Iran is presented with a finite number of choices and outcomes, which can be easily and logically analyzed. At the end of any honest analysis, you can see that it is simply not in the mullahs' interest to negotiate away their nuclear arms program. Therefore it's logical to assume that they won't, not only because they have repeatedly said they won't, but also because the best possible course of action from Iran's point of view (regardless of whether they are rational or irrational actors) is to continue their program until they get the bomb.
It's like simple math.
Assume three possible outcomes available to Iran from the current state of negotiations.
Outcome ON: Iran gets a nuclear weapon.1Assume that the Iranians desire outcomes ON and OI, and wish to avoid outcome OS.
Outcome OI: Iran gets a package of incentives from the West.
Outcome OS: International sanctions imposed on Iran, most likely a combination of economic and diplomatic restrictions.
Although it's not essential to my analysis, you may also assume that the West2 wishes to prevent outcome ON, but also that the values of outcomes OI and OS are variable and uncertain, due to dissention within the West.
Now at first glance, one can see two alternative courses of action for Iran that are obvious.
Course of action CA1: Iran refuses to abandon its nuclear enrichment program, rejects all efforts at compromise, and continues working until they get the bomb.If Iran takes course of action CA1, they give up outcome OI. On the other hand, if Iran takes course of action CA2, they give up outcome ON. Therefore the Iranians must decide between the following values (remembering that OS is a negative value):
Course of action CA2: Iran abandons its nuclear program in exchange for the package of incentives offered by the West.
CA1 = ON - (OI + OS)or alternatively,
CA2 = (OI + OS) - ONThose equations demonstrate that the West needs to make the value of their carrot+stick package equal to or greater than the value of an Iranian nuclear bomb. Thus, if (OI + OS) > ON, then CA2 > CA1. If true, Iran should then choose CA2. Even if the values were exactly equal, Iran would probably choose CA2, simply for the sake of peace and goodwill.
However, we live in the real world and we all know that the value of a nuclear weapon to the country that possesses it far outweighs the value of any combination of incentives or sanctions the West could possibly offer. Especially if said country has already expressed its desire to wipe a hated enemy off the map, and has recently sent weapons, including rockets, missiles and drones to a proxy army fighting said hated enemy as recently as this month.
Given the above, one would assume that Iran would pursue course of action CA1, but as we have seen, they continue to pay lip service to the negotiation track, CA2. Are they really pursuing course of action CA2? Not if CA1 > CA2! What then, are they doing?
Perhaps there is a CA3, a third course of action that would tempt Iran with the opportunity to gain outcomes ON and OI at the same time without incurring any sanctions.
CA3 = (CA1 + CA2) = (ON + OI) - OSRemember OS is a negative value, so the above equation simplifies to:
CA3 = (ON + OI + OS)A hefty sum indeed! Perhaps Iran believes it can have it all by simply agreeing to a compromise, while secretly pursuing the holy grail of enrichment a la North Korea.
But CA3 contains one flaw: verification. Certainly the West, weak as its negotiating position is, will never agree to deliver incentives without a gauranteed inspection regime. Although the inspections might be watered down, we already know about the Esfahan, Natanz, and Arak facilities, so it would be difficult for the Iranians to refuse access to those sites. Some experts estimate the number of centrifuges necessary at Natanz for a decent enrichment program to be 50,000. That kind of operation would be hard to disguise or relocate.
That's why I think Iran is following another course of action, CA4:
CA4 = (ON x TNT) - (OI - OS)When multiplied by a factor of sufficient time (T), gained by negotiating tactics (NT), Iran can ultimately win the big prize: a nuclear bomb. Although they give up the Western incentive package, that loss is offset by the fact that they don't suffer any real sanctions (thus, OI - OS). That's because once Iran gets the bomb, sanctions become problematic. Everybody is going to have to kiss their ass then, and the probable severity of any sanctions the fickle West might be able to agree upon (which were weak under the best of circumstances) would shrink in proportion to Iran's newfound leverage.
Course of action CA4 translates into what we've been watching unfold during the past several months. Iran negotiates in bad faith, makes empty promises, renegs, delays, obfuscates, then makes more empty promises, all the while maintaining their research and enrichment activity.
It's possible that a compromise settlement might be reached in the near future, but I seriously doubt it. Iran has repeatedly and unambiguously asserted its intention never to give up its enrichment program (a fact that seems to be lost on many negotiation-fixated politicians and pundits). I take the Iranians at their word, because it's not in their interest to give up the bomb. They've already done the math.
1. Or, more accurately, Iran successfully gains the ability to domestically produce fissile material for manufacturing nuclear weapons. One can assume that creating delivery systems such as missiles and warheads are less of a problem for the Iranians. These can be purchased, or reverse-engineered by Iranian technicians. But weapons grade plutonium and/or uranium from their own factories are what they need to become a nuclear power, and this is the outcome we need to prevent.
2. i.e. the U.S. and certain allies, to varying degrees.