Shadow Government

Getting to Mission Accomplished: More Negotiations With Iran

The apparent “deal” with Iran to keep negotiating has always been the most likely outcome of the negotiations. Even if the Obama administration secured a deal that would let them have a brief “Mission Accomplished” photo op in Switzerland, the truth is that they would still have to continue negotiating the fine print. And, more ...

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The apparent “deal” with Iran to keep negotiating has always been the most likely outcome of the negotiations. Even if the Obama administration secured a deal that would let them have a brief “Mission Accomplished” photo op in Switzerland, the truth is that they would still have to continue negotiating the fine print.

And, more importantly, even with a “deal” that had all the fine print spelled out, the haggling would continue. By now, it is clear to everyone that Iran is not ready to take the big strategic decision to make an irreversible, clean break with its nuclear ambitions. At best, Iran is willing to live with some favorable terms that gets them out from under economic sanctions and buys time for nuclear development on a slower pace — essentially kicking the can down the road. The haggling over Iran’s nuclear future will continue, signing ceremony or no signing ceremony.

But even though Iran’s intransigence bears most of the blame for the current state of affairs, the Obama administration is in a predicament of its own devising. For months now it is clear that the Obama administration has no plan for after the diplomatic deal is struck, nor any plan for an alternative to a diplomatic deal. The only thing the Obama administration has a plan for is negotiating and then, when that fails, to keep negotiating. As Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman put it, “If we are making progress toward the finish line, then we should keep going.” (This is rather like a modern version of Zeno’s Paradox; as long as “progress” is defined/measured as “continuing to negotiate,” then negotiations should continue ad infinitum, for we will always be getting closer and never actually arrive).

To be fair, the plan for negotiating and then to keep negotiating has been pursued with a creativity and doggedness that under other circumstances might be called Churchillian. Obama has not been daunted by critics who have pointed out myriad flaws with the current strategy, a rapidly collapsing Middle East order that calls into question the fundamental premises of the strategy, nor anything else that might have been debilitating for other leaders.

Yet one must wonder whether U.S. interests could be better served if the Obama administration would develop more robust contingency plans for two very likely scenarios. Perhaps it is not too late to do so now.

Scenario 1: Iran refuses to make the concessions needed for a good deal and so the United States only confronts a “bad deal.” In that case, Obama’s public position is that he will opt for “no deal,” but it is increasingly hard to believe the administration on this point because the president and his advisors have repeatedly bad-mouthed every alternative but continued negotiations. Indeed, the administration has accused those Republicans and Democrats in Congress who have thought seriously about such a scenario of trying to sabotage negotiations. If Obama really believes that preparing for the possibility of negotiation failure is tantamount to sabotaging negotiations, then we may be doomed to a bad deal. But I continue to hope that responsible voices within the administration recognize that the best way to get a good deal is for Iranians to believe that we have better plans for “no deal” than they do. During this next crucial phase, I hope those responsible voices are able to drive administration policy forward towards developing such plans.

Scenario 2: Iran and the United States sign a deal that the Obama administration can tout as the “least worst option.” This would put the Iranian nuclear issue in a temporary lock-box (subject to the haggling I mention above), but then leave on the table every other issue that has bedeviled U.S.-Iranian relations for the past several decades. Some of those issues are deeply painful, such as Iran’s extensive involvement in killing Americans and Iran’s continued support for global terrorist organizations. Other issues have reached a boiling point, such as Iran’s ambitions for regional hegemony. What they all have in common is that so far the Administration has not presented a coherent strategy for addressing them (and no one has asked the administration to clarify the matter). The only plan appears to be the hope or assumption that the nuclear deal will open the door to a grand realignment.

If we are going to continue negotiating, lets do so with a more coherent and comprehensive negotiating strategy — one that takes into consideration the full range of likely outcomes. A plan that only works under the rosiest of circumstances is a bad plan on any issue. On Middle East issues, it seems crazy bad.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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