“Bad Deal” Better Than “No Deal”?

by Francois Nicoulaud 

“No deal is better than bad deal:” that’s the mantra that has been heard ad nauseam in the recent past and presented as self-evident of U.S. toughness in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

But is it really so? Of course, everybody knows what “no deal” means. It is more difficult to discern at what point a deal becomes bad, rather than good, or even average. But plenty of experts are ready to help. A bad deal, they tell us, is a deal which would allow the Iranians to produce the material necessary for a bomb in less than six months. A bad deal is a deal which would not clarify once and for all what kind of research the Iranians have been pursuing in the past for manufacturing a nuclear explosive device. A bad deal is a deal which would allow the Iranians to pursue their ballistic missile program. And so on… One ends up understanding that any deal less than perfect would amount to an unacceptably bad deal.

But such an approach goes against any diplomatic process in which compromise and give and take are key notions. It leads to the conclusion that a perfect deal is a deal which does not have to be negotiated, a deal in which the winner takes all. And indeed, there are people who believe that non-proliferation is too important a question to be submitted to any kind of compromise. It deserves only perfect deals.

History, though, does not confirm this approach. The mother of all non-proliferation agreements, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), concluded in 1968, was in each and all its articles one big compromise. A few countries were allowed to develop nuclear arsenals, others not. The countries that agreed to forsake any military nuclear ambitions were allowed to bring their nuclear capabilities up to the thin red line beyond which could start the manufacturing of an explosive nuclear device. Nobody was happy at the result when the Treaty was signed and nobody is satisfied today by the state of affairs that has developed since.

Thus, the NPT was a deeply imperfect agreement, and indeed, a kind of bad deal. But would a “no deal” have been better? Obviously not. In a different field, the strategic arms limitation agreements concluded during and after the Cold War between the US and the USSR, later on Russia, and signed on the US side by Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Obama… were certainly deeply imperfect. But, again, would “no deals” have been better?

Considering the Iranian negotiation, one could risk being provocative by saying that almost any deal (at least in the ambit of the current negotiation) could be better than no deal at all. No deal means the unchecked development of the Iranian program, the continuing increase of its enrichment capacities and stock of enriched uranium, the completion of a reactor of the plutonium-production type, and eventually the resumption of active research on engineering a nuclear device. By way of consequence, it would mean a growing tension between the international community and the Islamic Republic, possibly culminating in strikes on its nuclear facilities and in armed confrontation.

Compared to such a prospect, a far less-than-perfect agreement could appear indeed as highly desirable. Let us remember that international relations are nurtured by iterative and evolutionary processes. “Solve-all”, perfectly designed agreements, the epitome of which could well have been the Treaty of Versailles, seldom produce brilliant and lasting results. What is critical is to grab at the right moment the maximum of what is within reach. The art of diplomacy lies precisely in the ability to first discern, and then to join and knit together the extremes of what can be willingly accepted by the conflicting parties. It incorporates also the humility of leaving to others the task of solving at a later stage questions not yet fully addressed or wholly answered, in the knowledge that new circumstances created by an agreement will create new possibilities for progress. It keeps in mind that even an imperfect agreement, if faithfully implemented by the parties, can be a kind of confidence-building machine, opening the way to further advances. This is precisely what happened with the November 24 Joint Plan of Action between the P5+1 and Iran: that accord was transitory and therefore essentially imperfect, but it created the proper atmosphere for a more ambitious step forward.

Given the current state of the negotiations, how can these general considerations be translated into concrete terms? Let us limit ourselves to the most difficult point; that is, the acceptable level of Iranian enrichment activities. Here, the obvious line of compromise turns around capping them for a few years the present level of employed enrichment capacity – expressed in Separation Work Units (SWU) in order neutralize the consequences of the possible introduction of more efficient centrifuges. The figure to be retained would then be between 8,000 and 10,000 SWU per year.

For this, the Iranians have to admit that they do not need to develop an enrichment capacity on an industrial scale (about 50,000 SWU per year and over) as long as do not break ground on the main structures of their future nuclear power plants. And they should take advantage of this interval to develop more productive and more secure centrifuges than the primitive, outdated model that forms the bulk of their present stock of working centrifuges. They also need to progress significantly in the technology of nuclear-fuel manufacturing in order to be ready in due time if they want to meet at least partially the needs of their future nuclear power plants.

On the other side, the West should consider the enormous political difficulty the Iranian government would face if it had to dismantle even part of the nation’s hard-won enrichment capacity. It is true that accepting the preservation of this capacity at its present level would open the theoretical risk of the Iranians quickly acquiring significant quantities of highly enriched uranium, thus opening the way to the bomb. But considering the self-destructive consequences of such a blatant breach of agreement, the risk is very limited indeed, and by all means much more limited than the risks raised by the absence of any deal. Is this risk really unmanageable for the coalition of the world’s most powerful countries, given the sophistication of their diplomatic, intelligence, and contingency-planning capacities? Of course, such a compromise could be easily depicted with equal vehemence as a bad deal on both sides. And that is why it is probably the right compromise, and a fair deal.

