Red line diplomacy with Iran

The United States cannot draw a red line with Iran without direct negotiations Photo: Associated Press

SEOUL, May 21, 2013 — Many fear that if the United States does nothing to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons, then the leaders of Iran will treat their own “red line” with a similar disrespect.

The problem with this logic is that no one really knows what the red line is for Iran, or even if there is a red line. Over the last two decades, the red line for Iran has shifted constantly, and actions once deemed “unacceptable” and “intolerable” are now being accepted and tolerated.  

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded a clear red line from the mouth of President Obama himself, Obama refused, saying that such a thing would be “too ambiguous and open to different interpretations”. But his real reason for refusing is, most likely, that he wishes to give diplomacy one last chance, and a red line may seem to him incompatible with the diplomatic approach. For if there is a red line, what is the need for a settlement, and if there is a settlement, what is the need for a red line?

It is a mistake, however, to view a diplomatic approach and a red line as two separate options which do not mix. In fact, a true red line cannot be drawn, at least in America’s case, without diplomacy.

The reason for this is simple. A red line defines a casus belli. And in order for the President to enforce that red line by the threat of war, he must, ideally, have the support of the American public. To gain this support, he must show the public that everything has been tried on the diplomatic front and that war is truly a last resort.

How can this be done? The Obama Administration has no choice but to negotiate directly with the Iranians. And not only that, it must negotiate in such a way that it can demonstrate to the American public the purity of its intentions.

This requires a radically different approach to negotiating. In a typical negotiation, it is customary to put forward a maximum position which has no hope of being accepted, and then to work backwards from there to the middle ground of compromise. This was how the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) conducted its most recent talks with Iran, in which it offered an easing of sanctions in exchange for a suspension of nuclear enrichment. But in talking with Iran directly, it would behoove the Obama Administration to try a bolder approach, one that tries to reach the middle ground in one fell swoop by conceding at the beginning everything that can be conceded, and sticking to a reasonable demand from beginning to end.

In practice, this would mean that the U.S. would offer Iran the lifting of every last sanction and the normalization of relations in exchange for a nuclear fuel swap and a limit to enrichment that adumbrates the red line drawn by Israel. It is a far-reaching proposal, one that the Obama Administration can present not only to Iran but to the American people, as a bold and generous offer, which, if it is rejected, would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt which side is to blame for the conflict that may soon follow.

The beauty of this tactic is that a red line flows naturally from it. For if these negotiations should fail, the President can easily disclose their contents to the public, and our demands would then be supported by public opinion and become automatically a red line – without the President even having to say “red line”.  

For all its generosity and diplomatic façade, this is an offensive tactic, and one that the Iranians may, in fact, fear. If we can liken the United States to a great battleship, what we are doing is turning it to its side so that the full panoply of its guns is pointed against Iran. By negotiating directly, the Obama Administration is mobilizing public opinion and maximizing the amount of force that it can muster, and this in turn will constitute a real threat and increase the likelihood of Teheran accepting a settlement.


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Benjamin Ra

Benjamin Ra is a recent graduate of Sciences Po Paris. He writes mainly on foreign policy and is currently residing in South Korea. 

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