The Perils of Backseat Negotiating

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By Christopher R. Hill – DENVER – The agreement reached in Geneva between Iran and the five permanent members
of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (the so-called P5+1) is an
excellent start to the difficult process of dissuading Iran from attempting to
become the world’s newest nuclear-weapons power. It is too early to praise the deal
as an historic achievement, but it is also far too soon to peg it as a failure, or
to suggest that better negotiators somehow could have done a better job of wrangling
concessions from their Iranian counterparts.

Negotiating across a table is a lot different from talking on a television news
program. As with many efforts of its kind, the agreement needs to be compared to
alternative outcomes, starting with the real possibility of not concluding any deal
at all. Critics of the agreement ought to be pressed to explain how more sanctions
could achieve better results than they have shown thus far.

The agreement will be hotly debated in large measure because it comes against a
backdrop of unprecedented partisan tension in Washington. The breakdown of
bipartisan foreign policy in the United States has rarely been so complete and
seemingly irreparable as it is today. The traditional dove-versus-hawk debate is now
crosshatched by an isolationism-versus-engagement cleavage, all of which is overlain
with a deep mistrust of all government institutions.

Moreover, because it comes at a time of exceptional tumult in the Middle East, the
agreement will have to survive another barrage of criticism. Putting aside the
Israeli government’s well-known skepticism about Iran’s sincerity and intentions, to
suggest that Saudi Arabia’s opposition simply has to do with geopolitical
competition with nearby Iran is to overlook one of the main factors driving the
current crises in the Middle East.

The sectarian dimensions of today’s Middle East, with its active Sunni-Shia fault
line, are more pronounced than they have been in centuries. Whether Iraq’s switch
from a Sunni-minority regime to Shia-majority rule is a cause or a symptom of the
current regional churn, it is clear that the sectarian divide has underpinned the
crises in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and parts of Saudi Arabia.

There is certainly a special animus to Saudi-Iran relations, particularly given the
Saudi view that Iran is instigating Shia restiveness in the region. The nuclear
issue is just one of many Saudi concerns, and it pales in comparison to the
sectarian struggles unfolding in the Arab Middle East.

Minutes after the announcement of the agreement, many critics condemned it, arguing
that if sanctions had worked to bring the Iranians to the table, surely sanctions
would have soon brought them to their knees. But the argument that sanctions would
work better than negotiations flies in the face of the facts: despite stronger
sanctions, Iran has dramatically increased its uranium-enrichment capacity.

Moreover, it is an argument that is often made by those who have never supported any
diplomatic process, and who have little experience with the give and take of
international negotiations. In their view, any concession in the course of a
negotiation is weakness. It is instructive to consider whether those who suggest
that a country like Iran would capitulate over the freezing of some bank accounts
would themselves give in to the sort of coercion posed by sanctions.

Another frequent criticism of the Geneva talks is that they resemble the
negotiations with North Korea over that country’s nuclear program. In fact, the two
negotiations followed entirely different structures. The five countries negotiating
with North Korea agreed to take steps of their own, including provision of specific
amounts of fuel oil, in exchange for steps taken by the North.

When the North Koreans failed to take such steps, primarily in the form of refusing
to agree to a verification regime, its interlocutors stopped providing fuel oil.
There was one instance of frozen bank accounts holding $23 million that involved
applying the US Patriot Act against a bank in Macau that did not even operate in the
US market. North Korea eventually regained its money, but this so-called “sanctions
relief” was in no way equivalent to the billions in question in Geneva.

In late 2008, after months of effort, the US, joined by other countries in the
process, ended the negotiations with the North Koreans, owing to the inability to
secure adequate verification that they were fulfilling their commitments. The North
was prepared to allow verification of the shutdown and decommissioning of its
graphite-moderated reactor (responsible for producing enough plutonium for several
bombs), but was not prepared to allow inspections of undeclared sites. Suspicions
that these sites could be involved in enrichment activities proved to be well

What is on offer to Iran is not just relief from economic sanctions; Iran is being
offered membership in the international community – an outcome that some Iranian
leaders (though obviously not all) clearly want. Bilateral talks between the US and
Iran should continue in some form, in order to lay out what kind of future Iran can
expect when it has abandoned its quest for nuclear weapons and ended its support for
terrorist organizations.

None of this will be easy, but the Geneva agreement was a good start. Rather than
second-guessing the negotiators – or the very possibility of successful negotiations
– we all need to understand the stakes a little better.

Christopher R. Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, is
Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

Project Syndicate,

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