Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley draws lessons from the US-led negotiations that produced a deal with Iran this week. Crowley fears that US President Barack Obama left himself in a poor negotiation position, and the result could be a newly emboldened and enriched Iran that will still seek to develop nuclear weapons in the too near future. "Washington sounded more desperate for a deal with every passing day; all the Iranians had to do was to sit tight and let Obama sweat", writes Crowley.

By Brian Lee Crowley, July 17, 2015

The recently announced international deal over Iran’s nuclear ambitions will be studied for years to come for what it teaches us about how to strike a good deal. Or in this case, how not to strike one.

It may be too early to say whether this is a good or a bad deal. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, which will take some time.

Still, puddings depend crucially on the quality of the ingredients and the skill of the pudding-makers. Judged by these two measures, I’m betting this one will be tastier to the Iranian palate than to the Western one. After all, denying Iran access to the bomb was supposed to be the West’s end game.

For future pudding makers, here are the four lessons I draw from watching the US-led international coalition (the so-called “P5+1”) arm-wrestle with the Iranian leadership in these high-stakes negotiations.

First, the one who wants the deal the most will give up the most in the negotiations. Tehran needed a deal more than the US did at the outset. Iran’s population was suffering increasingly as the sanctions noose tightened around the neck of the economy. The mullahs blustered about Iran’s right to nuclear technology, but they were already well advanced toward that goal. What brought them to the table was the price they were being made to pay.

US President Barack Obama, however, soon telegraphed his need for an agreement for domestic political purposes. His legacy depends on demonstrating that his noble-sounding search for peace at any price is a better option than the judicious use of American political and military might which has underpinned the relative peace and stability of the postwar period. Giving the Iranians a veto over the president’s most cherished political objective reversed the power relationship in their favour.

Second, deadlines help the stronger party. Thus when Iran was the party most in need of a deal, and when the option was available to increase the price of their nuclear ambitions by tightening sanctions in the event negotiations failed, a deadline favoured the West. As soon as Obama handed the Iranians their veto over his legacy, the deadline worked in Iran’s favour. Washington sounded more desperate for a deal with every passing day; all the Iranians had to do was to sit tight and let Obama sweat.

Third, what you do should matter more than what you say. In any negotiation, the parties make promises about their future behaviour. In this case, for example, the Iranians have made promises about access for international inspectors to nuclear facilities and about limiting their ability to pass the “breakout” threshold of fissile material. But since talk is cheap, past behaviour of the parties should count for a lot more than current promises.

On this score, Iran has a long history of deviousness and deceit in its pursuit of the bomb. In any event the agreement only limits Iran’s efforts for a few years. Whether Iran threatens Israel or others with the Bomb next year or 10 years from now is not the outcome we were supposed to be seeking; acquiring nuclear weapons was to be made too costly for Iran ever to contemplate. By that measure this deal is an egregious capitulation made worse by the unfreezing of billions in assets Iran will use to repress its people and promote international terrorism.

Fourth, no deal is frequently better than a bad deal. Once sanctions are lifted, they will be almost impossible to put back. Talk about “snapbacks” if Iran misbehaves is not credible and could not be done fast enough to prevent an Iran hell bent on building a few bombs, after which all talk of sanctions, or even military intervention, is empty.

In sum, it was Bismarck who said that anyone who liked sausages or laws should never be told how they are made. We may have to add pudding to the list.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.


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