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Critiquing a Critique of Obama’s Approach to Iran

The authors of an open letter published by the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy most likely knew that their statement was intended to set goals for the negotiations that are unattainable.

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Last week, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) posted a “statement” on the Iranian nuclear negotiations. The statement attracted attention because some of the parties appeared to be finding fault with the Obama administration despite past service in that administration.

One of these luminaries, Robert Einhorn, subsequently wrote for the Brookings Institute that the WINEP statement had been misinterpreted. It was intended to be of help to the administration by reminding them of their original negotiating objectives.

If the administration reckons “it’s the thought that counts,” they will surely be grateful to the WINEP group for this well-intentioned and considerate prompt. It would be wrong, however, to reproach the administration for ingratitude if it turns out that they would have preferred not to be reminded of their original objectives, especially not in so public a way.

The point is that most negotiators embark on a negotiation with maximalist objectives. These they progressively adjust in light of contact with the other party (“one engages and then one sees,” Napoleon used to say). Very few negotiations produce a result without some adjusting of position and compromise.

As an Englishman lucky to have had a chance to follow the US political debate on Iran for the last four years, I have been struck by how many US politicians consider “compromise” a term of abuse. Where I come from, politics, both domestic and international, is “the art of compromise” and the “art of the possible.” And provided both parties to a negotiation make roughly equal compromises, they are to be praised for their wisdom and ingenuity, not condemned for their weakness.

A Good Agreement is in the Making

In the Iranian case the Obama administration never had a hope of attaining ALL its original negotiating objectives. Iran is not a prostrate foe on which a Carthaginian peace can be imposed through a parody of a negotiation.

That, though, need be no cause for concern. The Iranian negotiators have known from the outset that they are going to have to concede across a broad front to obtain the concessions they need. Iran appears prepared to accept severe restrictions on its capacity to produce enriched uranium for a long period, the re-design of a reactor to reduce to a minimum its potential to produce plutonium, and a degree of international surveillance of its nuclear activities that will render inconceivable any reversal of a 2003 decision to abandon any pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Consequently, this has all the makings of an agreement that allows the international community to acquire confidence in the peaceful character of Iran’s nuclear program and to resolve the last of the concerns aroused by Iran’s pursuit of a “policy of concealment” between 1985 and 2003.

Additionally, the agreement can offer a breathing space during which the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran can become better acquainted, can learn to discard some of the prejudices that have conditioned their views of each other since 1979, and can cooperate abroad where and when their interests coincide.

What Does the WINEP Group Want?

One aspect of the WINEP statement suggests that they want the administration to treat Iran in 2015 like Iraq in 1991.

Iraq in 1991 was defenseless and friendless. Saddam Hussein had no option but to concede the dismantlement of his fledgling nuclear program and to grant international inspectors the right to roam at will through his territory and interview whom they pleased.

Iran in 2015 is neither friendless nor defenseless. They are in a much stronger position to insist on proportionality, on reasonable limits to the access rights of international inspectors. Even so, for the next decade or longer Iran will be monitored more intrusively than any other party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Another aspect of the statement suggests a burning wish to uncover every detail of whatever research into nuclear weapons Iran may have undertaken prior to 2004. This is unreasonable:

  • Much of the evidence for such work comes from human intelligence sources and so is not intrinsically reliable as a basis for interrogating Iranian officials.
  • There are grounds to think that the research stopped in 2003, in which case it is not a current threat. In this instance the future matters much more than the past.
  • Several NPT Non-Nuclear Weapon States are thought to have researched into nuclear weapons, albeit before they adhered to the Treaty, and have not been forced to make disclosures. Curiosity does not justify treating Iran differently.

Of course it would be wise of Iran to find some way of reassuring its negotiating partners that all such research has been terminated and is now considered haram. But a nuclear agreement should not be held hostage to a humiliating confession from Iran or to the granting of Iraqi-style investigation rights to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

To be frank, it is hard to believe that last week Einhorn, Dennis Ross, and Gary Samore, or any of the other signatories, really thought that they were doing the administration a good turn. It looks more likely that the statement was intended to complicate the administration’s task by setting goals for the negotiation that the group knew to be unattainable. This is reminiscent of one of the tactics of opponents of a nuclear deal: describing what a “good” agreement must include to open the way to condemning a lesser agreement as a “bad” agreement.

Also reminiscent of those tactics is the group’s urging that the administration ignore negotiating deadlines in preference to sealing a “bad” deal. But at least that passage of the statement is amusing: the group assumes, implicitly, that Iran will happily grant the US administration all the time it needs to sanction Iran into conceding the draconian terms that the group is recommending!

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Bret Stephens is a columnist for the New York Times who previously worked at the Wall Street Journal and the neoconservative flagship magazine Commentary.


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Former attorney general Edwin Meese, regarded as one of President Ronald Reagan’s closest advisers despite persistent allegations of influence peddling and bribery during his tenure, has been a consummate campaigner on behalf of rightist U.S. foreign and domestic policies. He currently serves as a distinguished visiting fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution.


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