A lot has happened since I last wrote, on November 13, about the P5+1-Iran nuclear negotiations. The main development, of course, is that there is now a signed “interim” agreement and, as was not the case on November 12, there is a text to be perused. It’s not entirely obvious how or why we got from “no deal” then to a deal now, but just looking at the logic of the developments from the outside (always a risky thing to do, granted), it seems that the U.S. side essentially caved on the uranium enrichment issue, and the Iranian side lowered its demands regarding the Arak facility and the inspection regime. But language can move around in all parts of a document betwixt its being close to complete and being actually signed, so the full picture of what changed between November 12 and Sunday morning is available only to the negotiators themselves and their senior principals—and sometimes it’s not an entirely full picture even to them.Let me explain what I mean by that with brief reference to a different arms control negotiation some 35 years ago. Arms control treaties are notoriously complex because they are so technical in nature—this quite aside from the notoriously critical problem of reading intentions, with which the technical stuff is inevitably enmeshed. Sometimes parts of an agreement that seem innocuous or even benign when seen apart look very different when analyzed together. Thus in the 1978-79 ordeal over SALT II, to make a long and complex story short, the “national technical means” verification aspects of the treaty and the “no new types” of ICBMs aspects seemed reasonable enough, until you looked at them together. When you did look at them together, it became clear (to some people, anyway) that the Soviets could introduce new types because the verification standards were too limited to prove otherwise, and verification by national technical means (which depended on intercepting and decrypting telemetry data) would in turn become much harder because new types could be introduced for which we had no base telemetry data.It was a sort of an arms control version of a Catch-22, but a lot of people who liked the treaty chose to overlook or ignore such inconvenient arguments because they clashed with their core assessment of Soviet intentions. That was always the rub in those days. Did Soviet motives mirror ours in wanting to tame and stabilize the strategic nuclear competition, or were the Soviets trying to use the negotiations as part of a broader, multifaceted effort to gain unilateral advantage?Today we’re talking about a different negotiating partner in Iran, a far less developed military capacity, and a much wider array of actors capable of influencing outcomes. But when you come right down to it, this interplay between the technical dynamic of a negotiation and the mutual assessment of intentions remains pretty much the same. There is always a close relationship between what goes on over and in the proverbial “four corners” of a document and what is going on outside them; i.e., between what is going on in the negotiating venue and what is going on in the wider world. At least when it comes to adversaries negotiating, as opposed to friends trying to wrap up a trade agreement, say, there are no exceptions. That is also why it is not generally possible to get anything important around a negotiating table that an actor is not evidently willing and capable of getting by other means. Reputation is the currency though which negotiating strategies are vindicated or found to fall short. And finally by way of general introduction, that is why the document signed yesterday cannot be understood except in terms of the context in which it rests. Since, as usual, so many others have beaten me into electrons, let me dispense with a detailed blow-by-blow analysis of what the agreement actually says. We can make do with a few short summary statements.First, the deal includes one element of rollback in the Iranian program—denaturing uranium that has reached the 20%-enrichment level. That is good because, assuming the verification regime is robust enough to prevent gross cheating, it means that Iran’s reputed six-bombs worth of fissile material will not exist for that purpose. Of course, nothing stops the Iranians from producing more such enriched uranium later on, because none of the centrifuges are shut down by the deal. And Iran’s obligation only lasts for six months according to the terms of the agreement (yet it need not begin until stage five months plus). But this limited “rollback” arguable widens the warning time we would have should Iran attempt a dash to a breakout capability, insofar as it is not reversed after six months. Here is one of this deal’s Catch-22s: The rollout is good and the six-month duration is seemingly innocuous, but seen together the latter limits the value of the former.Second, the deal otherwise doesn’t freeze so much as cap what the Iranian side can do—as I insisted back in the November 13 post. It slows down the effort, but it does not halt it. Over time, Iran can make lots of progress on a range of tasks, including those having to do with delivery systems.Third, the relaxation of sanctions may or may not lead to a general undermining of the entire sanctions regime when it comes to independent jobbers and Europeans and others—again, a matter I raised on November 13. I am skeptical here, but, as others