OpinionIran in the World PressHow not to negotiate with Iran

How not to negotiate with Iran


Wall Street Journal: How depressingly predictable: Iran lies and prevaricates—about the breadth of its nuclear programs; about their purpose; about the quality of its cooperation with U.N. nuclear watchdogs; about its record of sponsoring terrorism from Argentina to Bulgaria to Washington, …

The threat of force will do far more than gifts and sweet talk.


The Wall Street Journal

By Bret Stephens

‘We know that deception is part of [Iran’s] DNA.” So said Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman last week, testifying to Congress about the next round of negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear programs. So why is Ms. Sherman pleading with Congress to delay imposing additional sanctions for the sake of what she called “confidence building”?

How depressingly predictable: Iran lies and prevaricates—about the breadth of its nuclear programs; about their purpose; about the quality of its cooperation with U.N. nuclear watchdogs; about its record of sponsoring terrorism from Argentina to Bulgaria to Washington, D.C.; about its efforts to topple Arab governments (Bahrain) or colonize them (Lebanon); about its role in the butchery of Syria; about its official attitude toward the Holocaust—and the administration thinks priority No. 1 is proving its own good faith.

Last month, the administration returned to Iran a 2,700-year-old silver cup shaped like a mythological griffin, which had been stolen from a cave in Iran a decade ago before it was seized by U.S. customs. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei must have been moved to tears.

At least the griffin beat the key-shaped cake National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane brought with him in the 1980s in what would become the Iran-Contra debacle. That episode provides a useful lesson in how not to negotiate with Iran, and from the most unexpected source: Hasan Rouhani, now Iran’s president, then deputy chairman of the Majlis, the Islamic Republic’s parliament.

In August 1986, an Israeli agent named Amiram Nir, posing as a U.S. official, met Mr. Rouhani in Paris at a meeting orchestrated by an Iranian-born arms dealer named Manucher Ghorbanifar. Nir wore a recording device, and details of the talk eventually came into the possession of Israeli military reporter Ron Ben-Yishai. The episode has since been reprised in the Israeli press, most recently by reporter Mitch Ginsburg for the Times of Israel.

Iran was then trying to obtain missiles from the U.S. (with Israel acting as an intermediary) in exchange for the release of Americans held hostage by Iranian-backed proxies in Lebanon.

The missiles were provided but the hostages were not—a victim, by some accounts, of hard-line opposition within Iran to the more pliable course advocated by Mr. Rouhani. So it goes with Western outreach to Iranian moderates: It always fails, though whether it’s on account of the moderates being duplicitous or powerless is a matter of debate. Maybe Mr. Rouhani isn’t “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says. Maybe he’s a sheep among wolves.

If so, he’s a very canny sheep. “If you don’t bare sharp teeth before [Ayatollah] Khomeini,” he advised Nir, “you’re going to have troubles all over the world. If you threaten him with military force, he’ll kiss your hand and run.”

Elsewhere in the conversation, Mr. Rouhani suggested a strategy for getting the hostages released. “If for instance, you said to [Khomeini], ‘You must release all of the hostages in Lebanon within five days. If not—we’ll deal you a military blow and you will be responsible for the results,’ do it, show that you are strong, and you will see results.”

And there was this: “If we analyze Khomeini’s character, we will see that if someone strong stands opposite him, he will retreat 100 steps; and if he is strong and someone weak faces him, he will advance 100 steps. Unfortunately, you have taken a mistaken approach. You have been soft to him. Had you been tougher, your hand would be on top.”

Mr. Rouhani’s analysis of Khomeini’s mind-set would soon find tragic confirmation. On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes mistook an Iranian jetliner for a fighter jet and shot it down, killing nearly 300 people. Khomeini, who was sure the incident was no accident, thought Washington intended to enter the Iran-Iraq war on Saddam Hussein’s side. Just 17 days later, on July 20, Khomeini accepted a humiliating cease-fire with Iraq: “Unhappy am I that I still survive and have drunk the poisoned chalice,” he said in a radio address.

Khomeini is long dead, but the regime’s mentality of yielding only to intense pressure and credible threats of force remains the same. So how should the U.S. negotiate? Mark Dubowitz, who helped design some of the most effective sanctions against Iran from his perch at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, offered this:

“Effective on October 16, any financial institution providing Iran with access to, or use of, its overseas financial reserves for any purpose with the exception of permissible humanitarian trade will be cut off from the U.S. financial system.” The idea is to push forward what Mr. Dubowitz calls Iran’s “economic cripple date”—the moment when it runs out of foreign reserves—ahead of its “undetectable breakout date”—the moment when the regime can build a bomb in secret before the West can stop it.

I have my doubts about the use of sanctions as the main tool to change Iran’s behavior. But if the administration means to use them as the weapon of choice, they should at least use them aggressively. Negotiations with Iran resume Oct. 15. Mr. Dubowitz’s Oct. 16 deadline will do more to get their attention than griffins, cakes or other pathetic diplomatic sweeteners.

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