When companies are faced with making a decision between multiple risky options, they will often seek out information in order to reduce their uncertainty. So, a pharmaceutical firm will conduct clinical trials in order to determine if a drug is safe or dangerous, information that could mean the difference between profitable sales and damaging litigation. Such an investment in information is never free -- indeed, it often comes at a significant cost that must be weighed against the value of the knowledge obtained.
In this sense, the recently concluded U.S.-Iran talks in Geneva can be considered a diplomatic purchase of information. The United States, by offering to remove Iran's low-enriched uranium and turn it into the raw material required to make medical isotopes, is testing Iran's claim of peaceable intent and the Obama administration's hopes for engagement. If the Iranians comply, they may be open to further compromise, perhaps as a result of the political pressure they have faced at home since the summer's election turmoil. Their refusal, on the other hand, would serve as a clear signal of intransigence and lead Washington to pursue an alternative path. The most likely result is somewhere in between -- Iran gives no clear answer, but seeks to draw out talks and divide the P5+1 -- meaning that the United States has to ensure that we and our allies agree on what constitutes an acceptable response from Tehran. Whatever the result, it is a bold and innovative gambit by the United States, and the Iran hands at the National Security Council should be commended for devising it.
Like all purchases of information, however, this one comes at a cost. The P5+1 have had to accept the uranium enrichment which Iran has conducted in recent years in defiance of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions. Even if it ultimately does not reach a deal to send its LEU abroad, Iran will surely seek to pocket this concession and declare a measure of victory. Similarly, by presenting the admission of IAEA inspectors to the until-recently-covert Qom enrichment plant as a concession, Iran gains tacit international acceptance of a facility built in defiance of its Nonproliferation Treaty obligations. If the P5+1 accepts this fait accompli and negotiates to limit rather than eliminate uranium enrichment in Iran and to monitor rather than shut down the Qom facility, the result could be a dangerous one for the stability of the Middle East and the viability of the global nonproliferation regime.
Another cost of the current U.S. initiative is that it risks demoralizing Iran's ascendant political opposition by bolstering the regime at a time when its legitimacy at home appears to be waning. Given that an internal transformation in Iran may be the best hope for long-run peace and stability in the region, any action that risks delaying it could be costly indeed. None of this is to say that the current approach should not be tried, given the paucity of attractive options; it is simply to say that it is not free. At some point the purchases of information must end, and a decision must be taken. A pharmaceutical company that conducts many clinical trials but sells no drugs eventually finds itself out of business.
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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.