have pointed out, once the diplomatic track got going, the failure to reach some kind of deal itself might have caused the erosion of the peripheral elements of the sanctions regime. Besides, this erosion is not a foregone conclusion. The U.S. government has various forms of leverage to use against excessively eager sanctions busters, and of course we should use it. Nor are we alone in this regard, inasmuch as the French position is aligned with our own on this point, which counts at least for something.Fourth, while the reprocessing route seems to be narrower now (I am referring to the language over the Arak plant), the enrichment issue seems to have undergone a qualitative change. As other observers have been at pains to point out, the specific language in the agreement leapfrogs the matter of an Iranian “right” to an enrichment all the way to an explicit presumption that negotiations to come will determine not if but how much and under what conditions enrichment on Iranian soil will proceed. That language itself amounts to a “right” even though the word is not used, and that is so now, and will remain so even if no ensuing negotiations begin, let alone are completed successfully. The P5+1, not just the United States, have already granted the principle.Fifth and finally by way of summary statements, the timetable for follow-on negotiations is peculiar, to say the least. The agreement contains an aspirational target of one year to a complete accord, but the interim agreement itself is understood to be a six-month proposition. So it expires on May 24, 2014. The question then becomes, what is the status of the actors’ obligations between May 24 and November 24, 2014? Well, the agreement says that the interim agreement is renewable by mutual consent, so if a final deal takes more than six months to complete, that is an option. In principle, it could be renewed several times if aspirations for a final agreement give way to a more recalcitrant reality. But of course mutual consent may turn out to be as elusive as agreement on a final arrangement, so what then? Rather than go through all the permutations involved in a “what then?” sort of scenario, suffice it to say that the two main actors here, the U.S. and Iranian governments, will per force move the action from the negotiating table to what is going on outside of it. And here we are talking, in essence, about a leverage competition in which all factors impinging on the bilateral relationship can and probably will be relevant. The list is long: the progress of the Iranian nuclear program under the interim agreement umbrella; what is going on in Syria and Lebanon; what is happening in Iraq; the ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iran’s potential role in either expanding or ameliorating its discontents; the general political strength and domestic popularity of each government; how the United States, in particular, manages the qualms and constrains the behaviors of various allies in and beyond the region; what the Congress does with respect to the enforcement of current sanctions, the imposition of conditional new ones and the imposition of sanctions unrelated to the nuclear portfolio; and more besides. It comes down to interactive judgments about which side is more eager to get to a final agreement, and is willing to concede positions to achieve it, and those judgments will be tied to the ebb and flow of all the aforementioned issues intermingled. That is what we really mean, or should mean, by “context.”So how is this leverage competition likely to play out? Of course, no one knows for sure. No one can say, either, that a similar competition would not have gone on had there been no diplomacy and no interim agreement—of course, such a competition was going on anyway. What has changed is that now the competition has by mutual consent moved under a diplomatic roof of sorts, albeit a roof with no walls or solid floor, so to speak. That changes some things, but not others. Most of all, it offers a more direct way to test theories of intention; but it is not and cannot be a foolproof way. What are some of those theories? Not for the first time, they break down into parallel-universe style alternatives.Some observers think that Iran has no intention of actually building a breakout nuclear weapons capability, but merely wants the political status of an all-but-nuclear power. Presumably, this would, in the minds of Iran’s leaders, increase the country’s prestige and enhance its deterrent power against those bent on regime change. Since the Iranians could achieve that status without any agreements, assuming the United States determined not to risk a war to stop it (and could prevent others from stopping it), being under the roof gives the United States more leverage over the terms of that eventual status, should an agreement obviating it become unattainable. It is true, too, that the interim agreement and what it may presage must be evaluated against realistic alternatives. The idea that negotiations can undo years of accomplished technical facts on the ground in Iran, even under the pain of sanctions, is not realistic.It may be, too, that the Iranians think they can achieve this status of all-but-nuclear power without stimulating regional proliferation energies. But given the optic that Iranian policy broadly communicates in the region, this is unlikely. The activation of