. In particular, they should be comfortable dealing with critics of the administration and its policies; while foreign policy experts in Washington may be increasingly partisan, foreign policy ideas should not be.
3. Declutter and Delayer the Bureaucracy. For assistant secretaries to be truly empowered, State needs to limit its use of special envoys to truly exceptional circumstances, and ensure clear lines of authority on key issues.
The overuse of special envoys increases the risk of a sort of diplomatic principal-agent problem. An envoy, with his focus on a single issue or conflict to which his professional fortunes are inextricably linked, has every incentive to prioritize it over issues which may have or develop a greater bearing on the national interest. On the flip side, the regional assistant secretary who has high-profile issues removed from his portfolio and handed to an envoy has correspondingly less influence with diplomatic counterparts and authority within the bureaucracy he oversees.
There are occasionally issues that call for the appointment of a special envoy -- for example, when a negotiation is ripe for resolution or an issue arises which demands sustained high-level attention or cuts across regional boundaries and might otherwise not receive the focus it deserves. Envoy positions should be rare, should complement rather than duplicate the existing chain of command, and should not be used merely to signal that an issue is important. And whether or not an envoy is employed, it should be clear to all who is in charge of and accountable for an issue.
Just as important as empowering assistant secretaries is empowering the rank-and-file and ensuring that the secretary has access to them and their expertise. As currently configured, there can be eight layers or more between the drafter of a memo and its ultimate recipient, the secretary -- and this figure does not even account for the numerous offices which must "clear" a memo before it even begins to ascend that chain. A savvy desk officer can circumvent much of this bureaucracy by cultivating the right contacts on the Department's seventh floor, but in doing so risks alienating colleagues alongside whom they will work far longer than they will serve any particular secretary of state.
The new secretary should remove some of these layers of bureaucracy. A flatter organizational structure would not only close the gap between him and the subject matter expertise he needs to be effective, but it would make those experts' jobs far more challenging and rewarding and likely raise both the morale and performance of the State Department as a whole.
4. Emphasize Training and Review the Foreign Service Business Model. Removing layers of the bureaucracy should not mean shrinking the Foreign Service, however -- it should be used as an opportunity to increase amount of training provided to FSOs. It's frequently observed that FSOs receive far less training over their careers than their military counterparts; what is less well known is that a significant portion of the training they do receive has little to do with statecraft and is instead consumed with language learning and management workshops. To address this, the new secretary should order a review of the courses offered by the Foreign Service Institute and ensure that it adequately prepares FSOs for the challenges they will face in the field. The average FSO has likely taken the Myers-Briggs assessment multiple times, but has had few or no opportunities to engage in serious study of diplomacy or international relations once in the Foreign Service.
In order to effectively craft and target an expanded training regimen, the secretary should consider undertaking a broader review of how the Foreign Service does business. The much-touted Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) begins with an image of a "jeep wind[ing] its way through a remote region of a developing country," carrying a "State Department diplomat with deep knowledge of the area's different ethnic groups."
In fact, however, the State Department does little to cultivate such individuals. Instead, State emphasizes a generalist model, which discourages the sort of deep specialization evoked in the QDDR. While the generalist approach is not without advantages, many FSOs would argue that increasing globalization -- the increasing travel of Washington-based officials, and the ease of direct communication between capitals, for example -- paradoxically puts a greater premium on specialization and deep local knowledge.
They would also argue that security is as much a matter of possessing a deep familiarity and understanding of a place as it is of physical measures such as barriers and bodyguards, and that worthwhile intelligence analysis requires not just technical collection and academic study but on-the-ground experience that allows one to connect seemingly disparate dots. The FSO's frustration is that often he or she is restricted to a diplomatic compound rather than permitted to venture out in that jeep, and armed not with "deep knowledge" but with brief preparation and a predecessor's rolodex.
Assuming he is confirmed, John Kerry will have a running start at being a successful secretary of state, armed both with the personal capabilities and human capital within State to do the job. But these elements -- the secretary and the bureaucracy he commands -- will not fall automatically into alignment. Avoiding the next diplomatic crisis -- and more importantly seizing the tremendous opportunities in America's path -- will require more than foreign policy virtuosity. It will require that the new secretary invest time and effort in the less glamorous but equally essential task of leading and managing.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.