Camp David, Dayton, Lausanne

by Thomas W. Lippman

In the past four decades, the greatest achievements of American diplomacy were probably the Camp David Accords and the Dayton Agreement. Camp David led to the end of the perpetual state of war between Israel and Egypt. Dayton ended the carnage of the war in the Balkans.

Both were flawed deals, produced in many tense days of high-stakes, high-level negotiation in which none of the participants got everything he wanted and the United States did not achieve all its aims. Of course they didn’t—that is the nature of diplomacy and negotiation, a fact that seems to have eluded the loudest critics of the tentative Iran nuclear pact.

When defeated nations surrender, their conquerors may impose terms on them, as the United States did on Japan after World War. Those who have not surrendered on the field of battle do not do so at the negotiating table. Iran has not surrendered, nor will it. And therefore the Bibi Netanyahus and Tom Cottons of this story are asking for outcomes that are not achievable—unlike the Saudis, who are showing themselves to be realistic. Even if a deal is flawed—and in a negotiation, what one party sees as a deficiency the other may see as a gain—a flawed deal can produce positive outcomes and is almost always preferable to the alternative. To let the perfect be the enemy of the good accomplishes nothing.

Henry Kissinger understood that quite well when he negotiated the Paris Agreement. The deal with Hanoi ended the Vietnam War—for the United States, at least, which got its troops out of Indochina and its prisoners out of the Hanoi Hilton, if not for South Vietnam, which lost its independence two years later.

The shaky, politically unworkable Bosnian state that the late Richard Holbrooke produced at Dayton became a virtual ward of the European Union and to this day has not overcome its internal ethnic and religious differences. But the killing stopped. No more Srebrenicas, no more strutting Ratko Mladic defying the judgment of the world, no more Bosnian Muslims being herded into boxcars.

At Camp David, Israel’s Menachem Begin wanted to keep the settlements and air bases that his country had built in the Sinai after seizing that peninsula from Egypt in the 1967 war, but he failed. Egypt’s Anwar Sadat wanted a commitment by Israel to withdraw from all the Arab lands it had taken in 1967, but he failed as well. President Jimmy Carter wanted Israel to engage in good-faith negotiations that would lead to self-rule for the Palestinians. He thought he got that pledge, but he was disappointed. At one point Sadat packed his bags to leave Camp David. A couple of days later, it was Begin’s turn to threaten to pull out. But they stayed, because the consequences of walking out would have been worse. Both emerged less than satisfied with some aspects of the framework. Nevertheless, despite all the upheaval that has plagued the region since then, Israel and Egypt have not fired a shot at each other.

In the case of the Iran deal, everyone involved understands the treacherous issues that still must be resolved and could crater the entire arrangement. And obviously all of them wanted more out of the Lausanne package. “In a perfect world,” as former Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns wrote in The New York Times, “there would be no nuclear enrichment in Iran, and its existing nuclear facilities would be dismantled. But we don’t live in a perfect world.” Iran’s negotiators, he said, were “as tough-minded and skeptical as they were professionally skilled.” They were not in Lausanne to give anything away.

Senator Cotton, the freshman Republican from Arkansas and sponsor of the infamous letter to Iran from his 46 colleagues, actually said on TV when the Lausanne framework was announced that “It’s not as bad as I feared. It’s much worse.” But like everyone else in that camp, he failed to offer any credible alternative, or to explain why no deal would have been preferable to one produced by Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. Except for a few hard-liners in right-wing think tanks, no one has come right out and forthrightly advocated war. And as for tougher sanctions, no such course would be effective because the United States would have been seen around the world as the nation that walked away from an Iran that negotiated in good faith. Besides, no nation has been under tougher international sanctions for a longer time than North Korea, and that impoverished relic of the Stalinist age got the bomb anyway. If North Korea could do it, Iran could certainly do it too.

In broadest terms, the United States has long had two main objectives in its Iran policy: to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and to discourage Iranian troublemaking and support for terrorism. It is difficult to see how either of those goals would have been brought closer by walking away from the table at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel.

Gary Samore, a former nuclear negotiator in the Obama administration and now at Harvard’s Belfer Center, has pointed out all the uncertainties and gray areas that still await resolution, including the scope and pace of sanctions relief for Iran. He noted that when Iran announced at the last minute that it would not permit its enriched uranium to be shipped abroad for fabrication into reactor fuel, it was not a promising sign. Nevertheless, as he wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Tehran needs a deal more than Washington does,” and congressional interference in the remaining negotiations can only strengthen Iran’s position.