the Saudi-Pak arrangement long in quiet escrow, and likely efforts by Turkey and Egypt and perhaps other states, have low thresholds because lead times are relatively long and suspicions are historically deep. Indeed, from a longer-term perspective, it may well be that the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons status is strategically counterproductive, and the actions of others in moving to keep pace with Iran’s efforts might usefully signal that possibility. So what might look like dangerous developments to us could be positive developments in the end, so long as they do not come to full fruition. Some believe that the negotiating process itself can also be useful in persuading the Iranians of this, based on the premise that negotiations often acquire their own inner logic and dynamic.If any of this is true, or becomes true, then it is possible to imagine a negotiating outcome that snags the brass ring from the U.S. point of view—halting the Iranian nuclear weapons effort before it achieves any deliverable capability and, more important, persuading the Iranians that such an achievement isn’t worth the risks it would entail. In the end, some kind of U.S. pledge, in writing, that it really and truly does not seek and will not support others’ efforts toward regime change in Tehran may be required. But, in this view, it would be worth it, and the repetitional costs could be offset if accompanied by explicit U.S. pledges in perpetuity to bring U.S. allies under the U.S. nuclear umbrella should the Iranians in future have a change of heart.An arrangement of that sort would amount to an existential entente, if not a full-fledged one encompassing regional issues outside the nuclear portfolio, something the two countries have not “enjoyed”, if one can call it that, since 1978-79. But an entente might be expanded in the fullness of time into a more normal and less fraught relationship. That the prospect of that development can be fairly said to help an Iranian President politically says something both about the power of Iranian opinion and the regime’s sensitivity to it. That’s a potentially useful point of leverage for us. In this scenario, too, time is on our side, not Iran’s. (And let us simply note in passing that there may be some privately held evidence in favor of this interpretation; after all, if NSA has for years been tapping into the private communications of German, Brazilian and other leaders, why not Iranian leaders?) Obviously, there is another way to assess intentions and context. Maybe the Iranians believe that nothing under heaven can disabuse the United States from wanting regime change in Iran, and that a nuclear weapons capability—whatever else it may or may not be good for—is the best long-term protection from the machinations of the Great Satan. If they looked around and assessed U.S. behavior with regard to aspiring WMD rogue states like Iraq, as opposed to rogue states that have achieved WMD capacity like North Korea, they would be hard-pressed to reach any other conclusion. In this scenario, Iran is eager to take advantage of a temporarily weak America presided over by a meek commander-in-chief to make the United States an unwitting co-conspirator in its rush to nuclear weapons status.If one sees things this way, then the logic is that Iran is trying to escape the strictures of the sanctions regime mainly in order to buy time for it to pursue its long game with the Americans, the presumption being that Washington is more risk-averse than Tehran and that the deal on the table will get better and better as time passes. If that’s the case, no acceptable final agreement that includes mutual accord about the nature of and constraints against Iranian enrichment will be forthcoming. Negotiations won’t be done in a year; they won’t be done at all save if the U.S. position collapses entirely.In such a scenario, therefore, it would well suit Iranian strategy to want to extend the interim accord, holding out (false) promise of a final arrangement that might be acceptable to the United States and other P5+1 countries. One reason this might be attractive to Iran is that it furnishes a tool—a wedge, specifically—that can be used to roil U.S.-Israeli relations, because as long as negotiations are continuing, many will argue that they have a chance to succeed and should be given that chance. That will deter Israel from using force except at the presumably prohibitive cost of all but destroying the U.S.-Israel “special relationship.” The Obama Administration would be hard-pressed to decline an extension, and not just to keep Israel from going kinetic. If things go sour in subsequent negotiations, as they have in earlier failed arrangement with the Iranians, and the interim accord expires, the Obama Administration would in most respects be back to square one—but actually worse off for having granted the principle of an implicit Iran “right” to enrichment on its own soil. The cessation of negotiations with no follow-on action would look like a U.S. failure. So the Administration would probably be willing to pay Iran to keep the interim accord alive. What would the currency of that payment be? Something concerning Afghanistan, perhaps? Syria? Iraq? Who knows? The menu is rich with possibilities. In this scenario, time and opportunity are on Iran’s side, not ours. Some observers are already sure that one scenario