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.