Photo: The P5+1 foreign ministers, with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, November 24, 2013. Credit: State Department photo/Public Domain

François Nicoullaud

François Nicoullaud's diplomatic career (1964 to 2005) brought him to New York, Chile, Berlin, Bombay, and finally to Budapest and Tehran as French ambassador. In the French Foreign Ministry he was in charge of cultural development as well as non-proliferation issues. He has also served in the Ministry of Interior as a diplomatic advisor and in the Ministry of Defense as First Assistant to the Minister. Since 2005, he has been active as a political analyst in international affairs, concentrating on Iran and the Middle East. He has also authored a book based on his experience entitled, “The Turban and the Rose” (Ramsey, Paris, 2006).



  1. The author makes several false assumptions and therefore comes to a false conclusion. The author believes that sanctions would have no impact as to whether Iran would give up their nuclear weapons program. The facts prove otherwise. The Iranian economy was teetering before the sanctions were eased. There was a real threat to the regime which is why Khameini chose a “reformer”.

    The author also falsely believes that there is a comparison between the Soviet Union and Iran. The Soviet leaders believed their ideology and economic system would win in the long run. Khrushchev believed they would be present at the funeral of democracy and capitalism. They wanted to avoid war. The Iranian leaders believe that they have nothing to fear from a nuclear war as the “Mahdi” will save them.

    Hopefully, a return to vigorous sanctions can force the Ayatollahs off the nuclear weapons path. Should that not happen the military option would be necessary. It would be a horrible choice but better than seeing this regime armed with nuclear weapons. A regime that supports and enables terrorists, gives aid to war criminals in Syria (who use chemical weapons on their own people) and sends children marching across minefields to clear a path cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons.

    “”You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.” –Winston Churchill

  2. NO DEAL is better than a BAD DEAL

    Mr. Nicoulaud seems to be sanguine as to think that Iran can be trusted not to “race for the Bomb” – I’m NOT…
    Let’s not forget that this “charade” between Iran and the Western Powers has been going on now for 12 Years. – In that time, it has come to light that Iran had been working on a Nuclear “weaponization” program, as well as the perfection of Missile technology ( it now has a missile capable of delivering a warhead 3000 kms ( within range of Israel, all the countries of the Middle East , Turkey and Eastern Europe – as well as southern Russia) – and by its own admission is looking to extend its missiles range to 5,000 kms. ( within range of Western Europe) ..and perhaps beyond .- The Question is Why ? … Why does Iran need Missiles of this dimension ? – Also, why would Iran, a country that has more than enough Oil & Gas to meet its energy needs far into the future, need to expend such an enormous amounts of money and expenditure to enrich Uranium in the quantity and quality it is seeking ? – It could very easily and cheaply ‘buy’ from abroad all the non – weaponized Uranium it needs to service its Medical and other civilian needs – _ In addition, let’s not forget that Iran has a strategic alliance with North Korea, who has been running a ‘rogue” nuclear weapons program and has cheated on numerous occasions.

    Taking all of the above into consideration would you still consider a “BAD” Deal with Iran ?
    Would you be willing to ‘bet’ your own wealth that Iran would not cheat… and present the World with a “fait accomplai”

    Let’s not forget, Mr. Nicoulaud, that during the 1930’s there was someone by the name of Chamberlain who also thought that a Bad Deal would be better that No Deal so that there could be “Peace in our Time” .. a Deal which France and so many other countries and Millions of People paid so dearly for…

  3. By any other name, it’s still the same. Some people will never be satisfied, regardless of what the outcome is. Tossing around some of the accusations that are tossed, one should be careful who the finger is pointed at. As for using past events as facts to future outcomes being identical in the future, that would imply that the one[s] using such, have an insight or crystal ball or perhaps are time travelers.

  4. To those who are tone-deaf, as one commenter noted, the issue seem to revolve around “trust”. From their vantage point, every deal with Iran is a bad deal because it is Iran! Their agenda interferes with their ability to think outside of their unilateral, my way or the highway, bring-it-on context. For these individuals, Mr. Nicoulaud’s argument, or for that matter, any other rationally constructed argument would not suffice. Mutual respect is not a paradigm where our tone-deaf friends live or understand

    For those who wish for a peaceful solution, Mr. Zarif’s youtube video has a clear message. We should not focus on phrases such as “a bad deal”, or “a good deal”, and instead redouble the efforts toward reaching a doable deal that addresses the concerns of both sides. Asking for mutual respect, as Mr. Zarif does, is a clear message to Mr. Kerry. Sanctions have been painful – for the past 35 year – but don’t demand Iranians to kneel before you. If Mr. Kerry wants a peaceful resolution rather than the spiral of escalation, then he should consider mutual respect.

  5. Jay, I’m wondering if you read the same opinion piece I did.The author states that an acceptable deal for him would be if Iran had the capability of quickly producing material for nuclear weapons. He assumes that should the Iranian regime take that path the consequences would be severe for them. I’m assuming they would be as severe as if the Assad regime in Syria had crossed Obama’s red line and used chemical weapons (oh wait, they did).

    You wrote about “…a doable deal that addresses the concerns of both sides.” Leaving Iran with the capability to quickly produce nuclear weapons does not address any side but Iran’s.

Comments are closed.