Unshackling US-Iran Policy from Distrust

The neocons still hope that by torpedoing a deal restricting Iran’s nuclear program that they can open a route to “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” one of Israel’s longstanding priorities. But such a course could make a bad situation in the Middle East worse, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

In any negotiation one can never be sure until the end how much either side is temporarily holding out for something more than what they will eventually accept. Some optimistic comments have been made about the nuclear negotiations with Iran, to the effect that we should not pay too much attention to indications of stalemate because both sides probably are saving their biggest remaining concessions until the last minute.

Maybe, but there still seems to be good reason to worry that we may blow the best opportunity in a decade to get off a fruitless course of confrontation with Iran, to secure the declared objective of Iran never getting a nuclear weapon, and to unshackle U.S. diplomacy to deal better with other regional problems.

An Iranian man holding a photo of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Iranian government photo)

An Iranian man holding a photo of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Iranian government photo)

We will blow the opportunity if our side sticks stubbornly to the notion that limiting Iran’s uranium enrichment program to X number of centrifuges or Y number of separative work units is so important it is worth killing an agreement altogether, in which case, of course, there would be no limits at all on Iran’s enrichment program.

It is not so important, and the fixation on “breakout” is badly misguided because any possible response to such an Iranian move would not depend on the sort of “breakout times” being talked about and because the fixation ignores the whole motivations and incentives side of an agreement.

One should hope that enough good sense will prevail to realize this, and that enough political fortitude will prevail to resist the demands of those who have been battling good sense on this issue all along. But with the current target date for completion of the negotiations just a few weeks away, it may be time for the authorities on both sides of this negotiation who realize the advantages of reaching an agreement to try something different.

So far not many details of what has been tentatively agreed to have leaked out. That generally is a good thing in any negotiation, and a sign of seriousness and good will on both sides. Keeping what is on the negotiating table confidential means neither side has shifted entirely to a mode of publicly assigning blame for failure, and the confidentiality is consistent with the principle that nothing is finally agreed to until everything is agreed to, a principle that facilitates flexibility in making offers and exploring the bargaining space. But with the danger of failure looming, it might be time to try something different.

According to the meager indications that have leaked out, the negotiators already have arrived at common language for the great majority of provisions in an agreement. Differences remain on just a few sticking points such as capacity for uranium enrichment and the length of time Iran would be subject to the one-of-a-kind restrictions that the agreement would entail. The parties should consider making public the draft agreement as it now stands, with the continuing disagreements indicated through bracketed language.

Doing so would be a recognition that in many ways the toughest political contest is being waged not between governments in the negotiating room but instead between each government and anti-agreement hardliners on its own side. Making public the draft bracketed agreement might help to overcome in several ways the hardliner opposition.

For one thing, exposing the draft agreement would underscore how far the parties have come, how close they are to inking a final deal, and how much of a shame it would be to throw the effort away through stubbornness that causes the talks to collapse. Making a bracketed text public also would place the burden of proof on those who would contend that something like the difference between X centrifuges and Z centrifuges is of deal-killing import, when in fact it is not.

Letting us all see the terms of a draft deal might help us get away from a silly mantra that has been so drummed into the discourse by opponents of any agreement with Iran that even those who support the negotiations sometimes voice it. The mantra is “no deal is better than a bad deal.” The mantra is a fatuous tautology.

Whether a particular deal is good or bad depends on comparing it with no deal. Seeing the terms of an actual draft agreement would enable all of us to make that comparison. And what could then be demanded of the hardliners on both sides is: explain exactly why no agreement at all supposedly would be better than the terms you see before you, even with the bracketed language that the other side wants.

Hardliners on our side would have to explain why the absence of agreement, meaning no restrictions on uranium enrichment, no enhanced inspection and monitoring, and nothing else in the way of special requirements being placed on Iran, would be better than allowing Z (rather than X) number of centrifuges.

Negotiating practice being what it is, such a public revelation probably won’t happen unless the target date next month is reached without a deal being struck. But by then it may be too late.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

7 comments for “Unshackling US-Iran Policy from Distrust

  1. Itoldyouso
    October 22, 2014 at 04:18

    “the fixation on “breakout” is badly misguided”.
    This is the most egregious issue that runs the last two remaining issue.
    1) Number Centrifuges
    2) Amount of Uranium Enrichment produced and Inventoried by Iran.
    Whatever those numbers are agreed upon, should not be just for the sake of numbers, it should be for the sake of showing good will from Iranian side, ad showing technically that Iran could not ‘Rush’ into “breakout times” as West and more specifically, the Neocons and Israeli Firster claim.
    Six months, one year, or two years of time to have enough Enriched Uranium would not constituted a “breakout times”. The Fifth Fleet of the United States Navy in Bahrain is only an HOUR away from any sites in Iran, and the US does not need 6 months to figure out to bomb nuclear facilities of Iran’s ‘Rushing’ towards the bomb, in a “breakout times”.
    So as you see the actual intention is not Iran without nuclear military program, it is the Iraqi-sition of Iran by the same group of Neocons and Israeli Firster.