“Iran is counting on divisions between the administration and Congress (and between the United States and Israel) to get a better deal,” Samore wrote. “Instead, the United States should present a common front and let time work on its side.” Given that Iran is continuing to abide by the preliminary restraints on its nuclear activities that it accepted in 2013, there is nothing to lose by waiting for the final outcome before passing judgment. Remember Camp David.

Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.



  1. “the United States has long had two main objectives in its Iran policy: to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and to discourage Iranian troublemaking and support for terrorism.”

    1. The main US objective in its Iran policy is regime change, to go back to the salad days, the thirty seven years when the US/UK-installed Shah was a despotic torturing western vassal, invoking the Carter Doctrine of US primacy in the Gulf area. Therefore the recent US support for the Greens. Iran knows that, and also knows that there is no “Iran nuclear crisis.”It has been concocted. Anyhow, no treaty could ever prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

    2. There is no “Iranian troublemaking and support for terrorism.” I have examined all of the documents coming out of the US, from the counter-terrorism center and the FBI etc., and there is not one example of any Iran terrorists or state-supported terrorism in any oth those documents. I defy anyone to document Iran’s “support for terrorism” with valid evidence. Trouble-making? You mean gefting US world hegemony? No. (The US, however, has a different record.)

    It is wrongful language like this that supports the long-standing US aggression against Iran, which this supposed agreement shows no sign of lessening.

  2. You make some good points Don.. I mean, how long is the long of the two main objectives pursued by USA in Iran: 10, 20, 30, 40 50, 60, 70 years? What were the USA main objectives under the Shah? What! Fighting terrorism? and holding the Shah back from going Nuky.

    Was not the goal of Kermit Roosevelt in Operation Ajax circa 1953 to save Iran from Terrorism? He was on an anti- terrorist mission.

  3. @Max Sitting
    The US main objective was to control Iran by first eliminating the democratically elected Mossadegh, then install the Shah and arm his repressive regime in order to control the Gulf and keep the Russians out, according to the “Carter Doctrine.”
    Richard Helms was a piece of work. He was described by his biographer Thomas Powers as a “gentlemanly planner of assassinations.” Helms:
    –CIA 1966 – 1973
    –Ambassador to Iran 1973-1977
    Regarding the Iran nuclear program, the US started it going. Check out this:
    warisaracket (dot) org/shahsnuclearplants (dot) jpg
    So its no wonder Iranians hate the US. Ant they are not alone in the world The US is currently help the Saudi despots destroy Yemen. There is no limit to these war criminals in Washington.

  4. Don Bacon, Thank you for your spot on comments and pointing out that it was the U.S. that initially promoted the introduction of nuclear technology in Iran.

    I view the U.S. policy in the last few decades as being an Israeli centric policy purposely turning a blind eye to the major reason why Iran would want a nuclear weapon: a belligerent Israeli neighbor that has had hundreds of nuclear weapons for decades.

    This “nature of diplomacy” that neither party get’s everything it wants is puzzling in this situation. U.S. intelligence agencies have stated that Iran stopped their nuclear weapons program in 2003 and does not now have a nuclear weapons program, Mossad agrees with that assessment and Iran is a signatory to the NPT with regular inspections in place. So, why are ANY sanctions in place?

    While the deal is better than an unnecessary war on behalf of Israel, the result allows a rogue state with hundreds of nuclear weapons to freely threaten its neighbors.

  5. Polls of Arabs in the ME, the people who actually live there, indicate that people fear the US and Israel which have nukes, and not Iran which doesn’t. It wasn’t Iran which rained destruction on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now (supporting Saudi with refueling and bombs) Yemen. Also support for anti-Syria forces in Syria. This is why the US is feared and hated.

    The Arab League has tried for years to get Israel to join the world community and sign the NPT, but the US has always sided against the NPT with Israel, which — oddly enough — was a charter member of the IAEA. Israel has allowed IAEA to inspect a power plant, and has participated in IAEA inspections, but has never admitted to the nukes it has which the west helped Israel build.

    Regarding Iran, of course the situation is extra-legal and inexplicable, unless one factors in the timeless hatred of the US for Iran and Iranians because they have the courage to resist US global hegemony.

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