Shifting Goalposts to Kill Diplomacy with Iran

by Ellie Geranmayeh

Opponents of diplomacy with Iran aim to kill the nuclear negotiations by shifting the goalposts of the talks from nukes to global nemesis.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered this line of argument in his address to a joint session of Congress yesterday. World powers offered a prudent pushback from Switzerland where negotiations for a nuclear deal with Iran proceeded throughout Netanyahu’s speech.

Those rejecting a nuclear deal criticize the West for surrendering to the terms imposed by Iran’s Ayatollahs and placing mankind on the cusp of an apocalypse. Such hyperbole and sensationalism, however, fail to provide viable alternatives to the current diplomatic endeavor and do little to strengthen global security.

The spoilers’ battle over the terms of a nuclear deal has been fought and lost. National Security Advisor Susan Rice reiterated the unified P5+1 (France, the UK, China, Russia, the US, and Germany) position on Monday by noting that maximalist demands on Iran, such as zero enrichment, were neither “realistic nor achievable.”

Recognizing this defeat, the spoilers are now attempting to divert the subject of the talks away from non-proliferation to an impossible demand for a grand bargain on every area of dispute with Tehran, from Hezbollah to human rights.

Holding the Talks Hostage

These cynics first suggest that a nuclear deal with Iran is dangerous for the region. This is based on a fallacy that a deal automatically paves the way toward full normalization of relations between the West and Iran. They assert that any détente with Iran is inherently bad because Iran is an inherently bad regional actor that will be further empowered by a deal. Their precondition for a nuclear deal is to reset Iran’s regional behavior .

To follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion would be to hold a nuclear deal hostage to an impossible demand: the resolution of all conflicts where Iran is an active stakeholder including in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Israel-Palestine. Under this thinking, nothing is achievable on nukes until everything is agreed on the region. The West, and Israel, rejected this option a decade ago out of fear that it would grant Iran undue leverage in the nuclear talks. Vastly enlarging the scope of the current talks is now a fantasy.

There is no question that the interests of the West and Iran diverge in many areas. But this equally applies to a number of regional and global powers whose systems of governance, from Wahhabism to communism, are at odds with the West. The wise strategy in these circumstances has been to adopt functional relations with such nations. Then, where its interests differ, the West has the option to quietly or openly oppose these interlocutors while keeping open the door for diplomacy on matters where interests overlap. The same approach ought to be applied to Iran to resolve the nuclear issue, among other conflicts.

Second, the spoilers have resorted to extreme levels of scaremongering by elevating Iran’s position to that of a global power that imminently poses a direct threat to North American borders. The absurdity of this claim, which echoes the stance that provoked the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is evident through a simple calculation of Iran’s defense budget. And no, blowing up a replica of a US carrier does not prove Iran’s intention to wage an unprovoked war on the US. This should be clear to anyone who has followed the rhetoric of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp and compared it to the actual tactics employed.

The issues of Iran’s nuclear weaponization and ballistic missiles, meanwhile, are already under extensive discussion in the separate negotiations between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA is flooded with reports from the world’s leading intelligence services on Iran’s nuclear program, including its missiles. Closure on this issue will result from the implementation of a final deal and before the lifting of any sanctions dealing with missiles.

Third, those seeking to undermine the nuclear talks claim that a deal with Iran would trigger an uncontrollable arms race in the Middle East and bury the dream of a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ). Yet, as many arms control experts have argued, there has been no evident correlation between Iran’s expansion of its nuclear program in the last decade and increased enrichment capacity across the region. A nuclear deal with Iran actually enhances the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a signatory, Iran would remain subject to restrictions against weaponization compatible with a NWFZ.

Difficult and Untraveled Path of Diplomacy

The latest attempt to weaken the negotiating position of the P5+1 comes from Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and the bill he introduced to Congress last week. This bill would require that before the US waives its nuclear-related sanctions on Iran under a final deal, the president must certify every three months that Iran has not directly supported or carried out an act of terrorism against the US anywhere in the world.

The Corker bill unravels the clearly defined international consensus on non-proliferation in the nuclear negotiations. If at this stage the debate shifts to a US-centric ideological preoccupation with Iran, these talks are certain to break down and inadvertently isolate the US among its negotiating partners.

Netanyahu suggested yesterday that to protect the world from a nuclear Iran, the US must take a “difficult path [that] is usually the one less travelled.” When it comes to Iran, diplomacy is in fact the difficult and less travelled path. The West has tried to constrain Iran’s role in the region through siding with Tehran’s adversaries in wartime and pursuing regime change. The West has attempted to curtail Iran’s nuclear program through unprecedented sanctions, assassinations, and cyber-warfare. These have neither boxed Iran’s nuclear program nor contained its regional reach. To the contrary, these efforts have only provided defensive justifications for Iran’s regional conduct and its quest for indigenous nuclear technology.

Conversely, the interim nuclear deal has managed to freeze and verify Iran’s nuclear program to a greater degree than ever. Those urging more sanctions and pressure on Iran claim that they seek to enhance global security. But they would achieve the opposite by sinking a decade-long diplomatic process for resolving the nuclear issue, generating profound divisions among the P5+1, and fueling Iran’s defensive rhetoric.

Diplomacy has been given a rare moment to deliver and to set a precedent for stability in a region burdened with insurmountable chaos. To wreck that diplomacy would only add to the chaos.

Ellie Geranmayeh

Ellie Geranmayeh is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations based in London since October 2013. She focuses on European foreign policy in relation to Iran on the nuclear talks and wider regional issues.



  1. So the commentates are coming in from other world sources now. They seem to be running against the spectacle that took place with Netanyahoo & the U.S.Congress. How far it goes, we’ll just have to wait. I wonder, will the electorate in Israel will return him to power after this? Will they want his views?

  2. The other day the Drudge Report was reporting that Obama was threatening to shoot down any Israeli war planes on their way to attack Iran. The report originally appeared in a Kuwaiti newspaper. Any such attack would involve a refueling stop in a place like Saudi Arabia.

  3. Yes, the US has always had fall-back positions because the real US goal is regime change, nuclear just being a convenient subject. But in a pinch the US also has other concocted grievances which have been bases for US sanctions on Iran:
    –human rights abuses
    –development of unconventional weapons and ballistic missiles
    –support for international terrorism –“the word’s leading state sponsor of terrorism”
    –deceptive banking
    –computer and network disruption, monitoring, and tracking
    –faulty elections
    –evading sanctions

  4. ” When it comes to Iran, diplomacy is in fact the difficult and less traveled path.”
    Actually the US has labelled crippling sanctions as “diplomacy.”
    Also, war is peace, invasions and occupations are stability operations, etc.

    The US regularly relies upon the advice of (ignorant) generals, not seasoned diplomats, in its foreign relations. Certainly Obama has.

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