  2. Joe Tedesky
    October 12, 2014 at 01:20

    If things were working right, this whole IRAN nuke problem would be left up to the UN IAEA. Although that may give the IAEA to much power. The IAEA could get so powerful as to demand that all countries be inspected. That all the nations would be inventoried for each nuke war head, etc.. Can’t do that. Why, well who’s country’s leader makes the most speeches about Iran going nuclear? A leader who presents the UN cartoon bomb pictures to make his point.

    Back in the 50’s & 60’s outside of Curtis LeMay no one wanted to bomb Russia, just because they acquired nukes. So, if even at the worst IRAN were to become nuked up….so what. Besides all that, disarming is what we all should be doing, anyway.

  3. F. G. Sanford
    October 11, 2014 at 23:12

    I have a feeling the deal will go through – not for any of the reasons Professor Pillar suggests – but because of simple economic reality. The United States and its NATO allies have not been honest about anything since the Neocons took over foreign policy – so there is no reason to assume they should suddenly become “honest brokers”.

    Europe is getting ready to freeze this winter, and there are only two places it can realistically get sufficient natural gas: Russia and Iran. At the same time, NATO is stalling to keep a lid on the explosive reality that its ally, Ukraine, shot down that Malaysian Boeing 777. A leaked hack indicates that the investigators are working closely with Ukraine to manufacture evidence that fragments of a BUK missile were retrieved from the wreckage, while at the same time, a “Freudian slip” has revealed some passengers were wearing oxygen masks when retrieved from the wreckage. Withholding of the Ukrainian ATC recordings is also a tacit admission of guilt. Russia has radar evidence confirming two Su-25 fighter planes trailing the airliner, while U.S. and NATO have failed to provide any evidence to the contrary.

    Crash site evidence is consistent with shoot down by 30mm cannon fire; decompression would have been disastrous, but not catastrophic, allowing the oxygen masks to automatically deploy. The public, gullible as they rightly well may be, are told that Su-25’s are not capable of the speed or altitude required to accomplish this feat, and they almost universally believe it. This misconception is bolstered by the published flight characteristics of a fully armed Su-25.

    Lots of NATO pilots have been invited to fly Russian fighter aircraft, including the Su-25, as part of Russia’s arms marketing strategy. Boy, were they shocked when they tried out a “Frogfoot”. Believing it was just a clunky ground support aircraft, they were shocked to learn that, without the weapons pods attached to the eight “hard points” under the wing, the plane is SUPERSONIC and fully acrobatic. That’s right, Su-25 is a SUPERSONIC aircraft.

    NATO and its loudmouth stooges are slowly learning that you can only fart so many times before you shit your pants. They are now in a position to be responsible for their countrymen freezing this winter, or quietly telling the U.S. they want a deal. In return, they’ll play along with the big lie. Look up the YouTube video before they realize that an American pilot let the cat out of the bag:

    SU-25 Frogfoot-Flying Tank (Russian) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtAThLpxmxw

  4. incontinent reader
    October 11, 2014 at 21:06

    Fine article, and excellent points, but why not, on a parallel track, also: (1) show in quantitative and qualitative terms what the stakes are now and in the future for the US of NOT inking a deal and normalizing relations with Iran, (2) encourage (or goose) the ‘wise men’ to get their history right and acknowledge and share the narrative (as proven out so conclusively by Gareth Porter) that the commonly repeated mantra of post-revolution Iran having and still seeking a WMD program was a canard and the sanctions it was manufactured to ‘legitimize’ should never have been levied, (3) insist that Israel, and every other country with a nuclear program open up its facilities, shut down its WMD program if it has one (as Israel does), and subject itself to the same inspection and enrichment standards we are demanding of Iran, and, (4) once and for all, blow apart the neocon cabal, their paradigm, and the disinformation they have peddled that have so paralyzed the Administration, created chaos and devastation all over the globe, destroyed our economy, and brought us to a new Cold War with Russia and China, with the very real risk of a very hot nuclear war in the not so distant future? Whether or not our leaders want to perpetuate this pathology, it’s not a world I want for my child.

    Let’s do something more than tiptoe with baby steps, and, instead, take big strides, but this time get it right with positive and purposeful change in all of these venues. We don’t own the world and we’re not exceptional. We are only as good as the good we do.

  5. JWqlters
    October 11, 2014 at 19:20

    A good suggestion. If people are going to claim a particular deal is worse than no deal, they have to justify their conclusion for that specific case.

    And it’s relevant to recognize that some loud parties are trying to keep conflict going.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 11, 2014 at 19:57

      JWalters, if that loud party is who I think it is, you are 100% right. Someone should hold Israel to the same high standards.
      Joe Tedesky

Comments are closed.