Both Sides Need to Concede to Get an Iranian Nuclear Deal

Paul Pillar

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.

An indication of how far the Washington discourse has strayed from basic understanding of Diplomacy 101 is an opinion piece by Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who not only says we should “stop offering Iran nuclear concessions” but also calls for “toughening the U.S. negotiating stance on key issues such as Iran’s past weaponization research, monitoring and verification, Iran’s missile arsenal and the duration of an agreement.” This is rather like saying that if a store is unable to sell a product priced at $10, the way to get people to buy it is to increase the price to $15. Singh tries to make sense of this bizarre recommendation by arguing that such U.S. obdurateness could “secure the congressional support required to empower the president to credibly offer sanctions relief.” But any Iranian of even average IQ who has been following the handling of this issue in Washington knows that anything that has “Congress,” “sanctions” and “Iran” in the same sentence is all about killing a deal, not fine-tuning the terms; no admiration for the administration for “toughening” its position would deter those determined to kill any agreement with Iran. And that is not even to mention the further deal-killing effect of U.S. negotiators backtracking on progress the negotiations have already made.

For the Obama administration to get an agreement that will advance U.S. interests—never mind what will be the subsequent efforts of Congressional opponents to shoot it down, no matter what the terms—the United States will need to make additional concessions at the negotiating table. It cannot just contemplate how reasonable is whatever offer it has on the table now, however sincere is its perception of reasonableness, and wait for the Iranians to close all of the remaining gap. Those in Washington who genuinely support the diplomatic process will have to understand this need and defend the administration's flexibility in fulfilling it.

To do this, the administration and its supporters will need to overcome two principal hang-ups, regardless of whether the hang-ups are having a negotiation-retarding effect because administration policy-makers have internalized the hang-ups or because policy-makers are self-deterred by anticipating how certain terms would be received in Washington once an agreement is announced. One of the hang-ups is the fixation on “breakout” times, which is misplaced because the distinctions in question would make no practical difference for U.S. security or the risk of there ever being an Iranian nuclear weapon. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani made a speech a month ago in which he said that Iranian ideals are not bound to centrifuges. We ought to realize that American ideals are not bound to them either.

The other hang-up concerns how sanctions have come to be treated in Washington as if they were an end in themselves—as if keeping sanctions in place against regimes we don't like is of some intrinsic value to the United States. It isn't; sanctions are only a tool—in this case, a tool to help get an agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. If sanctions get in the way of achieving such an agreement rather than facilitating the agreement, they are useless. Or rather, they are worse than useless, because of the costs they impose on the United States.

If this diplomatic process fails it will not be the first time that the American exceptionalist, redline-bound, asymmetric approach to international negotiation will have worked against U.S. interests, but it will be a particularly unfortunate and unnecessary instance of it doing so.                

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

The Next Great War: America vs. China?

The Buzz

The Sino-American relationship may be in decent shape. It's other countries we should be worried about.

Last year, the centenary of World War I's outbreak, was a bonanza for history fans. The prior benchmark The Guns of August, published 50 years ago, was comfortably eclipsed by several authors with access to new archives.

Still, World War I continues to vex, even as we unearth deeper clues to its causes. One of 2014's more thoughtful books – actually a collection of essays from some seriously heavyweight contributors – The Next Great War?, directly tackles the question at the back of everyone's mind today: what parallels between now and then?

The causes of World War I were so numerous and profound that “they are undetermining individually and overdetermining collectively.”

In other words, no single factor caused the war, but together all were irresistible: entangling alliances of approximate parity, a “security dilemma” of mutual fear, “the cult of the offensive,” “militaries gone rogue,” nationalistic domestic coalitions, the belief in “pre-emptive mobilization” (first strike advantage), a failure to understand the defense-dominance of new technologies, the “indivisibility problem” (eg. control of Turkish Straits), domestic paralysis and lack of legitimacy, “bounded rationality” (imperfect information), complacency, fatalism, credibility, mediocre statesmanship and outright lunacy.

In sum, World War I was caused by the “tyranny of small things...the accumulation of contingencies.”

Do these factors exist today? Overall the book concludes that “there are many more differences than similarities. Arguing that China in 2014 is Germany in 1914 is neither precise nor helpful.” It goes on to say that “It is inaccurate to describe the prevailing climate in either country as bellicose or complacent...the US has more time to manage its relationship with a rising power than Britain did a century ago, and China has more incentive for restraint.” The book's editors conclude hopefully that “the US-China relationship looks easier to manage than the multipolar system that led to 1914.”

