Paul Pillar

Chicken in Vienna

With the negotiations on Iran's nuclear program in its final days (and seven days of overtime having just been announced), a broken leg is not the most serious impairment to Secretary of State Kerry's ability to conclude an agreement that will ensure Iran remains a non-nuclear-weapons state and advances U.S. interests in other respects. The most serious impairment is the incessant urging by domestic critics that the U.S. administration should not show any of the flexibility that may be necessary to close the last few inches of the remaining gap between the parties and to avoid having the whole negotiating enterprise suffer a crashing failure.

The negotiations taking place in Vienna right now may be viewed as what game theorists call a game of chicken—named originally after the street competition in which daredevil hot-rodders speed toward each other to see who would swerve first. The logical structure of the game theorists' chicken game is one in which a player who does not cooperate scores some sort of points over a player who does (i.e., who swerves, or concedes), but in which non-cooperation by both players results in the worst possible outcome for both (a crash, or a lack of agreement).

The vast majority of the distance that needed to be traveled to reach an agreement ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon has already been traveled. Most of that distance had been traveled by November 2013 with completion of the preliminary agreement known as the Joint Plan of Action, in which the United States and its negotiating partners attained the most important restrictions on, and monitoring of, the Iranian program. Most of the remaining distance was traveled by this April with the Lausanne framework agreement. What remains to be traveled is a very small part of the trip.

But what has already been accomplished will be lost if that last small gap is not closed. Indefinitely extending the Joint Plan of Action would be dandy for our side, but there is no reason to expect the Iranians to go along with that idea, given that they received only minimal sanctions relief in the JPOA in return for giving up most of what there was to give up regarding their nuclear program. The JPOA has value to them as a way station toward a comprehensive agreement. And what was agreed to at Lausanne is formally only an outline that has no force until and unless the rest of the words get filled in.

The decision analysis that should be applied to the current negotiations involves weighing whatever advantage is to be had from getting our preference rather than the Iranians' preference on the remaining few points where brackets have to be removed and words still have to be written, against the risk of losing the whole arrangement—which would mean no enhanced inspections even of Iran's declared nuclear sites, no restrictions on the amount or level of uranium enrichment, no restrictions on plutonium-producing reactors, and all the rest. Given what has already been accomplished in the negotiations, the possible reward from inflexibility is small, and the risk quite large. If a game theorist were to draw the customary matrix, with numbers representing the utility functions of each player, to describe today's bargaining situation, the box that represents “no agreement” would have large negative numbers while the numbers in the other boxes would show relatively little difference from one another.

And don't believe that failure to conclude the current negotiations would leave us some way of getting out of the “no agreement” box. The notion of being able to get a “better deal” by ripping up what already has been negotiated is just as much of a fantasy as it always has been—all the more so given that the Iranian foreign minister has his own recalcitrants and red-line-drawers to deal with.

Those urging the Obama administration to be inflexible continue their urging notwithstanding these realities. For example, Gary Samore, president of the anti-agreement pressure group United Against a Nuclear Iran, says “Don’t make any more concessions to get a deal in early July. They need a deal more than we do.” That advice approaches the U.S. diplomatic task as if we were in some kind of contest to see who blinks first, rather than formulating a negotiating position based on a prudent weighing of risks and rewards. And Senator Bob Corker tells the president he should consider “walking away” from a deal—as if such a decision would be as innocuous as a walk. Instead it would be a costly crash, as with the reckless street-racers playing chicken.

Because many of those who have talked loudest about not making more concessions really don't want any agreement with Iran, their personal utility functions look a lot different. For them, the “no agreement” box has positive rather than negative numbers. But we should not let their agendas distort the nature of the risks and rewards at stake for the United States and for the cause of nuclear nonproliferation. We should hope they do not succeed in pressuring the administration into making the United States and nonproliferation big losers in the final stages of the game being played out in Vienna.