Sometime after the 1973 war, I remember seeing a cartoon that showed President Anwar el-Sadat lying flat on his back in a boxing ring. The Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, wearing boxing gloves, was standing over him, with Sadat saying to Meir something like, “I want the trophy, I want the prize money, I want the belt.”
I’ve been thinking of that cartoon a lot lately as I listen to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lecturing the United States and its five great power partners on his terms for concluding a deal that would restrict Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon for 10 to 15 years in return for lifting sanctions. But in that draft deal Khamenei has managed to preserve Iran’s basic nuclear infrastructure, albeit curbed, and has continually insisted that Iran will not allow international inspections of military sites suspected of harboring covert nuclear programs.
It’s still not clear if the last remaining obstacles to a deal will be resolved. But it is stunning to me how well the Iranians, sitting alone on their side of the table, have played a weak hand against the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain on their side of the table. When the time comes, I’m hiring Ali Khamenei to sell my house.
You’d never know that “Iran is the one hemorrhaging hundreds of billions of dollars due to sanctions, tens of billions because of fallen oil prices and billions sustaining the Assad regime in Syria,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment. And “it’s Ali Khamenei, not John Kerry, who presides over a population desperate to see sanctions relief.”
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Yet, for the past year every time there is a sticking point – like whether Iran should have to ship its enriched uranium out of the country or account for its previous nuclear bomb-making activities – it keeps feeling as if it’s always our side looking to accommodate Iran’s needs. I wish we had walked out just once. When you signal to the guy on the other side of the table that you’re not willing to either blow him up or blow him off – to get up and walk away – you reduce yourself to just an equal and get the best bad deal nonviolence can buy.
Diplomatic negotiations in the end always reflect the balance of power, notes Johns Hopkins University foreign policy specialist Michael Mandelbaum, writing in The American Interest. “In the current negotiations … the United States is far stronger than Iran, yet it is the United States that has made major concessions. After beginning the negotiations by insisting that the Tehran regime relinquish all its suspect enrichment facilities and cease all its nuclear activities relevant to making a bomb, the Obama administration has ended by permitting Iran to keep virtually all of those facilities and continue some of those activities.”
How did this happen? “Part of the explanation may lie in Barack Obama’s personal faith in the transformative power of exposure to the global economy.” But, adds Mandelbaum, “Surely the main reason … is that, while there is a vast disparity in power between the two parties, the United States is not willing to use the ultimate form of power and the Iranian leaders know this.”
Before you denounce Obama as a wimp, remember that George W. Bush had eight years to address this problem – when it was smaller – with either military force or forceful diplomacy, and he blinked for eight years.
But is it still possible to get a good bad deal – one that, while it does not require Iran to dismantle its nuclear enrichment infrastructure, shrinks that infrastructure for the next 10 to 15 years so Iran can’t make a quick breakout to a bomb? A deal that also gives us a level of transparency to monitor that agreement and gives international inspectors timely intrusive access to anywhere in Iran we suspect covert nuclear activity? One that restricts Iran from significantly upgrading its enrichment capacity over the next decade, as the bipartisan group of experts convened by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy proposed last week?
Yes. A good bad deal along such lines is still possible – and that will depend on the details now being negotiated at this 11th hour. Such a deal would enable the president to say to a skeptical Congress and Israel that he has gotten the best bad deal that an empty holster can buy, and that it has bought time for a transformation in Iran that is better than starting a war whose fallout no one can foretell.
But beware: This deal could be as big, if not bigger, an earthquake in the Middle East as the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. And what both had in common is that we were totally unprepared to manage the aftershocks the morning after. The Arab world today has almost no geopolitical weight. Egypt is enfeebled, Saudi Arabia lacks the capacity to project power and Iraq is no more. An Iran that is unshackled from sanctions and gets an injection of more than $100 billion in cash will be even more superior in power than all of its Arab neighbors. Therefore, the United States needs to take the lead in initiating a modus vivendi between Sunni Arabs and Persian Shiites and curb Iran’s belligerence toward Israel. If we can’t help defuse those conflicts, a good bad deal could very easily fuel a wider regional war.