The United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security on Thursday, while semi-official state media reported that a political official of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) had again threatened that Iran will attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz. At the same time, however, the IRGC official also emphasized the need for a “calm atmosphere.” Similarly, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe expressed confidence that Iran is beginning to open up.
Iran and the United States have for years been locked in a cycle of crises separated by periods of comparative calm and conciliation; this series of contradictory developments in a single day is thus hardly unprecedented. The same is true of contradictory developments between the United States and Afghanistan, or between Washington and Moscow. While the differences between each of these cases are profound, Stratfor has analyzed the talks between these relevant parties for a common reason: Despite the potential for intensifying conflict or active hostilities, not one of these cases can be resolved using military force at an acceptable cost.
Put another way, the risk, expense and commitment of attempting to impose one’s will on the other, whether by physical destruction of their means to resist or by psychological destruction of their will to resist, is daunting and perhaps futile. The players in each case would already be partners or allies if they shared significant common ground with one another. In Washington's dealings vis-a-vis Tehran, the Afghan Taliban and Moscow, the players involved all have an incentive to reach an intermediate solution.
This creates an incentive for political accommodation and a negotiated settlement that allows each side to focus its resources and efforts elsewhere. In analyzing this process, Stratfor makes a key distinction between negotiations and talks. To say parties are negotiating indicates an active debate is ongoing over specific provisions as a means to move toward a serious settlement; talks are the process by which parties agree to sit down to those negotiations. These are dynamic processes in which each side attempts to turn up the pressure on its adversary while maximizing the leverage (and, very significantly, the perception) of its own position. This invariably leads to posturing and threats to walk away from the negotiating table. It may even take place amid active hostilities. For instance, an aggressive clandestine war is raging between Iran on one side and Israel and the United States on the other. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies are overtly waging war on the Afghan Taliban. And as Stratfor has long argued, the United States and Russia are engaged in a serious Cold War.
The Intersection of Talks and Conflict
Once negotiations have been initiated in earnest, lightening the pressure on one’s opponent can have dire consequences on one’s negotiating position, much like a poker or chess player revealing distress. For example, one cannot properly understand the Linebacker I and Linebacker II bombing campaigns of Vietnam in late 1972 without acknowledging the pressing American desire for a negotiated settlement.
Sitting down at the negotiating table does not guarantee a successful settlement in international affairs any more than it would in business. The shooting does not stop the moment two sides enter into negotiations, nor do backchannel discussions and the building of common understandings necessarily move into the public sphere with any immediacy. For example, the ongoing clandestine sabotage and assassination campaign targeting Iran’s nuclear efforts neither indicates the nonexistence or immediate end of informal talks toward negotiations nor portends the imminent outbreak of outright and overt hostilities. Conflicts continue — in Iran, Afghanistan and, at least in rhetoric, between the United States and Russia — but the incentives for compromise remain.
By the time then-U.S. President Richard Nixon arrived in China in 1972 (months before the Linebacker operations), the proverbial deal was already done. This is not to say that any deal of that magnitude between the United States and Iran or the United States and Russia — much less in the enormously complex question of Afghanistan between the United States and the Afghan Taliban, the Afghan government, Pakistan, Iran and others — is either imminent or certain. It is anything but. However, in each case there are profound incentives on each side for some sort of settlement. And while contradictory developments can certainly indicate chaos, they hardly preclude serious talks.
The Structure of Current Talks
There is a balanced framework for talks in each case. Tehran’s ability to hold global oil prices hostage amid a global economic crisis is balanced by fairly basic American requirements: the free, steady flow of energy from the Persian Gulf and some semblance of a balance of power in the region. In Afghanistan, the United States is extracting its forces, and does not want to ever return in large numbers. Washington's basic requirement is that the Taliban, the Karzai regime and Pakistan reject any serious or sustained support for transnational jihad. Moscow is in a moment of disproportionate power, given the American logistical reliance on Russia to sustain the war in Afghanistan and Washington's reticence to spark another overt confrontation with Russia in the near term. But Russia also has profound and intensifying internal challenges – it is in its interest to come to an understanding with the United States soon, before American power can coalesce and rationalize in a post-Iraq and Afghan war world.
Tensions and even outright hostilities have historically been a poor indicator of the status or timeline of political accommodation. And 2012 has opened with too many reciprocal signals between the United States and Iran and with regards to the Afghan Taliban (U.S.-Russian relations are on a longer timeline) to completely ignore.