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A Transaction Does Not a Deal Make

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"For the moment, historic though it may be, the Iran enterprise is a transaction — in short a business deal devoid of much sentimentality in which both sides need stuff from the other and are still not sure they can get it, and it’s an imperfect and incomplete transaction at that," writes Aaron David Miller.

Sept. 13, 1993, I sat on the South Lawn of the White House under a hot sun watching Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shake hands. I believed that act (which came about with considerable assistance from an irrepressible President Bill Clinton) would transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and maybe even the modern Middle East as well.

It was perhaps the worst — but by no means the only bad — analytical judgment I’d make in an extended State Department career. Convinced that what the Israelis and Palestinians had done was transformative, I argued that there was no going back.

On reflection, that judgment really doesn’t surprise me. My previous faith in fixing things was rooted in the nature of diplomacy itself — the talking cure, a profession often driven by a legitimate desire to avoid war and conflict if possible as well as by the belief in the capacity of nations with strong self-interest to solve their mutual problems by meeting somewhere in the more enlightened middle. And in its uniquely American manifestation, diplomacy is also driven by the conviction that if only Washington would lead, most challenges in the world could be overcome, if not made substantially more tractable.

Nowhere is the faith in diplomacy and the U.S. capacity to fix things being tested more than in the current and seemingly hopeful turn of events in Washington’s long-standing effort to reach an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue. Enter the recently rolled out Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an oddly technical term for a putative agreement on the nuclear issue that U.S. President Barack Obama described as a “historic understanding with Iran, which, if fully implemented, will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Perhaps.

But as Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reminded us: Life is for learning. And what I’ve learned — the hard way — is that really good deals are few and far between, that real transformations are rarer still, and that most of diplomacy — and life for that matter — is transactional, more a series of flawed and imperfect enterprises. If you’re smart and lucky and circumstances cooperate, these ventures might actually make things better. But rarely do they offer up comprehensive solutions. And right now that’s precisely how we ought to look at the U.S. and Iranian effort on the nuclear issue.

For the moment, historic though it may be, the Iran enterprise is a transaction — in short a business deal devoid of much sentimentality in which both sides need stuff from the other and are still not sure they can get it, and it’s an imperfect and incomplete transaction at that. Indeed, points of no return have not yet been crossed. Whether the deal holds the promise of more fundamental change or transformation — in the U.S.-Iran relationship, Iran’s behavior in the region, or even Iran’s ultimate intentions toward gaining a nuclear weapon — is far from certain. Indeed, anyone who wants to crow recklessly about the accomplishment should be very circumspect and careful in doing so. And certainly this administration has no cause to be either defensive or impatient with those who have doubts about the deal. And here’s why.

This is a transaction because there really are no transformative deals on the nuclear issue.

Obama has banked a great deal on this putative arrangement. It may well define his foreign-policy legacy and the stability (or instability) of the region for years to come. So the president, despite his cool and non-emotive style, really has been cheerleading on this one. He has a major stake in selling the progress made so far — and hard. “It is a good deal, a deal that meets our core objectives,” he proclaimed in his Rose Garden rollout on April 2. Indeed, in his April 4 interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, he called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

This may well prove to be the best the Obama administration could have done with Iran. But let’s not kid ourselves. The train for any really good accord left the station long ago, if it ever came through town at all. At this stage, there are only deals with varying degrees of risk, particularly given the fact that Iran now has the capacity and the right to enrich uranium and will likely be left with a large nuclear infrastructure a decade from now. The question is, can you minimize those risks? Indeed, it’s likely because of that fact and the others discussed below that this agreement may remain transactional with all kinds of arguments and disputes about who is abiding by it and who isn’t.

A five-page White House fact sheet and a couple of press statements by Iran, the European Union, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and Obama is hardly the stuff of transformation. It’s going to be a major challenge for U.S. negotiators just to come up with an agreement that credibly restricts Iran’s nuclear ambitions and an inspection regime with the capacity and motivation to be proactive and vigilant in perpetuity. The bargaining and cat-and-mouse character of this struggle between Iran’s propensity to protect and America’s to disclose and reveal will virtually guarantee the kind of adversarial interaction that will make it hard to see this as a grand definitive victory.

This is a transaction because only time will tell whether it’s more.

