In the months before the latest round of P5+1 negotiations
in Almaty, many analysts had been urging the United States to adopt what became
known as a "more for more" approach. That is, offer Iran more relief from
sanctions in exchange for more nuclear concessions by Tehran.
It is now evident that Washington instead adopted a "more
for less" strategy. More relief from sanctions was indeed offered (according to
reports -- the U.S. terms have not been made available for public scrutiny),
but in exchange for fewer, not more, concessions by Iran. In particular, the
P5+1 has dropped its previous demand that Iran shutter its second enrichment
facility at Fordow.
Even discounting the fact that the P5+1 appears to be
negotiating with itself -- Iran did not respond to the P5+1's last offer and by
all accounts made no formal response to the new offer -- the group's approach
to negotiating is flawed. To understand why, one must consider the underlying
dynamics of negotiations (for a longer version of this analysis, see this
article I co-authored with Prof. Jim Sebenius in the latest issue of International Security).
Success in any negotiation depends on the existence of a
"zone of possible agreement" (ZOPA) -- in other words, a range of possible
outcomes which both sides judge to be better than not making a deal at all. To
use a simple example, if the seller of a house will accept a minimum of
$200,000, and a prospective buyer will offer at most $250,000, the ZOPA is
between those two figures -- $200,000 to $250,000. The existence of a ZOPA does
not guarantee that a deal will be made -- there are still plenty of obstacles
to reaching agreement -- but it does mean that a deal is at least possible. If
there is no ZOPA, then even the most skilled negotiator will be unable to
broker a deal.
In the P5+1 negotiations, analysts have frequently sought to
blame the long stalemate between the parties on mistrust, miscommunication, or
other tactical matters. But in fact the underlying cause of the talks' failure
to produce an outcome has more likely been that no ZOPA was present -- the
least Iran would accept was a far more expansive nuclear program than the U.S.
and its allies could tolerate, rendering the discussions futile.
Faced with the absence of a ZOPA, there are three ways to
create one. First, by exerting pressure that imposes upon the targeted side an
additional cost associated with failing to reach an agreement. To return to the
home-buying example above, if the seller is moving and has another house under contract
for which he requires the proceeds from the sale of his current home, the costs
of failing to make a deal rise. This should cause him to reconsider his bottom
line, and perhaps accept a less generous offer than he would have previously. While
the stakes in a nuclear negotiation are much higher, the principle behind
sanctions and other forms of pressure are the same -- they raise the cost of
failing to make a deal and incentivize the targeted side to reconsider its negotiating
The second way a ZOPA can be created is through incentives
or deal sweeteners. Just as home-sellers might offer to help with financing or
even to throw in a new car or a vacation to motivate prospective buyers, the
P5+1 has offered Iran a range of incentives to motivate it to compromise, from
assistance with civil nuclear power to science and technology cooperation. In
principle, such incentives improve the value of an agreement and thus pry open
a ZOPA that much more.
The P5+1 has tried both of these avenues for creating a
ZOPA, though undoubtedly has recently focused far more on pressure than on
incentives. These efforts, over the course of many years, have nevertheless
foundered, likely because the Iranian regime values a potential nuclear weapons
capability -- and the prestige and security that it could bring -- far more
than even the oil exports and economic opportunity it has sacrificed to pursue
it, and certainly more than Western incentives that Iranian officials have
previously characterized as a pittance.
There is, however, a third way to open up a ZOPA in
negotiations -- to change one's own bottom line. The temptation to do so will be familiar to
anyone who has been involved in a negotiation, during which the impetus to make
a deal for its own sake can override previous calculations of one's interests. This
appears to have been the P5+1's approach in the Almaty round -- faced with
Iranian intransigence, the group decided to accept what it had previously
declared unacceptable, namely the Fordow enrichment facility. The existence of
this facility had been secret until it was revealed with much fanfare by
President Obama, French President Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Brown in
a 2009 press conference, at which they described Fordow as "a direct challenge
to the basic compact at the center of the non-proliferation regime."
Sometimes a negotiating party revises his bottom line
because of pressures or incentives served up by the other side. Sometimes it is
done unilaterally in pursuit of a deal or as a result of reconsidering whether
one can really stomach the consequences of failing to reach a deal, which may
now be the case with the P5+1.
There are good reasons, however, to avoid unilateral changes
in one's bottom line. First and foremost, there were presumably good reasons
for staking out that bottom line in the first place. This is certainly true
regarding the P5+1's previous insistence that Fordow be
dismantled. This facility, more than any other element of Iran's nuclear
program, offers Iran a clear path to a nuclear weapons capability, as it is
buried deep underground and hardened against aerial attack. Allowing Iran to
maintain centrifuge cascades there -- even under IAEA seal -- means that they
retain the option to make a nuclear weapon.
Second, negotiations are about perceptions, and continual,
incremental shifts in one's bottom line can convey to the party across the
table that your "true" bottom line has yet to be reached. In other words, Iran
may be excused for thinking that if only they hold out longer against international
pressure the demand that they suspend enrichment at Fordow or that they cap
enrichment at 20 percent, may fall by the wayside just as the demands for
shuttering Fordow, suspending enrichment altogether, and refraining from
operating centrifuges have in the past.
Iran may thus misperceive the size and scope of a ZOPA, and
may be willing to wait a long time to secure the best possible outcome, having
taken eight years to extract the Fordow concession from Washington. In effect,
this means undoing whatever progress was achieved through sanctions and
incentives in opening a ZOPA by conveying a (hopefully) false impression of the
P5+1's own flexibility and bottom line.
Most ominously for the P5+1, it is possible that no ZOPA
will ever be opened in the Iran nuclear negotiations because the Iranian regime
cannot brook the idea of any compromise with the United States, enmity or
"resistance" toward which was a guiding principle of the regime's founding
ideology. If this is the case, Tehran will simply pocket the concessions
offered by the P5+1, and Fordow will be lent legitimacy just as the October
2009 "TRR deal" lent legitimacy to Iran's low-level uranium enrichment
activities. In this case, the U.S. and its allies may find themselves in the
unenviable position of advocating a military strike on facilities that they
have now declared no longer outside the bounds of international law, but
tolerable under the right conditions.
STANISLAV FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images