Monday, November 25, 2013

Success in negotiations

Over the weekend, negotiators in Geneva achieved what many are calling an historic agreement with the Iranian government. What was achieved is an interim agreement, effective for the next six months, that essentially freezes Iranian nuclear development and allows for the lifting of some international sanctions against Iran. During that time, the parties will attempt to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement that satisfies the world community's demand that Iran be precluded from developing nuclear weapons while moving toward normalized economic and political relations with Iran.

Before the ink is even dry on this agreement, we are hearing a wide variety of reactions, most of which are predictable. Some are already heralding the agreement as President Obama's greatest foreign policy achievement, even though it seems a bit early to make that judgment. Others are condemning the agreement as a threat to peace. It's not just that the critics have not taken the time to study the agreement and give a thoughtful, measured response, or that more time is needed to determine whether this agreement will be successful or not. The real problem is that most critics are judging this agreement by the wrong criteria. They are complaining that it does not do enough to restrain or dismantle Iran's nuclear program; or that it relies too much on trust of an untrustworthy adversary; or that it lets our guard down by dismantling the sanctions program without getting enough in return. All of these criticisms measure the agreement against a hypothetical, better agreement. The correct way to judge the fairness of an agreement, however, is not to compare it to the deal we wish we could make, but instead to compare it to the alternative of no agreement. Are we better off with this agreement, or without any agreement? That is the relevant question.

Criticizing an agreement because it does not achieve as much as one side hoped it would achieve is usually a pointless exercise. What critics are doing in that situation is simply attacking the negotiating skills of our own side's representatives, or arguing that we could have achieved more by force or sanctions than by diplomacy. Now it could be true that our side could have made a better deal (though I haven't seen anyone make a convincing case for that yet). But that is a judgment best left to historians. Right now we are stuck the agreement that our chosen representatives actually made. We have no reason to think they did not gain as much as was possible at the negotiating table. In any event, it is bad form to second guess them. Even worse is to suggest that we could have obtained better terms through some other means besides diplomacy. That is also a useless thing to tell our diplomatic team on their way back from the table. Why did we send them off to Geneva in the first place?

If there are valid criticisms of the deal to be made, they must be based on showing that we would be better off with no deal at all with Iran, than with an imperfect deal. But without any deal, the Iranians could engage in whatever nuclear development they want. Without a deal the Iranian government is treated as an outlaw nation instead of being given incentives to abide by international norms. With a deal, on the other hand, Iran is being forced to make some changes, albeit not as many as the critics would want. With a deal, Iran will be hindered for at least some period of time from developing nuclear weapons. By these criteria, most people would agree that we are better off with a deal than without a deal.

Parties in conflict should not compare what they have gained through negotiations with what they wish they had, or what they think they should have in an ideal world. They should only compare what they have gained with what they started out with. By that measure, it seems that diplomacy has yielded success thus far.

 Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

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