First Published: 2015-02-05

Twisting Diplomacy to Hurt Iran
Neocon-domination of Official Washington continues to put an eminently reachable deal to constrain Irans nuclear program in jeopardy because the neocons favor bombing Iran on a path for regime change. But their obstructionism hurts US interests, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.
Middle East Online

Early in Diplomacy 101, one learns how international negotiation consists of give-and-take between two or more states, with each side yielding on some points in order to reap the benefit of the other side doing its own yielding.

Also early in the course, one learns how this sort of mutual bargaining, by leading to mutually beneficial agreements, is an important tool for any state in advancing its own national interests. It is for similar reasons that in domestic affairs, the right to be sued is a fundamental individual right along with the right to sue; it represents the ability to advance ones interests by making concessions and enforceable commitments to others.

As basic as all this is, Americans seem to have a hard time understanding it. A one-way exceptionalist asymmetry infects much discussion in this country about international diplomacy and negotiation. The process is viewed not as mutual give-and-take but instead as the other side giving and the US side taking.

Hence issues under negotiation get discussed in terms of the United States imposing redlines and of how pressure can be exerted to get the other side to capitulate to US demands. This perspective in turn gets exploited by anyone who does not want an agreement at all on whatever issue is at hand.

These patterns have been present in abundance in American discussion of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Almost the entire discussion is about Iran making more concessions what it would take to elicit such concessions, whether Iran can ever be expected to make such concessions, etc.

Almost nothing is said about the need for the United States and its negotiating partners to make additional concessions, too. Instead there is, even among those who genuinely support reaching an agreement, an assumption that the United States has put a reasonable deal on the table and it is up to Iran to accept it.

One repeatedly hears some version of the now-trite refrain, it all depends on whether the Iranian Supreme Leader wants a deal. Well, he certainly does want a deal in the sense that he otherwise never would have allowed the negotiations to go as far as they already have, and Iran to make as many commitments as it already has.

But there are some possible deals that he and other Iranian leaders would be willing to accept as being in Irans interests, and other deals that they would not accept. The Supreme Leader surely does not believe that any deal is better than no deal.

That gets to another refrain that has become trite through repetition in American discussion. If we dont think that considering any deal to be better than no deal should be the US position and indeed it should not be we ought to realize it will not be the Iranian position either.

Also among the familiar refrains: political woe besets any US leader who gives evidence of wanting a deal more than Iran. No such inter-country comparison of utility or motivation is actually possible, just as inter-personal comparisons of utility are not possible. But even if such a comparison were possible, it would not be the proper standard for assessing whether any particular agreement were in US interests.

An agreement would be in US interests if it produces military, economic or political conditions that are more congenial to those interests than what the absence of the agreement would produce regardless of how much or how little someone else might want the agreement.

For those intent on making cross-country comparisons, heres a little background to what is currently being negotiated with Iran. The Iranians are being called upon to subject their nuclear program to restrictions, and to intrusive inspections, substantially greater than what any other country is subjected to. And they are being called on to do that to get even partial relief from economically debilitating sanctions that no other party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is subjected to.

In the preliminary agreement that is currently in force, the United States and its partners got the main restrictions and inspection requirements they wanted so much so that indefinitely continuing the preliminary agreement (if that were somehow politically possible) would suit US nonproliferation objectives just fine.

The Iranians got what was, by any quantitative measure, relief from only a small fraction of the nuclear-related sanctions that have been placed on them. In short, it is undeniable that Iran has made most of the concessions in this negotiation so far. And if either side has more reason to want to push the negotiations ahead promptly to completion, given the nature of the interim deal it clearly is Iran that has reason to want it more.

For anyone keeping score of such things, the US and its partners could henceforth make significant concessions to close a final deal and still be well ahead on the scorecard of concessions elicited from the other side. But assessment of any agreement should not be based on any such scorecard anyway. Again, it instead should be a matter of comparing the conditions produced by an agreement with the conditions under no agreement.

Another often-overlooked consideration is that a good agreement would be one that gives both sides reason to observe it, rather than being seen by either side as a forced imposition to be violated or discarded at the first opportunity. Give-and-take, not one-sided pressure, is the way to get such a durable agreement.

An indication of how far the Washington discourse has strayed from basic understanding of Diplomacy 101 is an opinion piece by Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who not only says we should stop offering Iran nuclear concessions but also calls for toughening the US negotiating stance on key issues such as Irans past weaponization research, monitoring and verification, Irans missile arsenal and the duration of an agreement.

This is rather like saying that if a store is unable to sell a product priced at $10, the way to get people to buy it is to increase the price to $15. Singh tries to make sense of this bizarre recommendation by arguing that such US obdurateness could secure the congressional support required to empower the president to credibly offer sanctions relief.