But the multipolarity angle is an historical argument worth exploring.

The world in 1914 certainly wasn't a German-British duopoly. The Anglosphere tends to over-emphasize this rivalry. We rarely hear, say, French or Turkish accounts of the war, though they were as deeply affected. It is true that Britain and Germany represented “anchors” of two alliance systems, but their direct antagonism had probably peaked already. As late as July 1914, Royal Navy ships were paying friendly visits to Kiel. By then Germany was more worried about Russia: “The problem that the German General Staff and many among the civilian leaders thought truly dangerous was the growth of Russian power. If Germany was Britain's naval nightmare, Russia was Germany's army nightmare.” It was the very absence of a clear hegemonic order that created the multipolar mess the Great War became. Between Pax Britannica and Pax Americana, as Lamont Colucci has recently noted “the medium and lesser powers attempted to use the great powers for their own reasons.”

And the willingness of smaller nations to fight was striking. In his impressive concluding essay, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd cites predecessor Sir George Reid defiantly addressing the German Reichstag in 1912: “Peace is our supreme aim, it is the one thing we must have even if we have to fight for it.”

Rudd, who has warned of “a maritime Balkans” in Asia, notes that Australia would go on to suffer a 64% casualty rate in World War I, the highest of any nation. The Balkans was the “tinderbox” in which several dysfunctional, aggrieved, proud little states eventually set all Europe ablaze. As always “the costs of war are knowable only in retrospect” but even Russia, resurgent and feared, knew how internally destructive war would be. The famous Durnovo memorandum makes this clear. The editor of The Next Great War?, Richard Rosencrance, argues 1914 was the “worst of all possible worlds” where great powers “committed their support to a particular ally (Serbia and Austria) whose role in the war would be less than decisive.”

The reason why the Balkan morass quickly coalesced into a conflict between two great alliances is easily understood by the logic of “my enemy's enemy is my friend.” Bipolarity “solves” an equilibrium problem. Some argue it is actually stabilizing. The US has built a network of Asian allies, any of whom could act irresponsibly. The World War I parallel would become more compelling if China itself purposefully cultivated its own alliances: North Korea? Pakistan? Iran? Russia? “Usually hegemonic great powers have the greatest number of allied responsibilities and the most extensive periphery of interests. It is hardest for them to back down,” Rosencrance notes.

Thus an American scholar of European history puzzles about contemporary Asia: “The US has played a great power role in the western Pacific since at least 1898. Indeed its unwillingness to cede to the Japanese exclusive control over the region helped to preserve the Chinese polity in the early 1940s. Now these ambitions appear inappropriate to the Chinese.” How hard will they push? Another contributor remarks: “imputations of encirclement, naval expenditures, propaganda, self-consuming is hard to imagine that China's leaders are not sensitive to Germany's history.” Lee Kwan Yew's prediction, that “not until China has overtaken the US in the development and application of technology can they envisage confronting the US militarily,” is less than reassuring.

Kevin Rudd notes “the perception of some in the US policy establishment that China is simply buying time, taking the strategic temperature down at a declaratory level, while operationally continuing its long-term project of maximizing its national power, against that day in the future when China is able to begin to act unilaterally.”

Though a multilateralist, even he sees the difficulty of a grand bargain. “A new concert of power would seem to require more cooperation and even constitutional change than China or the US is ready to accept. Beijing has insisted on dealing separately with each regional counter-claimant to East Asian real estate, ruling out a more general settlement. This means the US must provide backup for each ally.”

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Watch Out America: North Korea's Military Practices Sinking US Aircraft Carriers

The Buzz

North Korea’s Navy and Air Force recently conducted a drill simulating “mercilessly striking” U.S. Aircraft Carriers using “guerrillas-style combat,” according to official media outlets.

On Saturday the Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim Jong-un had recent personally overseen a recent joint naval and air force drill that practiced sinking U.S. Aircraft carriers.

“The drill was conducted with main emphasis on rounding off the war method of mounting surprise air and naval attacks on the U.S. imperialists' carrier which sailed into the operation waters in the southern half to make military strikes at strategic targets of the DPRK,’ the report said, using North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

(Recommended: 5 North Korean Weapons South Korea Should Fear)

According to KCNA, the drills began with North Korea’s fighter aircraft “bolding breaking” through the carrier strike group’s “dense network of anti-air defense” to launch close-range “zooming attacks” on the carrier itself. After these sorties, “combined submarine units made torpedo attacks in succession from ambushed waters on the enemy forces hit hard by air strikes.”

