The Problem With ‘Creative Negotiations’

Jonathan S. Tobin


April 19, 2015


On Friday, President Obama acknowledged a painfully obvious fact that the White House and State Department have struggled mightily to ignore in the last two weeks. After generally dismissing the stark divide between the spin the United States has put on the framework nuclear agreement and statements that directly contradict that interpretation, the president decided to address that contrast head on. The president said U.S. diplomats would have to conduct “creative negotiations” in order to bridge the differences between the two sides on Iran’s nuclear program. In doing so, the president made it clear that any agreement would have to give the West the ability to reimpose sanctions on the Islamist regime if it cheats on the deal. That sounds good, but the problem is that over the course of the past two years of talks with Iran, we have been given a very good idea of what is meant by “creative negotiations” in the Obama administration. In Obama-speak, creative means Iran gets its way.

Let’s give the president some credit for addressing the fact that both Iran’s supreme leader and its negotiators have not been shy about contradicting the administration’s promises about severe restrictions on Iran’s nuclear efforts, its possession of its stockpile of enriched uranium, and intrusive inspections. In fact, despite the president’s effort to sell the agreement as fait accompli that has put to bed the Iranian nuclear threat, it is in fact still nothing more than a hope for such an accomplishment. Iran expects sanctions to be lifted immediately and not on a gradual basis as the administration has long promised. Crucially, even the New York Times noted that the president was not repeating his past statements about phased lifting of sanctions on Friday. If sanctions are lifted almost immediately and so long as the location of that stockpile, the nature of the inspections, or the willingness of Iran to agree to open its military facilities to the West so that the extent of their progress toward a bomb is discovered are set according to Iranian rhetoric and preferences, the entire framework is essentially meaningless.

That is both a challenge and an opportunity for the Obama foreign-policy team. In theory, over the next two months, during which the text of the accord will be drafted and finalized, the president will have a chance to make good on his boasts about imposing severe restrictions that would actually stop their nuclear program in its tracks. However, as they have repeatedly stated, the Iranians have very different ideas about what has already been agreed upon and what they will consent to in the future. They seem to be under the impression that what they have agreed to is a very different sort of deal than the one the president keeps telling us about.

That sets up what could be an interesting confrontation in which the West could stick to its demands and threaten to walk away from the table rather than to consent to the abandonment of its goals. But in his call for creativity, the president gave us a hint of what lies ahead.

Rather than reflect an understanding of just how tough the Iranians have proved to be in the talks, the president seemed to indicate that the wide gaps between the two parties could be papered over with measures that would allow the Iranians to save face while still achieving his objectives. He believes that some sort of symbolic concessions to Iran would be enough to allow Iran the space it needs to give ground.

But the parties are not entering into the final stages of this negotiation without already showing us how they operate. We have already seen what happens when the West wants Iran to give in on vital points of contention. Iran says no and then an administration that is so besotted with the notion of a legacy-making entente with the Islamist regime gives up. With Obama having discarded the enormous economic and political leverage he held over the Iranians in 2013 when sanctions where put into place, it is now Tehran that holds the whip hand in the talks. Rather than the West being the side that will budge a little to let Iran save face, it has been Iran that wins its points every time while occasionally letting the president pretend that he has won victory on some insignificant issue.

As it stands now, the framework offers Iran two paths to a bomb. One is by cheating on easily evaded restrictions via meaningless inspections and continued nuclear and military research while it holds onto its infrastructure. The other is by abiding by the deal and waiting patiently for it to expire because of the sunset clause that the Iranians fought for and won.

But rather than pressing hard for Iran to agree to the points he knows make the difference between a parody of an agreement and one that would actually make Iran’s nuclear dreams an impossibility, the president is pretending that more charm will win the day. To that end, he even downplayed the significance of Russia’s sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Iran that further diminishes the already dismal chances of the use of force against its nuclear facilities if it blows up the talks.

In doing so, the president is betraying his transparent eagerness to get a deal at any price. Having already conceded so much to the Iranians, why does he think they will suddenly start giving in to him when throughout the process it has always been he who has been the one to give up? Far from looking to save face, Iran’s objective is to win the last stage of the talks the way they have every phase of the negotiations. To them, Western creativity is an invitation to intransigence that will always be rewarded with an Obama concession. The president can still change the ending to this story but in order to be willing to believe that he can suddenly show some spine to the Iranians, you have to ignore the fact that his desire for an agreement is far greater than Tehran’s willingness to trade tangible measures that will impact their chances for a bomb for mere symbolism.