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Taking stock of a failed negotiation

On the eve of a deal, it's clear that the talks were a zero sum game and that US acquiescence was seen as weakness

The string of deadlines for concluding a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran that have been set and missed over the past two weeks highlights the tension between the perceived need to set a deadline so that negotiations do not drag on indefinitely, and the fact that once a deadline is set, it also sets the stage for Iran to squeeze more concessions from the P5+1 group of world powers negotiating with Iran. This was painfully apparent ahead of the July 10 deadline, a deadline that the US administration had a particularly strong incentive to uphold: it would determine whether Congress would have 30 or 60 days to review the deal. Iran squeezed hard, and the US, fortunately, resisted. But will it last?

The problems that the P5+1 are experiencing are mainly a function of the negotiations dynamic. Why has Iran been able to manipulate the deadlines? Simple: because the P5+1 have demonstrated their eagerness for a deal. Instead, these powers should have recognized from the start what kind of negotiation they were involved in, and then bargained accordingly.

Some proponents of the US administration’s approach – when not arguing that the alternative to the negotiation, as currently carried out, is either war or Iran rushing to the bomb – claim that critics of the negotiations and the emerging deal would not have been able to do a better job than the negotiators have done. Maybe yes, and maybe no. But on the basis of in-depth and ongoing research into this process, here are some insights and ideas that could have increased their prospect of doing a better job.

The most important insight is that this negotiation is fundamentally a game of compellence, in which the determined proliferator (Iran) is being forced to comply or else face punishment. It is not a give and take regarding a political dispute, and not an exercise in mutual confidence building. Rather, the determined proliferator is trying to hold onto its option of becoming a nuclear weapons state, in violation of the NPT, and the international negotiators are tasked with stopping it, and returning it to the fold of the NPT. The fact that negotiations were chosen as the preferred strategy for confronting the nuclear ambitions of Iran (and North Korea) in late 2003 – not least because of the failure of the Iraq war – does not change the basic dynamic whereby the interests of the two sides are zero sum, and only one side will win.

Determined proliferators, that can get where they want to go on their own, have no desire for a negotiation whose ‘successful outcome’ would mean giving up the nuclear option that they worked so hard to produce. Indeed, an Iranian interest in negotiating emerged only in 2013, and only after harsh and biting sanctions were put in place.

A credible threat of military force would have added another important lever of pressure on Iran to concede to international demands in the negotiation, but in late 2013, there was a sense that the pressure of sanctions might be enough to do the trick. Be that as it may, Iran’s interest in coming back to the table was only to lift sanctions – nothing changed as far as its nuclear interest.

After pressure brought Iran to the table, the hard work of conducting the game of compellence shifted into high gear, and everything over the past two years has turned on bargaining acumen. It is in this regard that the P5+1 have failed, manifested in the growing concessions to Iran.

How could they have enhanced their leverage at the table, and projected to Iran that the US was running the show?

The first step should have been to expose Iran’s work on the military aspects of its nuclear program in order to break its narrative of having “done no wrong” in the nuclear realm. The exposure of Iran’s NPT violation is important for verification purposes, as many analysts have pointed out. But it also touches upon narratives and framing, a no less important aspect of the negotiation. While Iran is highly aware of the value of narratives, the P5+1 virtually ignore them, at their own risk. The narrative of having done no wrong has been a clear asset for Iran – it plants in peoples’ minds that there is no justification for a game of compellence, and there should be some give and take.

If weaponization work had been exposed, the P5+1 should have then been emphasizing at every turn that this is not a give and take setting where each party has an equal responsibility to move closer to the other, but that because Iran violated the NPT, it must return to fold of the treaty. It is Iran that must work to regain the trust of the international community, and there is no equivalence between Iran and the P5+1 with regard to this negotiation.

There would also have been implications for the specific P5+1 demands from Iran. Because Iran lost the trust of the international community by cheating on its NPT commitments, and deceiving the international community for decades, clearly its nuclear infrastructure must in the main be dismantled.

Moreover, the P5+1 made a huge mistake by projecting an eagerness for a deal, which brings us back to the military option. By taking the US threat of military consequences virtually off the table (even though it officially remains on the table) Iran knows that it has seen the worst that the international community can do to it in terms of pressure, and this is a major boost to its leverage. In fact, the P5+1 have boxed themselves in: they have projected to Iran that this crisis can only be resolved through negotiations, so all Iran has to do is sit tight. P5+1 concessions are already rolling in.

Finally, the US has tried to prove that it is fair in its approach, and that Iran is the problem. It has consistently avoided harsh rhetoric toward Iran no matter what insults Iranian leaders have hurled its way. But this strategy will never work vis-a-vis Iran, and only makes the US look weak. Iran will continue to accuse the other side of being harsh and extreme no matter what the P5+1 do, unless there is total capitulation to Iran’s demands. If the US really wanted to show the world that Iran is the one being unreasonable, rather than trying to be nice to Iran its best option would have been to expose the weaponization aspects of Iran’s nuclear activities.

Although the reasons for the failings of the P5+1 most likely also have to do with the impact of additional interests that have assumed center stage, especially for the US, weakening their resolve to do what needed to be done to overcome Iran at the bargaining table, the US never admitted to this. Rather, it claims that it is doing everything it can to get a good deal. But with severely flawed bargaining techniques, everyone should prepare for a bad nuclear deal.

About the Author
Emily B. Landau is Head of the Arms Control program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University. She is author of 'Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation'
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