After the drills were complete, Kim Jong-un directed the armed forces to intensify their efforts against U.S. carrier strike groups, because if the military “steadily studies and rounds off the war methods of mercilessly striking the enemy's backbone by the guerrillas-style combat method… it is quite possible to send even a carrier to the bottom of the sea.”

Kim also told the military not to fear America and its allies’ superior technology because “the fight with the enemies is not only the confrontation between arms and equipment and physical strength but the confrontation of mental power and ideology of people.” Kim argued that North Korea holds advantages over its adversaries in these latter qualities.

(Recommended: The 5 Most Dangerous Nuclear Threats No One Is Talking About)

It is not the first time that North Korea has discussed sinking a U.S. aircraft carrier. In October 2013, the U.S., South Korea and Japan held trilateral naval drills off the Korean Peninsula that included the USS George Washington nuclear aircraft carrier, along with supported weaponry like guided-missile ships, anti-submarine helicopters and early warning aircraft. In response, North Korea released a statement via KCNA that threatened to mount a counterattack that would “bury” the “provocateurs in the sea together with the carrier.” During the drills North Korea’s general staff said deploying the aircraft carrier for the drills was “very dangerous, reckless behavior,” and claimed it was armed “with at least 100 nuclear bombs aboard, many guided-missile destroyers, cruisers, submarines and escort warships, etc.”

Similarly, when the USS George Washington participated in drills in South Korea in July of last year, North Korea claimed charged the U.S. with “reckless hostility and confrontation," although it didn’t specifically threaten to sink the carrier itself. KIm Jong-un did visit frontline troops during the drill and directed them to send their enemies “to the bottom of the sea, to the last man.”

It is unclear if the North Korean military has previously practiced sinking U.S. aircraft carriers.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Chris Cavagnaro.

(Recommended: Sorry, America: China Can't Solve Your North Korea Problem)​

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia-Pacific

China Beware: India Tests Nuclear Missile That Can Reach Beijing

The Buzz

India has successfully tested a nuclear-capable long range ballistic missile that can reach all major Chinese cities.

As expected, India conducted the first canister test launch of its Agni-V nuclear-capable ballistic missile on Wheeler's Island in the Bay of Bengal. The test was a complete success, the government said in a press release.

“India’s ICBM Agni 5 was successfully test fired from a canister today 31 Jan 2015 at 0809 hrs.” the statement said. “The missile hit the designated target point accurately, meeting all mission objectives.”

The Agni-V is a three-stage solid-fueled intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) with a range of about 5,000 km while carrying a 1.1 ton payload. When inducted into India’s Strategic Forces Command, it will give India the ability to threaten all of China’s major cities with nuclear weapons, a capability that Delhi currently lacks. China has long boasted ICBMs capable of reaching all of India.

This was the third test of the Agni-V following ones in 2012 and 2013. However, the test on Saturday was the first time that India tested the Agni-V from a mobile launcher mounted on top of a truck. A canister launched missile has greatly survivability and can be launched much more quickly than ones at a fixed launch site.

As the press release explained:

“The earlier two flights of Agni 5… were in open configuration and had already proved the missile. Today’s launch from a canister integrated with a mobile sophisticated launcher, was in its deliverable configuration that enables launch of the missile with a very short preparation time as compared to an open launch. It also has advantages of higher reliability, longer shelf life, less maintenance and enhanced mobility.”

Avinash Chander, the outgoing chief of India’s defense technology agency, the Defence Research and Development Organisation, which designed the Agni-V, underscored the importance of the canister launch. “This is a momentous occasion. It is India’s first ever ICBM launch from a canister and is a giant leap in country’s deterrence capability.” Chander, who left office following the test on Saturday, said that the launch was the “best farewell gift.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also praised the successful launch on Twitter. “Successful test-firing of Agni V from a canister makes the missile a prized asset for our forces. I salute our scientists for their efforts,” the Indian leader tweeted.

Indian media outlets reported that DRDO will conduct a few more tests of the Agni-V before it will be officially inducted into India’s Strategic Forces Command.

Image: DRDO


Are Israel and Hezbollah About to Go to War?

