Friday, October 10, 2014

Getting To Yes

Getting To Yes Part V

“No deal is better than a bad deal” with Iran over its nuclear program. So says the president, and the secretary of state (and his predecessor), the secretary of defense, the chief U.S. negotiator, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the State Department spokeswoman (and her deputy).

Or not. In a little-noticed passage from her written testimony to the Senate in July, chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman wandered from the talking points. After ritualistically declaring that no deal is better than a bad deal, she asserted, just sentences later, “Compared to any alternative, [a deal] will provide a more comprehensive, lasting, and peaceful solution to the concerns generated by Iran’s nuclear activities."

Under Sherman’s formulation, the imperative of reaching any deal effectively replaces the imperative of a deal’s supposed purpose: eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat.

This idea — that any deal represents the best of all options — is echoed in the works of leading policy wonks and pundits. As the International Crisis Group recommended in an August 2014 study titled “ Iran and the P5+1: Getting to ‘Yes,’” the P5+1 should accept a “meaningful enrichment program” as part of a final agreement, because “the alternatives — return to the sanctions versus centrifuges race or recourse to military force — are even less attractive.”

In a July 2013 essay titled “ Getting to ‘Yes’ With Iran,” Robert Einhorn, a former nuclear negotiator under the Obama administration who is now with the Brookings Institution, called for preserving the enrichment program with certain restrictions. In a March 2014 study, he contended, “No agreement that is reached will be perfect. But the test is not how it compares with an ideal but unattainable agreement; it is how it measures up against alternative ways of dealing with the Iran nuclear issue.”

And in an editorial titled — wait for it — “ Getting to Yes With Iran,” published just after the signing of the November 2013 interim agreement, The New York Times stated categorically, “A negotiated solution is unquestionably better” than the alternatives, which it defined as “ratcheting up sanctions and possible military action.”

Such counsel may seem not only reasonable but also empowering. It assumes the fundamental rationality of negotiating rivals, opens the possibility of advancing core mutual interests, and promotes the tantalizing prospect of crowning negotiators as peacemakers.

Admittedly, the other side may occasionally behave irrationally. Fisher, Ury and Patton anticipate this scenario, and acknowledge that offering concessions to a hostile opponent may in some cases prove ill-advised. In such a predicament, the way forward requires not mastery of negotiating science, but the application of wisdom and foresight. Put differently, it’s a judgment call.

Yet assessing the wisdom of a particular negotiation or final deal is not the purpose of "Getting to YES." Rather, as the authors explain, “'Getting to YES' is not a sermon on the morality of right or wrong; it is a book on how to do well in a negotiation.” Put differently, it’s a science book.

And therein lies the rub. The trouble with the Obama administration’s strategy with Iran is that it has conflated doing well in a negotiation — i.e., getting to yes — with making a prudent judgment call on its long-term consequences.

The arguments for compromise — specifically, for allowing Iran to maintain a significant enrichment program as part of a final agreement — have it backward. The true test of a good agreement is whether or not it eliminates the Iranian nuclear threat, full stop. An agreement that fails this test is not an agreement at all, but simply an unreciprocated concession.

The administration should insist upon a high standard for a deal — including zero enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, dismantlement of the heavy water reactor at Arak and an intrusive inspections regime — and make clear that Tehran will face crippling sanctions if it refuses.

A lesser deal would do little more than retain Iran’s path to the bomb and hence constitute a de facto endorsement of it as a matter of U.S. policy and international law. Such an agreement would thus guarantee — and build upon — many of the ruinous alternatives that proponents of compromise seek to avert by pursuing an agreement in the first place.

For this reason, a bad deal is not the best (or even the least bad) option, but the worst of all options.

Of course, Tehran has only to gain by negotiating, irrespective of the outcome. Thanks to the interim agreement signed in November 2013, Iran has pocketed, in exchange for minimal concessions on its nuclear program, some $11 billion in sanctions relief and increased access to global markets that will likely continue beyond the timeframe of the negotiations. If the talks ultimately fail, the regime has lost nothing.

Meanwhile, Iran’s leaders — from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who makes all final decisions on the nuclear program, to the supposed moderates President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif — can continue to state publicly and repeatedly that they will not dismantle their enrichment program. For them, no deal really is better than a bad deal — defined as any agreement that prevents them from ever developing a nuclear weapon.

Ever the optimists, U.S. officials have chosen to ignore these inconvenient statements lest they undermine the negotiations. After all, the path to yes beckons.