May 13, 2014

How To Strike A Win-Win Deal With Iran

The United States and its allies are now preparing for the home stretch in their nuclear negotiations with Iran. And, as they approach the finish line, it will be critical for insightful voices to help the Obama administration parse through difficult issues that remain on the negotiating table.


The United States and its allies are now preparing for the home stretch in their nuclear negotiations with Iran. And, as they approach the finish line, it will be critical for insightful voices to help the Obama administration parse through difficult issues that remain on the negotiating table.

Kenneth Pollack – a top Clinton administration official and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution – recently took to the pages of the New York Times to do exactly that. He correctly notes in his op-ed that a comprehensive deal verifiably ensuring the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program will be enormously beneficial.

Ken is our friend and one of the sharpest minds working in Washington today. That’s why we hope to use his New York Times op-ed as a launching pad for a broader dialogue about what the details of a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran should look like.

He rightly points out three critical issues that will make or break our negotiations with Iran: inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities; creating mechanisms to ensure Iran doesn’t cheat; and the duration of a final deal. However, we believe the contours recommended in his op-ed would risk creating such an imbalance in the deal that it would incentivize the Iranians to cheat, and by that turn a diplomatic win into an embarrassing fiasco.

On the issue of intrusive inspections, we agree: For a mutually-agreed upon time period, any final nuclear deal with Iran will have to include one of the most comprehensive inspections regime in history.

But pushing for the type of inspections we had in Iraq – a constant, indefinite and undefined International Atomic Energy Agency presence – doesn’t pass the feasibility litmus test and contradicts what has already been agreed upon in November: Once the final deal expires and Iran has successfully alleviated the international community’s concerns about its program, Tehran will become a normal Non-proliferation Treaty state, meaning there will be no limitations imposed on its nuclear program beyond what all other NPT states have to accept.

Indefinitely holding Iran to standards that apply to no other NPT signatories is a recipe for diplomatic failure because it violates the November agreement.

Our agreement with Ken also carries over to the issue of re-imposing sanctions if Iran is caught cheating. In a final deal, he recommends a snap-back mechanism predicated on sanctions waivers rather than lifting sanctions. But there are two problems with this approach.

First, in regards to the waivers, it begs the question: Would the U.S. agree to concrete, irreversible steps on sanctions relief if Iran only offered reversible measures on its nuclear program? Of course not. In fact, the principle of proportionality and reciprocity agreed upon during the May 2012 round of talks in Istanbul established that reversible Western concessions would have to be exchanged for reversible Iranian measures and vice versa. To extract irreversible concessions, similarly irreversible measures have to be offered. Since sanctions waivers are fundamentally reversible, as Ken acknowledges, Iran would only have to offer similarly reversible concessions in turn. If the two sides only exchange such reversible concessions, the deal will be weak and fragile.

For instance, instead of ratifying the Additional Protocol – a pivotal transparency instrument – Tehran would only agree to implement it in a time limited fashion, subject to continuous renewal (just like the waivers). This is tantamount to adding a self-destruction mechanism to the deal. Such a deal is harder to sell, and even harder to keep. To be durable, the deal must have strong elements of permanence to it, which requires irreversible measures.

Second, the motivation for snap-back sanctions is to disincentivize Iran from cheating. But it is more effective to combine these negative measures with positive measures that incentivize Iran not to cheat. The U.S. must have a plan for potential cheating in Iran, but it must also give the Iranians a reason to feel that the deal is a win so they won’t want to cheat. Pursuing a “winner takes all” approach – where Iran front-ends concessions, and the U.S. ambiguously reciprocates in the distant future – will either fail immediately or fail to endure.

That approach didn’t work in the past, and it won’t work today. Neither President Obama nor President Rouhani can sell that kind of deal at home. The biggest reason why nuclear negotiations have progressed is that Washington bought into a principle long advocated in Europe – and Tehran: reciprocity.

Ken’s final recommendation about the duration of a final nuclear deal is where our positions begin to diverge. At face value, pushing for a deal that lasts for 20, 30 or 50 years may appear attractive. Who wouldn’t want to have their cake and eat it too? But Iran’s perspective is equally determinant in these negotiations. It’s true: We don’t know who or what will come after Rouhani’s presidency ends. Also true: Iran doesn’t know who or what will come after President Obama leaves the White House.

Iran will likely reject a deal that lasts beyond 10 to 15 years, not just because of the mistrust that exists between the two sides, but also because of the legitimate uncertainty that exists about the intentions and orientations of future leaders in Washington and Tehran.

To go as far as Ken has, however, and push for 20, 30 or 50 years in addition to not lifting sanctions and going beyond the Additional Protocol is simply unrealistic. Such a deal – if Iran ever were to accept it – would last much shorter than the Treaty of Versailles, and potentially carry similar negative repercussions.

Instead of creating space for the White House to negotiate a deal, the recommendations in his op-ed narrow the parameters of the debate. A successful deal is sustainable, and gives both sides reason to abide by it and see value in it. But if the deal is too far skewed towards Washington’s short-term needs, it will incentivize decision-makers in Iran to cheat.

President Obama needs the flexibility and authority to craft a balanced, win-win deal with Iran where both sides feel that they are better off.

Overplaying our hand risks squandering the very valuable diplomatic advances that have been achieved. Still, whatever our differences with Ken, his op-ed has launched a much-needed discussion on the critical components of a comprehensive nuclear deal. We look forward to continuing this dialogue.

This article originally appeared in CNN.

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