Tuesday, May 5, 2015


As the Obama administration enters into the next round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, with the self-imposed June 30 deadline looming, a broad spectrum of expert opinion has concluded that the White House is playing its hand poorly and agreeing to terms that are bad for the United States and our regional allies and partners. As much commentary has noted, thus far the P5+1, led by the United States, has made virtually all of the concessions. Under the positions announced so far, and contrary to numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions, Iran: can keep virtually all of its nuclear infrastructure intact, maintains the right of enrichment, maintains a uranium stockpile, gets immediate relief from many sanctions, does not have to disclose the “possible military dimensions” of its program, does not have to allow anytime and anyplace inspections, and in 10 years can openly resume its quest for a nuclear weapon (if it hadn’t already exploited the deal’s loopholes to produce one covertly by that time).
Admittedly, some experts support the terms of the negotiations as revealed thus far, and regard it as the least bad of a bad set of options. But most thoughtful and informed observers do not. One of the most articulate indictments came from Henry Kissinger and George Shultz’s Wall Street Journal op-ed last month. In detailing a bill of particulars against the emerging deal, Shultz and Kissinger conclude that “negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability.”
The real puzzle is why the Obama administration fails to see this, and persists in its desperation to conclude a deal that seems to worsen by the week. It is riddle that can’t be explained by simple incompetence — after all, the Obama negotiating team is comprised of intelligent and well-intentioned professionals. Why, then, do they seemingly fail to see what is obvious to most outside observers: that this is a very bad deal they are pursuing? I suspect the reasons for this White House myopia are several, which in combination help explain this emerging diplomatic disappointment:
  • The White House Bubble. This describes the insularity and immunity from feedback that afflicts many presidencies. It is real, and it seems even thicker than usual at this point in this administration, as the beleaguered and exhausted staff circle the wagons around a beleaguered and exhausted president, and tune out most criticism and contrary viewpoints. While seeking refuge inside the bubble can be an understandable way for a White House to protect itself from distractions, it also cuts off the president and senior staff from important critiques that could otherwise alert them to looming policy errors.
  • An Overactive Historical Imagination. Presidents often turn to historical examples for inspiration, and the Obama White House seems to be imagining its outreach to Iran as a grand design reminiscent of Nixon’s strategic opening to China. But in the present case of Iran, the White House seems to be letting its historical imagination go too far. Iran in 2015 is not the China of 1972, nor is the Obama administration securing the significant concessions and cooperation that Nixon secured from China.
  • Path Dependency. This is similar to what Aaron David Miller calls the “closed circle,” where “negotiators tend to fall in love with their negotiations” and “often become believers with a powerful faith grounded in a sense of mission: This is the best deal possible, and the alternatives are profoundly worse. Anyone who challenges this mantra either just doesn’t get it or has a hidden agenda.” In this case the Obama administration’s negotiations have taken on a self-perpetuating life of their own, and have functioned as blinders that severely narrow rather than expand the set of policy options that the White House perceives. The circularity is seductive: the While House will keep pursuing a deal because it is far along the path of pursuing a deal.
  • Rhetorically Boxing Themselves In. For some time now the White House has framed the Iran situation as a binary choice between negotiations or war, and accused its skeptics of being feverish warmongers. Not only has this been a bad-faith distortion of the views of many critics, but with such rhetoric the White House has actually boxed itself in with its own words. Rather than taking other measures to strengthen its diplomatic hand and preserve its options — such as making a credible threat of force, or tightening sanctions, or resisting Iranian malfeasance elsewhere in the region, or being willing to walk away from the table — the White House has convinced itself that not only is a bad deal better than no deal, but that this bad deal is actually a “good deal.” Such are the rhetorical traps the White House has laid for itself.
  • Mirror Imaging: This is the mistake of seeing the Iranians as liberal internationalists who want what we think they should want. When Secretary Kerry looks across the table at Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif, one worries that Kerry believes he is looking in a mirror at another suave, debonair foreign minister committed to international respectability and a rules-based international order. Yet the first stage in negotiating wisdom involves understanding your counterparty. The Iranian government remains a revolutionary regime, committed above all to preserving its own existence, and expanding its power and influence through exporting its revolutionary ideology. As Soner Cagaptay, Jim Jeffrey, and Mehdi Khalaji reminded us in the New York Times, “Iran is a revolutionary power with hegemonic aspirations … it is a country seeking to assert its dominance in the region and it will not play by the rules. Yet, the Obama administration hopes a nuclear agreement will have a ‘transcendental effect’ on Iran and convince it to abandon its imperial aspirations in return for a sense of normalcy.” This doesn’t mean that negotiations are impossible with Iran – only that negotiations should be undertaken with a clear understanding of the nature of the regime.
  • The Netanyahu Effect. This White House has become so antagonistic towards Benjamin Netanyahu that anything the Israeli Prime Minister says or does is automatically suspect in the White House collective mind. In the case of the Iran framework, Netanyahu has been detailed and vociferous in his objections. One worries this may produce a perverse reaction in the Obama administration: if Netanyahu is against it, then the White House is for it.
  • Media Enablers: As Peter Feaver has pointed out, there are many troubling aspects of the emerging framework that a quiescent media has largely refrained from scrutinizing. With a few notable exceptions, such as Josh Rogin, the American media’s reluctance to provide accountability the Iran negotiations further enables the White House to persist in its imaginations that the negotiations are succeeding.
Of course, notwithstanding the aforementioned blinders that seem to be preventing the White House from seeing its mistakes, critics such as myself need to continue to do the thing that President Obama seemingly refuses to do: carefully reflect on whether we might be wrong. For this reason, we continue to weigh new information from the White House and Iranians about the latest negotiations, and why the Congressional oversight and accountability role is so crucial.
For our nation’s sake, I hope I am wrong, and that the Obama administration is able to conclude a solid deal that prevents a nuclear Iran. After all, if I and other critics are not wrong, the White House is sleepwalking into a major strategic blunder that may haunt us for a generation.