Paul Pillar

An exchange of lethal attacks during the past fortnight between Israel and Hezbollah has raised the risk that escalation of fighting between these old antagonists might be added to the intractable mess that Syria already is. Israel and Hezbollah have a long history of tit-for-tat reprisals, with the most conspicuous examples involving Hezbollah titting in response to Israeli tatting. The two major car bomb attacks by Hezbollah in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s, for example, were each a direct response to deadly actions that Israel had taken back in the Middle East a month or six weeks earlier. The bombing of the Israeli embassy in 1992 followed an Israeli airstrike that killed Hezbollah leader Abbas Moussawi and his five-year-old son. The attack in 1994 on a Jewish community center—recently back in the news as the Argentine government tries to dance around the mysterious death of a prosecutor who had been investigating how the original investigation of the attack had been handled—was a response to two Israeli actions in rapid succession. One was Israel's kidnapping of Mustafa Ali Dirani, leader of the Hezbollah-associated Amal movement. The other—possibly facilitated by information the Israelis extracted from Dirani—was an aerial attack on a Hezbollah facility that killed dozens of the group's members.

The pattern resembles some of the tit-for-tat that also has taken place between Israel and Hezbollah's ally Iran. Some not-very-successful attacks against Israeli diplomatic personnel a couple of years ago were clearly intended as retaliation—right down to mimicking the method of attack—for the assassinations of several Iranian scientists.

The most recent Israel-Hezbollah exchange began with an Israeli attack from the air on cars traveling within Syria, close to but wholly beyond the armistice line that separates the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from the rest of Syria. A half dozen people were killed, including the 25-year-old son of former Hezbollah security chief Imad Mughniyah (who himself was killed several years ago by a car bomb in Syria—an attack that many assume also to have been the work of Israel). Hezbollah's retaliation came this week with a carefully executed attack on an Israeli convoy in the disputed Shebaa Farms area, reportedly killing two Israeli soldiers and wounding several others. Hezbollah made it abundantly clear that its action was retaliation for the previous week's attack by Israel, even giving the unit that carried out the attack the claim name of the Quneitra Martyrs Brigade, a reference to the location of the Israeli attack.

Even when neither party in this kind of vicious dyad wants escalation, it sometimes nevertheless occurs. The war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, which neither side can convincingly claim to have won, can be seen in this way. Several dynamics are at work. There is a tendency for propaganda and public belief to get confused as it is forgotten how the other side's action was a response to something one's own side did. There is a natural tendency to want to get in the last lick. And even if one tries to match rather than to exceed what the other side did, it sometimes is hard to calibrate very precisely the impact of an operation in which guns and bombs are going off.

Hezbollah clearly does not want any escalation from the most recent exchange. Although it bases its legitimacy in Lebanon in large part on the declared mission of defending Lebanese against Israel, it currently has its hands full with other matters in Syria. In fact, Hezbollah has sent a message to Israel explicitly saying it does not want to escalate. The group did a rather good job of calibrating its operation to keep the casualties on a similar scale as what the Israelis had inflicted, foregoing an opportunity it had for more deadly follow-up to the initial attack on the convoy.

Hezbollah also signaled its desire for restraint by selecting Shebaa Farms as the location for its reprisal. Shebaa Farms has the odd distinction of being a piece of land that Israel says was part of Syria, while Syria usually says it is part of Lebanon (although Syria did control it prior to 1967). When Israel evacuated its troops from southern Lebanon in 2000, it used its version of claims to ownership to keep Shebaa Farms and annex it (an annexation that no one else recognizes) along with all of the Golan Heights it also captured from Syria in the 1967 war. The importance of this for the current situation is that Hezbollah chose not to conduct an operation on land that any non-Israeli considers to be part of Israel, even though the Israeli attack for which this was a reprisal was conducted entirely outside Israel.

Whether this episode does escalate into something bigger thus is in the hands of Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. Right now it is not clear what that government will do. The timing of the Israeli attack that started it all is odd; the most plausible explanation is the one offered by retired Israeli general Yoav Galant, currently an opposition candidate for the Knesset, who said that the attack and its timing were a function of domestic Israeli politics. The attack was intended, under this explanation, to bolster the chances of Netanyahu and the Israeli Right, who currently are facing a stiffer than usual challenge from center-left parties, by exploiting the usual way in which the Right profits from fears and resentments centered on foreign threats. If this was the purpose, some in the Israeli government may not consider that purpose to have been fully served by letting Hezbollah get in the last word, and there will be a desire to strike again and to escalate. But the election is still several weeks away, and starting something big now may leave enough time for it to evolve, as past Israeli military adventures in Lebanon have, into a conflict costly and unpopular enough to be more of a political liability than an asset. Of course, Israeli escalation also would be dimly viewed by the world community, but Netanyahu and the Israeli Right have given ample evidence that they just don't care what the world community thinks about such things.                              

TopicsSecurity RegionsIsrael