Marc Lynch

Spoiler Alert

Spoiler Alert

The Geneva P5+1 interim agreement with Iran is already the most important Middle Eastern diplomatic gambit since the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel and the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel. The "Joint Plan of Action" produced a monumental, symbolic breakthrough after years of frustrating diplomatic gridlock, and laid out a tantalizing glimpse of a very different Middle East. It has rapidly normalized relationships and practices which had very recently seemed unthinkable. A successful final status agreement on the Iranian nuclear program would be a monumental diplomatic accomplishment. But like Camp David and Oslo, Geneva is only an interim agreement which leaves a vast array of core issues unresolved — and offers a million opportunities for failure.

Camp David is the best-case analogy for Geneva, Oslo the worst-case analogy (and Munich is, of course, the black hole of analogies, a billion bad ideas gone supernova and sucking in everything that comes within its malevolent gravitational pull). Camp David suggests that implementation can be achieved against considerable odds, and in doing so galvanize radical strategic change in unpredictable directions. But Oslo suggests how easily Geneva can fail, given the opportunities it creates for spoilers to intervene and for implementation problems to sap its transformative power. That’s especially troubling since Geneva’s bargaining framework resembles Oslo’s more than anything else.

But it is a measure of Camp David’s success that few now recall that Egypt was for decades Israel’s most militarily dangerous foe and the strategic linchpin of a pan-Arab order. Most policy analysts in the mid-1960s (and, most likely, in the mid-1970s) would have considered the idea of an enduring, decades-long Egyptian-Israeli security partnership to be outrageously implausible. Camp David shows that a seemingly unthinkable strategic reorientation of leading rivals is entirely possible, if not likely, and that once achieved can be normalized remarkably quickly.

The talks held at Camp David in September 1978 broke through the morass of years of grinding negotiations following the 1973 war that focused on the terms of disengagement. The window for such talks opened with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s shocking decision to address Israel’s Knesset. Like today, both leaders saw an overwhelming strategic interest in reaching an agreement, even as they faced significant domestic and regional opposition. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin understood that a credible peace with Egypt would do more than anything else to guarantee Israeli security. Sadat, meanwhile, was impatient to consolidate his switch into the American-led alliance structure anchored in the Gulf and Israel. And yet it still took six months to sign a peace treaty and several more years for Israel to evacuate the Sinai.

The core deal reached between Egypt and Israel, and guaranteed by the United States, proved extremely robust. Egypt fully integrated into the U.S. alliance system, with its expulsion from the Arab League lasting only a few years, before its Gulf-facilitated rehabilitation. Israel has not had to seriously worry about a military threat from Egypt since the treaty, and has generally enjoyed active Egyptian assistance in policing the Sinai, blockading Gaza, and coordinating regional security policies. That’s not a bad contribution to Israel’s long-term security from a Democratic U.S. president viewed with suspicion in Tel Aviv and savaged as a foreign policy naïf — if not disaster — by a hawkish foreign policy establishment.

On the other hand, Egypt’s removal from the strategic equation had unpredictable effects. Cairo proved completely unable to deliver the rest of the Arab world, especially after the provisions for a Palestinian homeland rapidly faded into the ether. Saddam Hussein’s bid to fill the void of Arab leadership may have contributed to his decision to invade Iran in 1980, while Egypt’s temporary expulsion from the Arab order heralded the long-term shift of power towards the Gulf. And many believe that the peace treaty with Egypt emboldened Israel to embark on its disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Camp David, finally, remained a cold peace, solid at the level of high politics and security cooperation but never transforming Arab political identities or discourse.

The Geneva process, however, looks more like Oslo than like Camp David. The Joint Plan of Action is a six-month interim agreement designed to allow each side to show good faith and build confidence and momentum towards a much more difficult final status agreement. This is precisely the logic of the Oslo process, which was equally built upon the same logic of small interim agreements paving the way towards a much more difficult final status agreement. Few need to be reminded of how badly that logic fared. Provocative actions and rhetoric on both sides destroyed the trust which cooperation was meant to build. Israeli settlement activity continued, Palestinian terrorist attacks escalated, deadlines were missed, and publics grew disenchanted. The spectacular failure of President Bill Clinton’s efforts to reach a final agreement at the 2000 Camp David summit was only the coup de grâce.

The Oslo experience should inform how the participants approach the Iran negotiations. The politics surrounding the Geneva framework agreement create an environment exceptionally rich with potential flashpoints for undermining trust. Even the parties to the talks, who presumably genuinely want them to succeed, will face tremendous political pressure to exaggerate their accomplishments in the talks and denigrate the gains on the other side. The more that Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani’s people feel the need to prove that they are "winning" the talks, the more likely for those talks to break down.

Meanwhile, opponents of the deal have been given a fairly clear guidebook to what moves might wreck an agreement. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has already stated that additional American sanctions would render the interim agreement void, a red line which tells congressional spoilers exactly what they need to do. And hardliners in the Iranian security establishment will not find it difficult to create confrontational moments in the inspections process — to say nothing of the possibilities for mischief in Syria, Iraq, or Lebanon. Israel and the Gulf states, which have made no secret of their skepticism, will also have little difficult finding ways to spark crises or raise new problems should the talks be proceeding too well.

Then there are the psychological legacies of decades of conflict and mistrust. Each missed deadline, contested interpretation, or reckless statement to the media will provide fodder for those seeking evidence of the other side’s bad faith. Each side will tend to see these mistakes on their own side as obvious political gambits, unreflective of their own pure intentions. Violations, or even just unseemly comments, on the other side will be taken as true signals of malevolent intent.

In other words, this six-month period will give ample opportunity for spoilers on all sid
es to undermine trust, sabotage the process, and set the final status talks up for devastating failure. Both Washington and Tehran need to be keenly attuned to this logic, and focus on maintaining forward momentum, defanging potential spoilers, and avoiding negative spirals of mistrust and frustrated hope. Both sides need to demonstrate that they can and will deliver on the letter and spirit of their agreements. Focusing on short-term bargaining advantage or domestic political posturing will likely rapidly derail hopes of building trust through cooperation. Public diplomacy aimed at building support for the process and heading off the predictable flashpoints should be given as much attention as the negotiations themselves. We should forget Munich, learn the lessons of Oslo, and hold on to Camp David as proof that success is possible and worth pursuing.