The Point of Negotiating with Iran

The case for avoiding a new war in the Middle East


Munich, I am told, is a lovely city near the Alps, with a rich history, many architectural and cultural attractions and oceans of great beer. But you wouldn't know any of that from listening to politicians, who never mention it except as an example of disastrous naivete.

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who is definitely not doing ads for the Bavarian tourism office, compares the current negotiations with Iran to "the agreement Neville Chamberlain had reached with Adolf Hitler in Munich." Israel's international relations minister, Yuval Steinitz, said of the nuclear talks last week in Switzerland, "We don't want Geneva 2013 to turn into Munich 1938."

When you hear this sort of analysis, you have to wonder why they can't find a cautionary tale younger than 75 years old. They act as though Chamberlain has a big fan club in Washington, urging statesmen to follow his pathetic example.

References to Munich are not a framework for thinking about negotiations with Iran or any other nation; they're a substitute for it. The implication is that only a dupe would try to resolve such matters except with military force.

But Iran is not quite Nazi Germany. For one thing, it hasn't invaded anyone in the 34 years that the current Islamist government has been in power. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists "its appetite for aggression knows no bounds." But University of Michigan scholar Juan Cole points out that Iran's defense budget ranks "somewhere between that of Singapore and Norway."

For another, its intentions are not blindingly obvious. It's often taken for granted that Tehran is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, ASAP. Western experts disagree.

The International Atomic Energy Agency concluded in 2011 that Iran's nuclear weapons program "was stopped rather abruptly" in 2003. A National Intelligence Estimate prepared by U.S. intelligence agencies in 2007 said the same thing. "We don't believe they've actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reaffirmed last year.

If the Iranians were determined to get nuclear weapons no matter what, negotiations would probably be unavailing—as they were with North Korea. But it's not absurd to think a regime with alarming nuclear ambitions might be persuaded to abandon them.

Libya was, under the savage madman Moammar Gadhafi. North Korea is largely immune to economic pressure because its economy is so puny. Iran, like Libya, is not.

Clearly the Iranian government wants to at least give itself the option of someday building nuclear weapons. But that doesn't mean it will never swallow a compromise that would significantly hinder any attempt to acquire the bomb.

The new president, Hassan Rouhani, was elected on a platform of "moderation" with the support of many citizens who detested his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After negotiations last week, a U.S. official told The New York Times, "I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before."

Maybe that person is a silly dreamer asking to be fleeced by the ruthless Iranians. Or maybe Iran has decided the price of keeping its nuclear program is too damn high.

Kirk and Netanyahu think anything short of an Iranian capitulation amounts to futile appeasement. But if the West can't win a complete end to Iran's enrichment of uranium, it may be able to get Iran to limit its enrichment capacity and give up its supplies of near-weapons grade material—enforced with thorough inspections.

The plausible goal is not to forever shut off any chance Iran will ever get the bomb. It's to make that option harder and more time-consuming.

That may sound inadequate. But delay is the only thing that air strikes on Iranian nuclear sites can accomplish. If the Tehran regime is determined to get nukes, we can't stop it by any means short of occupation.

The question about any settlement is not whether it's perfect, but whether it's better than an air campaign that would embroil the United States in another unpredictable Middle East conflict—while spurring Iran to redouble its nuclear efforts.

It would be as foolish to insist that any deal is bound to be terrible as it would be to assume it will be wonderful. The only way to find out what is achievable is to negotiate, with our eyes open. The lesson of Munich, after all, is to avoid bad deals, not to reject good ones.