You Can’t Always Get What You Want

And four other rules out of the nuclear negotiator's playbook.

Getty Imgaes
Getty Imgaes

As representatives from Iran and the group of world powers known as the P5+1 attempt to build on the interim nuclear agreement this week in Vienna, few are holding their breath for an overnight success. Earlier this week, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei proclaimed that "the nuclear negotiations will lead nowhere," while President Barack Obama has put the chances of success at 50 percent. But if we can’t yet say what the Vienna talks will yield, we can at least spell out what the negotiators are up against. Having been around Middle East negotiations, particularly failed ones, for more than a few years, here are five rules out of the negotiator’s handbook that everyone should bear in mind.

Rule 1: Forget predictions

Anyone who thinks they can predict the outcome of these talks or even a rough directional arc for the months ahead, ought to lie down until the feeling passes. This isn’t chapter 12 in the ongoing story of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. We’re in terra incognita when it comes to the talks in Vienna and the U.S.-Iranian relationship.

Few outside of the negotiating room predicted how quickly the interim agreement would be reached, let alone that most of the tough negotiating would be done not in a P5+1 plenary, but in the back channel.

The fact is that the players, issues, and entire notion of direct engagement between Washington and Iran are new. This by no means raises the odds of an agreement. What it does do, however, is lower the odds that anyone will accurately predict the outcome of the talks.

Rule 2: Listen to the Rolling Stones

You can’t always get what you want. That said, negotiations between states on things that matter — new or old — do conform to certain laws of gravity that are pretty constraining. Both sides will need to feel that what they have won is more important than what they have lost, and both will need to be able to sell the agreement back home without triggering criticism that they have been hoodwinked by the other side. In other words, the central question in any negotiation is this: Can we reach an agreement that gets me what I want, and if not, can I settle for what I really need?

But this isn’t just any negotiation. Whether wants and needs can be balanced, let alone reconciled, on the excruciatingly difficult range of issues under negotiation — including the number of centrifuges; amount of nuclear infrastructure; level of enrichment, transparency, and sanctions relief; and assurances regarding the non-military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program — is simply not known.

Rule 3: Time isn’t always an ally

Urgency is critically important to the success of any negotiation — and it’s usually generated by the presence of both pain and gain. What has persuaded Iran and the United States to come this far is, first and foremost, pain or potential pain. Had there been no sanctions, Iran would not be at the negotiating table. And had the Obama administration not been worried about an Israeli strike against Iran — or having to conduct one itself — there would have been no secret channel.

But pain can only take you so far. Recent events have made the pain less immediate. Minimal sanctions relief, coupled with the certainty of no Israeli or American military strike for at least the next six months and perhaps well into 2015, has slowed down everyone’s clock. Real, durable gains, moreover, are not possible without an agreement — either a comprehensive one or some truly meaningful second interim accord — meaning that time may well have become an enemy in these negotiations. 

So whose side is time on? Assuming the mullahs aren’t cheating and Iran’s nuclear program is truly paused — both still troubling assumptions — the answer is not yet clear. Several months from now, it may be possible to answer that question. Will the talks be serious and productive with the essential trade-offs for a final deal in view? Or will additional pain — in the form of new sanctions, the possibility of a complete breakdown of negotiations or serious talk of military strikes — be required to generate more urgency? Only time will tell.

Rule 4: Process is king, for now

Negotiators love negotiations. Particularly when the stakes are high, their work is deemed critical and they get to be involved in an historic enterprise. When this is the case — as it most definitely is now — the need to keep the process alive is pretty compelling.

The goal in Vienna isn’t an interim accord. It’s a comprehensive agreement that would settle the decades-long nuclear standoff for good. As a result, the negotiating teams — and particularly the Iranian team — face more severe constraints. Indeed, the Iranian negotiating team’s margin for maneuver is drastically limited by the reality that key decisions will be taken by the Supreme Leader and his advisers.

Against this backdrop, "process" is just another way of describing a problem that we don’t yet have a solution for. Both the Iranian and American negotiators understand this — and the consequences that would follow from failure. What that tells me is that both sides will go to great lengths to ensure that the process remains credible and does not break down.

If there is no serious progress toward an accord, there may well come a point when the talks can no longer be defended. But we are a long way from that point, assuming everyone behaves rationally. Still, think back-burner for now. One of the purposes of these negotiations is to buy enough time to come up with solutions that don’t exist yet. 

Rule 5: Back channels are important

We know now how critical Deputy Secretary of State William Burns’ lead effort was in producing the interim agreement. So it strains credulity to believe that a comprehensive agreement can be negotiated in the cacophonous P5+1 negotiating format currently being used. 

The secret U.S. effort to secure an interim agreement was politically doable because it was only an interim accord, but given that the stakes have been raised, the other world powers are unlikely to let Washington run the show again. But how does an agreement this complex get done outside of a streamlined, sustained, high-level channel that can test assumptions and offer proposals without politics and intra-P5+1 tick tock getting in the way?

After their experience with the interim accord, the Israelis might be happier if the French were in the room, given their penchant for being tougher on Iran. But it seems difficult to imagine a comprehensive agreement coming together without a smaller and more discreet channel.

The bottom line

Right now, a comprehensive agreement acceptable to Iran and the P5+1 seems implausible, if not impossible. The gaps between the parties on core issues are large, mistrust runs deep, and the politics on both sides is cruel and unforgiving.

There’s little political space in Washington for the mullahs and little in Tehran’s official circles for America. Moreover, Iran’s behavior in the region, particularly in Syria, will continue to make it difficult for world powers to give Tehran the benefit of the doubt. 

That said, both Iran and United States are becoming heavily invested in a negotiation process where the costs of failure could be significant — additional sanctions for sure and very likely war. Neither Washington nor Tehran — and certainly not their negotiation teams — have a stake in getting to either one any time soon. In the words of the inestimable John Limbert, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran until 2010, "Diplomacy is like remodeling a house: it’s probably going to be more complicated, take longer, and cost more than you think."

Whatever else happens in the ongoing saga of the U.S.-Iranian negotiations, you can take that one to the bank.

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