Shadow Government

Why there is still a role for the P5+1 in the Iran nuclear talks

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.

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Shadow Government

Panetta still isn't facing up to his Pentagon budget disaster

On Friday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will finally reveal how spending at the Department of Defense will be brought into compliance with the 2011 Budget Control Act. Panetta has already said the cuts "would turn America from a first-rate power into a second-rate power," but American taxpayers should not forget three very important things. First, the mad scramble to cut spending is the result of the Obama White House and the Panetta Pentagon deciding to program for the past eighteen months as though the Budget Control Act was not in effect. Second, although the law stipulates that spending reductions apply to all budget lines, it contained a huge opt out that allowed the President to exempt personnel accounts and removed application of the law to a full third of the budget. Third, even if sequestration goes into effect, the spending cuts will only return the base Department of Defense budget to 2007 levels. The wailing and gnashing of teeth by the department are an over-reaction, and conveniently shields it, the White House, and the Senate from criticism that their own choices have made the effect of the cuts more damaging. 

Panetta's blueprint for the Department, his defense guidance, was issued subsequent to the collapse of the so-called grand bargain between the president and House Speaker John Boehner, after the supercommittee failed to reach an agreement, in the third year of a continuing resolution because the Senate would not pass a budget, and after the President threatened to veto any changes to the act that would reduce DOD's share of cuts -- a threat Panetta supported.  

Yet Panetta's strategy proceeded on the assumption that DOD will have access to resources it had no basis to expect. He made no budget excursions showing how the Department of Defense would comply with the law if sequestration came into effect, and he forbade the military services from conducting any planning associated with compliance. As a result, DOD has no long term plan. Moreover, it will produce a budget that has not been stress-tested to ensure risks incurred in one part of the force are balanced by capabilities elsewhere.  

Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter defended DOD's cliff jumping strategy, saying "the reason not to make adjustments too early is -- these are not desirable things to do. They're not good for Defense. So you don't want to do them until you have to."  So DOD must now incur the entirety of cuts in the final six months of the fiscal year. Could not the effect have been attenuated by anticipating spending reductions and programming them in across the year?  Would not responsible managers have sought to minimize the disruption? Would not shareholders be incensed at such management in a private company?  It is irresponsible for the department not to have made choices that would prudently hedge against the likeliest outcomes.  

The Panetta Pentagon insists the Budget Control Act is a "meat axe approach" of across-the-board cuts that allows no management of the budgeting process. But this is not entirely true. The Budget Control Act gives the president the option of fencing off personnel accounts from any cuts, and the president has exercised that option. Those accounts constitute roughly $200 billion of the $586 billion Defense Department budget.  It is a politically popular move, to be sure, but it dramatically increases pressure on other line items.  

The military's personnel accounts -- pay, medical care, retirement -- increased dramatically in the past decade. Military compensation is now higher than the wages of 90 percent of civilians and is, on average, $21,800 higher than the median income for civilians in comparable groups.  Such increases made sense when recruiting forces in the midst of two wars, but they are difficult to justify when the Pentagon plans to shed personnel.  We now have within the defense budget the same "guns vs. butter" tradeoffs we face in federal spending writ large. Spending on personnel is choking our ability to ensure the force has the readiness it needs. Pentagon leaders must face up to the fact that our magnificent all-volunteer force is becoming unaffordable. 

Our country is a very long way from living within our means. Sequestration going into effect will not even reduce our national debt -- it will only slow its growth. While the defense budget is not the driver of our national indebtedness, the general austerity required to get our national finances back into balance is likely to keep defense spending essentially flat for the coming decade. 

Rather than decrying Congress as irresponsible, Panetta should produce a budget consistent with sequestration's $489 billion topline cut and ask Congress for authorization and appropriation to set priorities that will dampen the effect of cuts. Congress should agree, since such legislation will also pin responsibility for whether cuts are a disaster where it properly belongs -- with the President and his defense leadership.

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