Blogs: Paul Pillar

The Iran Nuclear Talks: Show Us Your Brackets

Paul Pillar

In any negotiation one can never be sure until the end how much either side is temporarily holding out for something more than what they will eventually accept. Some optimistic comments have been made about the nuclear negotiations with Iran, to the effect that we should not pay too much attention to indications of stalemate because both sides probably are saving their biggest remaining concessions until the last minute. Maybe, but there still seems to be good reason to worry that we may blow the best opportunity in a decade to get off a fruitless course of confrontation with Iran, to secure the declared objective of Iran never getting a nuclear weapon, and to unshackle U.S. diplomacy to deal better with other regional problems.

We will blow the opportunity if our side sticks stubbornly to the notion that limiting Iran's uranium enrichment program to X number of centrifuges or Y number of separative work units is so important it is worth killing an agreement altogether—in which case, of course, there would be no limits at all on Iran's enrichment program. It is not so important, and the fixation on “breakout” is badly misguided because any possible response to such an Iranian move would not depend on the sort of “breakout times” being talked about and because the fixation ignores the whole motivations and incentives side of an agreement.

One should hope that enough good sense will prevail to realize this, and that enough political fortitude will prevail to resist the demands of those who have been battling good sense on this issue all along. But with the current target date for completion of the negotiations just a few weeks away, it may be time for the authorities on both sides of this negotiation who realize the advantages of reaching an agreement to try something different.

So far not many details of what has been tentatively agreed to have leaked out. That generally is a good thing in any negotiation, and a sign of seriousness and good will on both sides. Keeping what is on the negotiating table confidential means neither side has shifted entirely to a mode of publicly assigning blame for failure, and the confidentiality is consistent with the principle that nothing is finally agreed to until everything is agreed to—a principle that facilitates flexibility in making offers and exploring the bargaining space. But with the danger of failure looming, it might be time to try something different.

According to the meager indications that have leaked out, the negotiators already have arrived at common language for the great majority of provisions in an agreement. Differences remain on just a few sticking points such as capacity for uranium enrichment and the length of time Iran would be subject to the one-of-a-kind restrictions that the agreement would entail. The parties should consider making public the draft agreement as it now stands, with the continuing disagreements indicated through bracketed language.

Doing so would be a recognition that in many ways the toughest political contest is being waged not between governments in the negotiating room but instead between each government and anti-agreement hardliners on its own side. Making public the draft bracketed agreement might help to overcome in several ways the hardliner opposition.

For one thing, exposing the draft agreement would underscore how far the parties have come, how close they are to inking a final deal, and how much of a shame it would be to throw the effort away through stubbornness that causes the talks to collapse. Making a bracketed text public also would place the burden of proof on those who would contend that something like the difference between X centrifuges and Z centrifuges is of deal-killing import—when in fact it is not.

Letting us all see the terms of a draft deal might help us get away from a silly mantra that has been so drummed into the discourse by opponents of any agreement with Iran that even those who support the negotiations sometimes voice it. The mantra is “no deal is better than a bad deal.” The mantra is a fatuous tautology. Whether a particular deal is good or bad depends on comparing it with no deal. Seeing the terms of an actual draft agreement would enable all of us to make that comparison. And what could then be demanded of the hardliners on both sides is: explain exactly why no agreement at all supposedly would be better than the terms you see before you—even with the bracketed language that the other side wants. Hardliners on our side would have to explain why the absence of agreement—meaning no restrictions on uranium enrichment, no enhanced inspection and monitoring, and nothing else in the way of special requirements being placed on Iran—would be better than allowing Z (rather than X) number of centrifuges.

Negotiating practice being what it is, such a public revelation probably won't happen unless the target date next month is reached without a deal being struck. But by then it may be too late.

 

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