But any Iranian of even average IQ who has been following the handling of this issue in Washington knows that anything that has Congress, sanctions and Iran in the same sentence is all about killing a deal, not fine-tuning the terms; no admiration for the administration for toughening its position would deter those determined to kill any agreement with Iran. And that is not even to mention the further deal-killing effect of US negotiators backtracking on progress the negotiations have already made.

For the Obama administration to get an agreement that will advance US interests never mind what will be the subsequent efforts of Congressional opponents to shoot it down, no matter what the terms the United States will need to make additional concessions at the negotiating table.

It cannot just contemplate how reasonable is whatever offer it has on the table now, however sincere is its perception of reasonableness, and wait for the Iranians to close all of the remaining gap. Those in Washington who genuinely support the diplomatic process will have to understand this need and defend the administrations flexibility in fulfilling it.

To do this, the administration and its supporters will need to overcome two principal hang-ups, regardless of whether the hang-ups are having a negotiation-retarding effect because administration policy-makers have internalized the hang-ups or because policy-makers are self-deterred by anticipating how certain terms would be received in Washington once an agreement is announced.

One of the hang-ups is the fixation on breakout times, which is misplaced because the distinctions in question would make no practical difference for US security or the risk of there ever being an Iranian nuclear weapon. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a speech a month ago in which he said that Iranian ideals are not bound to centrifuges. We ought to realize that American ideals are not bound to them either.

The other hang-up concerns how sanctions have come to be treated in Washington as if they were an end in themselves as if keeping sanctions in place against regimes we dont like is of some intrinsic value to the United States. It isnt; sanctions are only a tool in this case, a tool to help get an agreement to restrict Irans nuclear program.

If sanctions get in the way of achieving such an agreement rather than facilitating the agreement, they are useless. Or rather, they are worse than useless, because of the costs they impose on the United States.

If this diplomatic process fails it will not be the first time that the American exceptionalist, redline-bound, asymmetric approach to international negotiation will have worked against US interests, but it will be a particularly unfortunate and unnecessary instance of it doing so.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agencys top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared asa blog postat The National Interests Web site. Reprinted with authors permission.)

consortiumnews

 

France, US clash with Iran over changing nuclear accord

Saudi Arabia claims killing of Yemen rebel leader

EU to Russia, Iran: Bring Syria to peace talks

Iraq's Shiites split ahead of crucial vote

Iraq’s ex-football stars from sports to politics

Turkey opposition journalists demand acquittal in terror trial

UN says Syria blocking humanitarian aid to Douma

OPCW experts visit second site of alleged Douma gas attack

Israeli policeman gets 9 months jail for killing Palestinian

US court rules for Arab Bank in precedent-setting case

Lebanese candidates pay hefty price for media coverage

Madani’s resignation sheds light on Iranian power play

Kuwait expels Filipino ambassador over treatment of workers

Syria aid donations for 2018 fall short of amount hoped

Growing anti-war sentiment in the US Congress could spell trouble for Trump

Liverpool’s Salah wins Israeli defence minister’s plaudits

Body of assassinated Palestinian driven through Malaysian capital

'Gap in perceptions' threatens wider Middle East war

UNESCO picks Morocco for project on prevention of violent extremism

Syrian regime retakes region near Damascus from rebels

Mogherini: Iran deal 'needs to be preserved'

Syria rebels prepare as Assad sets sights on next target

Iran's Rouhani questions 'right' to seek new nuclear deal

Trump, Macron call for 'new' nuclear deal with Iran

Syria's Idlib 'big new challenge' for international community

UNRWA chief says Palestinian aid $200 million short since Trump cuts

Bad memories resurface at Raqa’s mass grave

Turkey newspaper chief slams journalist terror trial

Setback for Yemen rebels after strike takes out leader

Saudi issues Islamic sukuk sale to finance deficit

Yarmuk, an epicentre of Syria's bloody conflict

Egypt’s Eurobond succeeds but risks remain

Egypt former anti-corruption chief gets five years jail

Philippines apologises to Kuwait over 'maid rescues'

Iran urges EU not to pay Trump ‘ransom’ over nuclear deal

UAE to finance project to rebuild Mosul's Grand al-Nuri Mosque

EU, UN begin major conference for Syria aid

New tensions rise between old rivals Turkey and Greece

Rouhani warns Trump against betraying nuclear deal

10 killed in Toronto “deliberate” van attack

Nine people killed in Toronto van attack

Yemen Huthi political leader killed in coalition raid

Syria security chief refuses Lebanon court appearance

Air raid kills dozens at Yemen wedding

Algeria draws Europe’s ire by cutting imports, boosting trade with China