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Countering an Iranian Rope-a-Dope | Commentary

The election of moderate Hasan Rouhani as president of Iran has sparked both hope and fear about the future of negotiations to resolve the nuclear dispute. Rouhani is saying all of the right things to raise hopes for diplomacy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., recently took to Twitter to warn that Iran only intends to raise false hopes for talks as part of what he called a “rope-a-dope” ploy that would buy it time for bomb-making. Kirk insisted on moving forward with the “toughest sanctions possible.” He is mistaken: The best way to beat a rope-a-dope is to relax pressure, not increase it.

A bit of boxing history is in order. Muhammad Ali made the rope-a-dope style famous in his 1974 Rumble in the Jungle bout with heavyweight-champ-turned-electric-grill- icon George Foreman. Ali realized early on in the fight that he couldn’t out-hustle Foreman, so instead he tried to outsmart him. By leaning back against the ropes defensively and baiting his opponent to hammer away at him, Ali exhausted Foreman and then knocked him out.

It’s surprising then that Kirk and others wary of an Iranian rope-a-dope are advocating for the same pressure tactics that failed Foreman. They also ignore the history of missed opportunities negotiating with Rouhani and Iran. Indeed, the real risk for the United States is not that it will be too credulous in dealing with Iran, it is that it will be too hard-headed.

The “sanction first, ask questions later” attitude that pervades Congress appears to be guided by the assumption that Iran remains fixated on building a bomb — hence more pressure. This assumption persists despite the fact that the intelligence community, including Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., believes that Iran, while being coy with the International Atomic Energy Agency, remains undecided about whether to actually pursue a weapon. It is time we listen to him.

Moving forward, if we continually assume that Iran has made up its mind to acquire a nuclear weapon, then every offer it makes short of abandoning nuclear technology altogether will inevitably be construed as trickery. Such paralyzing fear of an Iranian trap will only lead the United States to miss opportunities by trapping itself into a negotiating corner. Indeed, we have made this mistake before.

We should remember that Rouhani was in charge of nuclear negotiations for Iran during the two years that Iran voluntarily suspended uranium enrichment (2003 to 2005). He tabled offers to curtail its enrichment to only reactor-grade levels and abstain from other potentially concerning aspects of nuclear technology development that, compared to what has been offered recently, look very appealing.

And so it should not be surprising that the same cast of hawks who turned up their nose at those offers and made Rouhani look naive for making them continue to play up the Iranian intent to deceive. For instance, John Bolton — the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security from 2001 to 2005 — maintains that Iran’s true intentions are only to “pretend” to cooperate.

Clearly, the United States today does not need its hypercynical 2005 Iran policy any more than it needs another eight years of stagnant diplomacy that will result from it.

Sanctions are indeed hurting Iran and putting pressure on the leadership. But the United States should not repeat past mistakes by vesting too much confidence in its ability to force capitulation by pouring it on with overly aggressive efforts. Instead of sanctioning impetuously to force the issue, the United States should take its time and show Iran that it is prepared to be more flexible when it comes to relief.

Rouhani has the trust of Iran’s supreme leader and is a pragmatist that we can work with. To make the most of this opportunity, the United States will need to show the patience, poise and flexibility. Pressure can only take us so far. The way to avoid falling for the rope-a-dope is not by being tenacious but by being smart.

Mark Jansson is the special projects director for the Federation of American Scientists, the country’s longest-serving organization committed to addressing nuclear threats.

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