“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

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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. I think Iran needs to make some sort of deal with the P5+1, even if implied and on a temporary basis. I very much doubt Iran would be able to proceed with an unchecked growing nuclear programme.

  2. As long as the West maintains the need to reduce Iran’s centrifuge capacity and Iran is dead set on not only keeping it, but expanding it, this deal is dead on arrival. All the other issues such as timeline, inspections and such could all probably be worked out since both sides know that refining capacity is the key to Iran’s nuclear hopes. Without sufficient centrifuge capacity, it cannot quickly produce weapons grade fuel and Iran knows it. Which is why both sides are posturing now for a collapse. What will most likely happen is an agreement to extend talks past the July 20th deadline to keep the process alive since neither side can afford a total collapse, especially as Iran is desperate for any sanctions relief to rebuild its currency reserves after expending prodigious amounts to keep Assad and Maliki in power in Syria and Iraq in the face of overwhelming military pressure from insurgents. Since the talk are going to go into the tank anyway, it doesn’t hurt for the West to step up demands for human rights improvements in Iran as a condition of moving forward. Might as well get it on the record now.

  3. @Change – – You obviously do not want to see any deal between P5+1 and Iran, and therefor you urge irrelevant “human rights” issues be part of the bargaining.

  4. I’m a little speechless that you would call human rights “irrelevant” and I think it demonstrates pretty clearly you’re shilling all in for Iran regardless of what is right or wrong. Making ethical and moral choices may be irrelevant and inconvenient to you, but there is a very real human toll being paid by a large swath of Iran’s citizens right now. I’d be HAPPY to see a deal if it removed Iran’s centrifuges, allowed for open and in-depth inspection by appropriate international authorities and put Iran on a path towards liberalized democracy. If you are against any or all of those things happening sometime in the future then we can only assume what your true motivations are in regards to Iran.

  5. I’m as hardline on a deal with Iran as anyone and I don’t want to see them left with any enrichment capabilities. I don’t think they can be trusted. I am convinced that they support terror groups. That being said I have to agree that including human rights in the discussions now would rightfully be seen by the Iranians as a way to scuttle the talks and worse, that means we would be blamed for the failure. It would make re instituting sanctions extremely difficult if not impossible.

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