Paul Pillar

Both Sides Need to Concede to Get an Iranian Nuclear Deal

Early in Diplomacy 101, one learns how international negotiation consists of give-and-take between two or more states, with each side yielding on some points in order to reap the benefit of the other side doing its own yielding. Also early in the course, one learns how this sort of mutual bargaining, by leading to mutually beneficial agreements, is an important tool for any state in advancing its own national interests. It is for similar reasons that in domestic affairs, the right to be sued is a fundamental individual right along with the right to sue; it represents the ability to advance one's interests by making concessions and enforceable commitments to others.

As basic as all this is, Americans seem to have a hard time understanding it. A one-way exceptionalist asymmetry infects much discussion in this country about international diplomacy and negotiation. The process is viewed not as mutual give-and-take but instead as the other side giving and the U.S. side taking. Hence issues under negotiation get discussed in terms of the United States imposing “redlines” and of how pressure can be exerted to get the other side to capitulate to U.S. demands. This perspective in turn gets exploited by anyone who does not want an agreement at all on whatever issue is at hand.

These patterns have been present in abundance in American discussion of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Almost the entire discussion is about Iran making more concessions—what it would take to elicit such concessions, whether Iran can ever be expected to make such concessions, etc. Almost nothing is said about the need for the United States and its negotiating partners to make additional concessions, too. Instead there is, even among those who genuinely support reaching an agreement, an assumption that the United States has put a “reasonable” deal on the table and it is up to Iran to accept it.

One repeatedly hears some version of the now-trite refrain, “it all depends on whether the Iranian supreme leader wants a deal.” Well, he certainly does want a deal in the sense that he otherwise never would have allowed the negotiations to go as far as they already have, and Iran to make as many commitments as it already has. But there are some possible deals that he and other Iranian leaders would be willing to accept as being in Iran's interests, and other deals that they would not accept. The supreme leader surely does not believe that any deal is better than no deal. That gets to another refrain that has become trite through repetition in American discussion. If we don't think that considering any deal to be better than no deal should be the U.S. position—and indeed it should not be—we ought to realize it will not be the Iranian position either.

Also among the familiar refrains: political woe besets any U.S. leader who gives evidence of “wanting a deal more” than Iran. No such inter-country comparison of utility or motivation is actually possible, just as inter-personal comparisons of utility are not possible. But even if such a comparison were possible, it would not be the proper standard for assessing whether any particular agreement were in U.S. interests. An agreement would be in U.S. interests if it produces military, economic, or political conditions that are more congenial to those interests than what the absence of the agreement would produce—regardless of how much or how little someone else might “want” the agreement.

For those intent on making cross-country comparisons, here's a little background to what is currently being negotiated with Iran. The Iranians are being called upon to subject their nuclear program to restrictions, and to intrusive inspections, substantially greater than what any other country is subjected to. And they are being called on to do that to get even partial relief from economically debilitating sanctions that no other party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is subjected to. In the preliminary agreement that is currently in force, the United States and its partners got the main restrictions and inspection requirements they wanted—so much so that indefinitely continuing the preliminary agreement (if that were somehow politically possible) would suit U.S. nonproliferation objectives just fine. The Iranians got what was, by any quantitative measure, relief from only a small fraction of the nuclear-related sanctions that have been placed on them. In short, it is undeniable that Iran has made most of the concessions in this negotiation so far. And if either side has more reason to “want” to push the negotiations ahead promptly to completion, given the nature of the interim deal it clearly is Iran that has reason to want it more.

For anyone keeping score of such things, the U.S. and its partners could henceforth make significant concessions to close a final deal and still be well ahead on the scorecard of concessions elicited from the other side. But assessment of any agreement should not be based on any such scorecard anyway. Again, it instead should be a matter of comparing the conditions produced by an agreement with the conditions under no agreement.

Another often-overlooked consideration is that a good agreement would be one that gives both sides reason to observe it, rather than being seen by either side as a forced imposition to be violated or discarded at the first opportunity. Give-and-take, not one-sided pressure, is the way to get such a durable agreement.