by Paul R. Pillar
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 one’s 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 Iran’s 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 don’t think that considering any deal to be better than no deal should be the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. interests. An agreement would be in U.S. 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, here’s 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. negotiating stance on key issues such as Iran’s past weaponization research, monitoring and verification, Iran’s 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 U.S. 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 U.S. negotiators backtracking on progress the negotiations have already made.
For the Obama administration to get an agreement that will advance U.S. 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 administration’s 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 U.S. 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 don’t like is of some intrinsic value to the United States. It isn’t; sanctions are only a tool—in this case, a tool to help get an agreement to restrict Iran’s 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 U.S. interests, but it will be a particularly unfortunate and unnecessary instance of it doing so.
This article was first published by The National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.