The ceremonial end of the last round of talks between the West and Iran in Vienna finally brought many observers to the conclusion they have been beating a dead horse; US diplomats made it clear they no longer believe a deal with Iran is possible or realistic, yet it does not seem that the administration can offer anything more. After 18 months of negotiations, we still have no Plan B.
This week, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, “Iran’s response to the proposal put forward by the European Union is clearly a step backward and makes prospects for an agreement in the near-term, I would say, unlikely.” His statement is part of a flurry of similar demoralized statements of Western diplomats who feel their quest for a new deal with Iran came to a dead end. Moreover, many Western leaders openly expressed serious doubts about Iran’s intentions, especially after this week’s news that Israel provided Western countries with sensitive intelligence showing Iran has been lying all along.
But the end of yet another futile and unproductive round of talks does not come as a surprise to those who have been skeptical of Iran’s intentions all along. Anyone familiar with the Iranian regime learned to expect nothing but deceit. What is surprising, however, is the complete lack of strategic dialogue between the US and allies on any possible alternatives to a diplomatic solution, as if US foreign policy in the Middle East is a one-trick pony. This is especially puzzling given that congress members, allies, and experts have been calling on the administration to have a Plan B for over a year.
One particularly vocal voice has been veteran diplomat and former special assistant to President Barack Obama, Dennis Ross. In a recent article in Foreign Policy titled ‘A New Iran Deal Won’t Prevent an Iranian Bomb,’ Ross called on the Biden administration to start preparing undiplomatic plans to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including real threats of the use of overwhelming American force. Ross only reiterated what has been so obvious to many for so long, that Iran seeks to obtain nuclear weapons with or without a deal, and the US must do everything possible to prevent it from doing so.
Back in July, when the latest round of talks had just started, Ross called on US officials to recognize that “stoking Iranian fears” was the only possible way to give the negotiations a chance of working and avoid a wide military confrontation with the Iranians. Nearly a year ago, Ross, along with other figures such as former CIA director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former CIA director David Petraeus, published a joint statement in which they urged the administration to have a Plan B ready and to pursue negotiations with the Iranians exclusively.
The fact that Ross is still shouting the same message from Washington’s rooftops makes one wonder if anyone is listening.
But the strategic use of violence and threats of violence was not wholly absent from the negotiations in Vienna; they were part of the Iranian strategy, not the American one. Recently, Mossad chief David Barnea said that Iranian state-sponsored terrorism had continued during the ongoing nuclear talks with world powers, detailing several instances of alleged thwarted attacks. He further elaborated, “It is state terrorism, ordered by [Iran’s] leader [Ali Khamenei] and perpetrated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other Iranian intelligence organizations. It is not spontaneous; it is planned, systematic, and strategic terror.”
In short, Iran may lack the will to rejoin a nuclear deal, but it does not lack the will or the ability to terrorize the US and its allies. This asymmetrical interaction is likely responsible for the situation today.
Thus, the bottom line is Washington has never been interested in a Plan B to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb. Moreover, the constant failure to predict unfavorable outcomes that have been clear for many others indicates that this is less of a flaw and more of an ideological commitment that is not likely to change. The officials and foreign policy technocrats of this administration are ideologically committed to abdicating the use of American powers against Iran, a non-starter for many, especially those with progressive foreign policy sensibilities.
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