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Was a Better Deal Possible?

July 30, 2015

Some people agree that it’s not a good deal, and also that it may not actually succeed in preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. But, they say, it’s the best we could have done. We had no choice, short of military action; had we pushed for better terms, more concessions from Iran and fewer from the West, the Iranians would have balked and walked away, and we would have ended up with nothing at all. (And then the international allies would also have balked, and the sanctions would have unraveled, and Iran would march to a bomb, etc.)

This may in fact be true; we have no way of definitively knowing. It would be nice if we could run controlled experiments, as we do in the natural sciences: tweak one variable, holding everything else constant, and see how the results change. If we could hold multiple negotiations in parallel universes, we could have found out just how far the Iranians are willing to go, what their “walking-away” point is, what is really non-negotiable from their perspective and what is posturing. But the world of politics and diplomacy doesn’t have that tool; we have only informed guesses and assessments, which are by definition uncertain, and subject to manipulation by skilled negotiators on the other side.

On the substance of the agreement, David Horovitz persuasively writes in the Times of Israel that a better deal was indeed possible. The U.S. and its allies did not have to cave on their key demands: full disclosure of previous illegal military nuclear activities, immediate and unfettered access for inspectors, and limits on development and testing of advanced centrifuges. Iran, Horovitz maintains, would not have given up sanctions relief, and would have eventually acquiesced to these requirements.

Alan Dershowitz, an expert on negotiating strategy, claims that the U.S. weakened its position by making three important concessions:

First, we took the military option off the table by publicly declaring that we were not militarily capable of permanently ending Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Second, we took the current tough sanctions regimen off the table by acknowledging that if we did not accept a deal, many of our most important partners would begin to reduce or even eliminate sanctions. Third, and most important, we took off the table the option of rejecting the deal by publicly acknowledging that if we do so, we will be worse off than if we accept even a questionable deal. [….]  This approach to the deal — surrendering leverage from the outset — violated the most basic principles of negotiation 101. We were playing checkers against the people who invented chess, and their ayatollah checkmated our president.

To Dershowitz’s analysis, I would add that the artificial deadlines that the U.S. and its allies imposed on the process played directly into the Iranians’ hands. The interim Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), reached in Geneva in November 2013, specified a 6-month timetable “to reach a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution.” For reasons never fully explained, the 6-month clock started on January 20, 2014, and was later extended by another four months.

After “scrambling” to meet the new deadline of November 24, 2014, negotiators moved the goalposts again, seeking a “framework agreement” by March 1, 2015, and a final deal, resolving all technical issues, by July 1, 2015. They missed the March date by two days, despite “a marathon attempt” that included all-night sessions of “intense negotiations.” (Even then, the “framework” was not signed, and the two sides didn’t agree on what it actually said.)

Negotiators missed the last self-imposed deadline too, by two weeks, eventually signing the JCPOA—again after “marathon talks”—in Vienna on July 14. This last delay was especially painful for the American team, as it doubled the time for Congress to review and vote on approval or disapproval of the agreement, from 30 days to 60, according to the Corker-Cardin Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

During all of these extensions and delays and postponements, Iran enjoyed “temporary” sanctions relief, including suspension of restrictions on its civilian aviation, precious metals, and automotive industry. Most critically, the U.S. and European Union relaxed the sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and released frozen oil revenues, providing a lifeline to the struggling Iranian economy. After shrinking for two years under the sanctions pressure, Iran’s economy started to expand again in July 2014. Unemployment dropped, the value of the currency tripled, and foreign direct investment was up by 160% in 2014 over its low point in 2009. Iranian crude oil exports increased, surging well above the JPOA’s limit and providing a both much-needed economic improvement and a political boost to regime. So Iran felt little pressure to conclude a deal, while the U.S. and its allies had a sense of urgency. This timing asymmetry, coupled with the P5+1’s eagerness for a deal and unwillingness to walk away, strengthened the Iranians’ hand.

Was a better deal achievable? Even with 20/20 hindsight, we’ll probably never know. But even if that hypothetical more-favorable agreement might not have been feasible, the unwillingness to test it, giving away negotiating leverage, and an artificial self-imposed urgency lead us to suspect that this was not, in fact, the best possible deal.


Have I missed any key points? As always, I look forward to your feedback: Thoughts, additions, and rebuttals are welcome and actively solicited! Please leave your notes in the Comments section below, or send them directly to me.

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