Originally Published 2015-05-12 00:00:00 Published on May 12, 2015
If Iran becomes a nuclear state down the road, it will be in the first place due to Iran's intransigence; but it will also be the result of over a decade of poor negotiating by the international community.
Bargaining with Iran should have been much better

Probably the most common response to the criticism that has been leveled at the P5+1-Iran negotiations over the past year is: "but what’s the alternative?" For the Obama administration, this of course is a rhetorical question. The administration believes that the critics have no real alternative, which leads them to the inevitable conclusion that these critics are opposed to any kind of negotiation, and what they really want is war. Indeed, over the past year critics of the negotiations have been marginalized as ’hawks’ and ’warmongers’, and sometimes brushed aside as incompetents, lacking knowledge and analytic skills to properly assess what is going on. But surely this is not a serious response to the very serious criticism that has been voiced from many quarters, and continues to be voiced following the April 2nd development in Lausanne. In fact, this response is looking more and more like a very lame excuse for a poorly handled negotiation.

There is an alternative to the current negotiation that is neither war nor Iran racing to the bomb: doing a better job at the bargaining table. Indeed, the true answer to the question of what could be done differently goes to strategies of bargaining with a difficult and intransigent partner. Basic bargaining skills could have engendered a more effective negotiation with Iran, not only over the past year, but since negotiations were first embraced as a strategy for dealing with Iran’s violations of its safeguard agreements back in 2003.

The key factor in this particular negotiation - which is a game of compellence for the P5+1, because the goals of the two sides are incompatible - is pressure on Iran, in order to buy leverage at the negotiating table. Until 2012, leverage was in very short supply for the P5+1; only then were good and biting sanctions finally imposed on Iran, and with them the chance to gain some benefits at the negotiating table. But to have the desired effect on Iran’s policy, imposing sanctions (as difficult as that has proven to be) is only the first of two essential steps. Once in place, the negotiators have to use the leverage gained thereby with acumen at the bargaining table. To bargain effectively means to communicate your resolve to the other party, while secure in the knowledge that you have something that the other party wants very much (in this case that would be sanctions relief), and that you won’t give it up unless you get what you want. It requires getting the message across to the other side that even if they leave the table, you know they will come back because they cannot get sanctions relief without cooperating on a deal.

But if you are afraid to use your leverage because the other side might balk, leave the table or otherwise lash out, then you are basically squandering the effect of sanctions, and they won’t help you to get what you want in the bargaining process. Using leverage effectively means dictating the terms of the negotiation to the other party - what topics will be on the table, what will under no circumstances be compromised, and where there is some room for flexibility. But if the other side says they refuse to discuss an issue that you think should be on the table, and you agree not to discuss it because "the other side won’t agree to negotiate if it’s there", obviously you are thereby strengthening the leverage of the other party, not your own. Overall, communicating to the other side that you are eager for a deal, and therefore willing to make concessions even if the other side remains intransigent, has the effect of emptying your leverage of any meaning or ability to impact the other side. By doing so you teach the other side that if they hold fast for long enough, you will lower your demands even further, because you will not give up on the negotiation.

These are the kind of mistakes that the P5+1 negotiators have been making over and over again, especially since negotiations began in earnest in late 2013. The US in particular has been communicating an eagerness for a deal, and has been making more and more concessions to Iran, rather than Iran - the NPT violator - making concessions to the P5+1. When Iranian leaders have lashed out at the US and Israel, the Americans kept silent, never pushing back for fear of upsetting the delicate diplomatic initiative. When Iran’s president and supreme leader have proclaimed all that Iran will not compromise on, it is not taken seriously by the US, but rather chalked up to "internal politics". Every indication of (partial) progress that is loudly celebrated by the Obama administration and proclaimed an "historic" achievement, later becomes a liability at the bargaining table because it ties the US even tighter to the diplomatic process, making it less and less likely that it will ever back down. When the US projects the sense that it will never risk losing the precious gains it made, this also empties of meaning any threat of military consequences for lack of seriousness on Iran’s part, which could have been an additional effective lever of pressure on Iran in the negotiations.

Negotiations with Iran over the nuclear issue are too important to fail because of the mistakes that are being made at the bargaining table. The arrogance of those that would advocate that every step they have taken in this negotiation is the best step that could have been taken is unwarranted. Negotiators should be cognizant enough of the gravity of the situation to take their critics with utmost seriousness and try to incorporate as many insights as possible in order to improve the results of their negotiations. A failed negotiation is in some cases reversible; nuclear capabilities are not. If Iran becomes a nuclear state down the road it will be in the first place due to Iran’s intransigence; but it will also be the result of over a decade of poor negotiating by the international community. With so many experts pointing out the problems and pitfalls along the way, no one will be able to make a convincing case that "there was no alternative." There was, and there still is.

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(Emily Landau is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute of National Security Studies, Tel Aviv)

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