or the other is bound to play out. I am not sure, and I don’t really know how anyone can be. Now, it is certainly true, again as many have said, that U.S. body language throughout the behind-the-scenes negotiations leading up to Sunday’s signing has indicated a real lack of backbone, and an apparent desire to reduce American engagement in and commitments to the Middle East. Nothing could please the mullahs more. And yes, what matters in asymmetrical contests like the protracted one between Iran and the United States is not some absolute objective balance of power, but rather the subjective balance of interests. Iran cares existentially about the outcome of this contest; U.S. stakes are hardly trivial, but they are nonetheless vastly lower than that. So body language matters if one wants to close the gap between those with naturally vital interests because they are in and of the region, and those like the United States, which is in but not of the region. Outside actors have to go the extra mile to be taken seriously in such contests, to make credible a willingness to bring power advantages to bear on situations where less-than-existential stakes are in play. The Obama Administration has not done that. It has rather been in reverse gear, most vividly over Syria, but arguably over Iraq and Afghanistan and even Egypt as well.That said, Iranian leaders could be making a huge mistake if they conclude that the U.S. appetite for pusillanimity is limitless. In a year’s time, with the mid-term elections behind him, President Obama could turn ferocious about one of the few foreign policy/national security portfolios he seems to care about—nonproliferation—if he thinks he has become the entrée rather than one of the diner guests at the negotiating table. Events elsewhere in the world, as far away as the South China Sea, might influence American perceptions of the stakes. Iranian leaders might misinterpret increasingly strong language coming from the Administration as merely a way to manage Israeli and Saudi unhappiness, and they could end up dead wrong about that.All this is another way of saying that the meaning of the interim agreement remains a hostage to decisions not yet taken, and decisions over which both main sides have considerable discretion. But for the United States to achieve its aims as time passes, or to minimize diplomacy-produced liabilities if things come to that, it must remain exquisitely attuned to the complexities of context, as defined above. It certainly cannot afford to draw more red lines whose challenge it ignores. Can this Administration, with its extraordinary penchant for policy process antics, actually do any of that? We’ll find out, I suppose. Just a final coda for now, if I may—because I know that some of my regular readers have a yet unanswered question: “But is it good for the Jews?”It is interesting to observe the different styles of reaction of the Israeli and Saudi governments to the signing of Sunday’s deal. The Saudis have kept their mouths shut, in public at least. The Israelis have done anything but. Given that it is not hard for Prime Minister Netanyahu or King Abdallah to communicate pretty much anything in private to Washington at the highest level, I think the Saudi approach is much the wiser.I wonder if Prime Minister Netanyahu realizes that the more negative loud noises he makes about this agreement, the more likely, all else equal, that President Obama will make concessions to Iran six months from now, eight months from now, going on a year from now, too, lest the diplomatic effort collapse into the open maw of a possible Israeli military effort. Everyone knows that Israel is not going to do anything kinetic in the next six months, lest it be blamed, justifiably in most eyes, for sabotaging an effort before anyone can know its actual prospects. But whatever the negotiations bring, the United States will have an additional incentive to not allow the diplomatic track to end if Israeli public hectoring keeps up. If things do not go so well, as the Prime Minister predicts, it’s hard to see how this could be in Israel’s best interest. I can think of all sorts of tactical reasons for the Prime Minister’s recent behavior, including the fact that what he is doing is broadly popular politically. But I can’t think of any national security reasons that actually justify it on balance.Finally, Obama knows that Netanyahu knows that Obama knows that the Israeli Prime Minister can hurt him politically in the United States. He can mobilize Jewish and Christian Zionists alike, the latter being even more numerous than the former (especially these days, if recent Pew polls are to be believed for what they say about falling levels of American Jewish support for certain Israeli policies.) The same is not true in reverse; there’s no organized pro-America lobby in Israel. Proud and successful politicians like Barack Obama resent that sort of thing, and they are capable of resenting it enough to affect their judgment. It is, I think, Obama’s judgment that Netanyahu has tried before to harm him politically, and now by doing it again Netanyahu risks introducing a rogue psychological twist into the President’s decisions. I just don’t see how playing that kind of ultra-serious game right now is “good for the Jews.”
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Published on: November 25, 2013Dealing with the Deal