by Paul R. Pillar
U.S. and Iranian negotiators are in Geneva resuming work on an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program. Whether the negotiations succeed in producing a deal is still very much in doubt, but not because it is doubtful that there is a deal to be had. The outlines of an agreement that meets the needs and objectives of both sides have been clear for some time and are largely embodied in the preliminary agreement reached over a year ago. Iran’s acceptance of restrictions and inspection arrangements that go beyond what has been placed on any other country has made possible what both sides say they seek, which is integration of Iran in the community of nations with high assurance that there will not be an Iranian nuclear weapon.
The main impediments to such an agreement continue to come from those who don’t want a deal and don’t want any integration of Iran in the community of nations regardless of any terms of an agreement relating to nuclear weapons. The saboteurs of a deal continue their sabotage efforts on multiple fronts, including accusing Iran of violations of the interim deal that it has in fact observed, and throwing up on the wall anything negative about Iran and seeing what will stick, no matter how far removed it is from the nuclear issues under negotiation.
The sabotage could either prevent implementation of an agreement or sow enough doubt about implementation to prevent a deal from being reached at all. Much of the hardline talk in Congress about imposing additional sanctions on Iran probably has already made the negotiations more difficult by increasing Iranian doubts about the willingness or political ability of the United States to fulfill its part of a deal. Meanwhile the dishonesty of those who claim that such talk is aimed at facilitating negotiations by inducing more Iranian concessions becomes ever more apparent, as with a recent comment by Senator-elect Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, who let it slip that the reason he wants more sanctions is that this would be a good way “to put an end to these negotiations.”
Besides the sabotage of those who don’t want any agreement, however, another reason that conclusion of an agreement is uncertain is the belief among many who really do want an agreement that the United States does not need to make more concessions to get one. There is a view among many pro-agreement people on Capitol Hill that the United States has put a reasonable deal on the table and that it is up to Iran to make whatever additional concessions are needed to finalize the agreement. If that view prevails and characterizes the U.S. negotiating position, the talks probably will fail.
It is hard to determine to what extent this Congressional view also prevails in the Obama administration; it is still a favorable sign that both sides in this negotiation have kept as many things behind the closed doors of the negotiating room as they have. But in any event, the Congressional view just described will help to determine the political space, or lack of it, that the administration has for cutting a deal. The administration has to think about not just cutting a deal with the Iranians but about defending it at home, and defending it among many of its customary supporters as well as beating back the efforts of the die-hard saboteurs.
The we-don’t-need-to-make-concessions mindset is partly a manifestation of the unfortunate American habit of viewing diplomacy not as give-and-take bargaining and a process of reconciling interests that are partly convergent and partly conflicting, but instead of the United States making demands and getting other countries to accept them. The habit is especially unfortunate in this instance given that Iran clearly made more of the concessions to get to the preliminary agreement a year ago.
The mindset in this instance also exemplifies how people can get so heavily committed to something that is at best a means to an end that they start treating it as an end even though it isn’t. This has been true of a commitment to sanctions against Iran, which figures into one of the reported continued areas of disagreement at the negotiating table, involving a schedule for relief from sanctions. People across the political spectrum in the United States have gotten into the habit of talking about anti-Iranian sanctions as if the sanctions themselves are a positive good for the United States. They aren’t. Economically they are a negative for the United States. The only good that comes from sanctions is if they induce the Iranians to agree to a deal that is in fact in U.S. interests. Once they have achieved that purpose, the sanctions are useless to us.
An even greater inhibiting aspect of the mindset is the fixation on “breakout” times. Longer times rather than shorter times are treated as if they are a positive good for U.S. interests, when they are not. The U.S. interest is in not having any Iranian nuclear weapon at all. The difference between one breakout time versus another matters only if the response to a hypothetical Iranian abandonment of an agreement could be mustered within one time frame but not another. But the difference between, say, six months and a year is meaningless when any conceivable response, including military attack as well as enactment of the most debilitating possible sanctions, could be accomplished within a couple of weeks. And that does not even get into the question of why Iran would ever have any incentive to throw away all the results of an agreement it has worked so hard to achieve, to try to get one weapon (or even a few) it would have no practical way to use anyway. The fixation on breakout is badly misplaced; it simply does not matter.
It would be bad enough if the saboteurs get their way and because of that we lose the restrictions and monitoring of an agreement that provides assurance that the Iranian program stays peaceful, and the breakdown of the diplomatic process leads to heightened tension and conflict in the Persian Gulf and maybe even war. It would be just as tragic if the diplomatic process fails because even those with honest and good intentions regarding an agreement stick to the notion that the United States does not have to show more flexibility to get an agreement. Such flexibility is needed to close the deal, and it can be exercised with no damage to true U.S. interests at all.
This article was first published by The National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.