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Iran’s Nuclear Chess: Calculating America’s Moves

The P5+1 and Iran have been negotiating since last January under a six-month deadline to convert an interim nuclear accord into a final agreement. This meeting, scheduled one day after that deadline, addressed the outcome of the negotiations—whether successful in yielding an agreement, extended to allow further negotiations, or at a point of breakdown. What are the implications for U.S. policy toward Iran moving forward? The meeting featured discussion of the new Middle East Program monograph by Robert Litwak, vice president for scholars and director of international security studies at the Wilson Center.

Date & Time

Jul. 21, 2014
12:00pm – 1:15pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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A panel of experts discussed a new monograph, “Iran’s Nuclear Chess: Calculating America’s Next Moves” by Robert Litwak, as well as the implications of the extension of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 for U.S. policy toward Iran.

On July 21, 2014, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a meeting “Iran’s Nuclear Chess: Calculating America’s Moves” featuring author Robert Litwak, Vice President of Scholars and Academic Relations and Director of International Security Studies at the Wilson Center, and commentators Mitchell Reiss, President of Washington College and former Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center, and David Sanger, Chief Washington Correspondent for The New York Times and former Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event and provided opening remarks.

Litwak began by outlining the thesis of his monograph, “Iran’s Nuclear Chess: Calculating America’s Moves,” around which this event was based. Litwak stated that, in theory, a resolution to the nuclear issue should be easy. The challenge, he said, comes from the proxy nature of the nuclear issue. He noted the real political issues underlying negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are different for each side. For Iran, the nuclear issue is a proxy for whether Iran should be a revolutionary or a an ordinary state. For the United States, the issue is how and whether the United States should deal with “rogue” or “outlier” governments. Litwak explained the three policy options available for the United States regarding the Iranian nuclear program: military strikes, containment, or engagement. He stressed that each policy alternative relied on a different assumptions of Tehran’s conduct and intentions. Military strikes rest on assumption that Iran is undeterable; containment rests on the assumption that sanctions and pressure will make Iran change its conduct; and engagement assumes the basis for a nuclear deal exists, but the United States has not offered big enough carrots for Iran to accept. Litwak argued that the best option for the United States would be a containment strategy that would “decouple the nuclear issue from the question of regime change and rely of internal forces as the agent of societal change.”

Reiss addressed Litwak’s point about Iran having to decide whether it wants to be a revolutionary or ordinary state and said that even if a deal were reached, this question would not be answered. He said that the Iranian government’s intentions seem malign and that his skepticism arises from the fact that it is difficult to separate the nuclear issue from other issues in Iran, such as its human rights record and support for terrorist groups. Reiss criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the talks, saying there is no broad congressional or communication strategy. Reiss mentioned that the extension of talks with a new deadline for reaching a deal to November 24 will allow the President to gain support from the current Congress for removing sanctions. Reiss said that if the Republicans win congressional elections in November and a deal is not reached by the extension deadline, the likely outcomes would be the Obama administration extending the deadline again and Congress passing new sanctions on Iran.

Sanger said that if the United States and Iran could work out a nuclear agreement, it could mark the beginning of the alignment of Iranian and U.S. interests in the Middle East. In response to Litwak’s idea of Iran choosing whether to be a revolutionary or ordinary state, Sanger said his guess was that Iran thinks it can get a nuclear agreement without having to resolve that issue. Sanger also noted that while the Iranians are satisfied with an extension because they are confident that President Obama needs a deal more than they do, President Obama feels Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei needs a deal more than he does. Sanger also predicted that the negotiations would be extended again in November, most likely for two more months because the Joint Plan of Action agreement allows for a six-month extension.

During the question and answer portion, Esfandiari asked the panelists what it would take to reach a deal in the next four months. Reiss responded that while negotiators want to create fancy technical solutions, the main problem is political. The political issue at hand, according to Reiss, is what kind of relationship Iran wants with its neighbors and the United States.

By Sina Toossi, Middle East Program


Hosted By

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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