Time is the ultimate arbiter of anything of real value in life: good movies, good music, good friendships, and, of course, diplomatic agreements. We don’t know whether an agreement will be reached by June 30 or after. We don’t know whether that agreement will survive the challenges of the early years of implementation. And certainly we don’t know what this venture will look like a decade out, let alone two.

It’s probably safe to assume that right now each side has a different conception of time, though each believes time is in its favor. The administration appears to be divided on this point. But clearly the U.S. president seems to be among those who see a deal opening up a different path for Iran, one that will strengthen moderates and reformists and bring the country in from the cold.

And it is the cruelest of ironies that one of the issues that has made Iran an outlier –its nuclear weapons pretentions — is the very issue that may offer it a way back into the good graces of the international community. Indeed, Iran’s calculations may be that time will bring it the best of both worlds.

In return for giving up any acceleration of its nuclear program for a decade or more, Iran will get major sanctions relief, an improved economy, and a better capacity to manage public expectations, and it will still be left with the capacity and know-how to build on an industrial grade nuclear infrastructure in the out years. And if research and development are not restricted, Iran will continue to improve on that technological capacity, all under the cover of a civilian nuclear program. Nothing in this agreement necessarily will restrict or dissuade Iran from choosing at some point to weaponize or remain a screwdriver’s turn away from a weapon. The hope — and it is only that – is that over time, the incentives in Iran’s newfound political and economic status and the public’s benefit from them will constrain the mullahs and other hard-line elements from doing so.

This is a transaction (and a preliminary one) because the foundation is still very shaky.

Let’s be clear. Getting anything done in the world of U.S. diplomacy is unbelievably hard. And it needs to be stated in the interest of intellectual honesty that the level and breadth of what was announced by the EU, Iran, and the United States was quite impressive. But let’s not go overboard. This wasn’t the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, where secret direct contacts, a transformative public visit by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel, and billions of dollars in economic and military support and political backing produced a triangular relationship that has anchored a treaty of peace that even survived a Muslim Brotherhood president.

My point is not to exaggerate the virtues and benefits of that Egyptian-Israeli enterprise or to compare apples and oranges. The Egypt-Israel treaty was remarkable, perhaps arguably transformative. But it was also a flawed process that has disappointed both sides. Instead I’m suggesting that unlike Israel-Egypt, the Iranian nuclear arrangement rests not on a mutually agreed or authoritative basis, is open to different interpretations, and has already led to differing public explanations of what was agreed to, particularly on sequencing of sanctions, R&D, and inspections. The good news is that months of negotiations lie ahead. But that’s the bad news too. It’s a long way to Tipperary still, and not to put too fine point on it, but this is by no means a done, let alone a good, deal yet.

This is a transaction because Iran is a repressive regime with regional ambitions.

And so were Russia and China when the United States reached out to both of them in the 1970s and 1980s. The United States can (and must) do business with regimes it doesn’t like and with which it’s likely to cooperate and compete at the same time. But that contemporary tension with Iran suggests several realities that are likely to constrain the pace of change between Washington and Teheran and make starry-eyed transformations pretty unlikely. First, there’s the ongoing struggle within the Iranian political establishment. Is this a revolutionary regime that demands external bogeyman (see the Great Satan and Little Satan) as agents of popular mobilization in order to maintain legitimacy, or is it a status quo power engaged in a struggle between reformists and radicals, or is it both? I suspect it’s all of the above, and that’s why Iran will continue to imprison Americans, talk about destroying Israel, and torture and execute large numbers of its own citizens. As long as that behavior continues, it is hard to see how things will really improve dramatically with Washington — nuclear deal or not. Indeed, Iran’s supreme leader, having cut that deal with America, may well feel the need to burnish the regime’s revolutionary credentials to shore up the conservative base.

Second, revolutionary or not, Iran has a different conception of the Middle East than Washington does. And right now, it feels things are moving its way. In Iraq, Syria, and even Yemen, Iran now holds cards that can be played any number of ways. It can cooperate in limited fashion with Washington against the Islamic State and use that cooperation to expand the reach of Shiite militias. It can support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a move that guarantees new recruits for the Islamic State as the Syrian regime kills more Sunnis, and it can with relatively low investment support the Houthis in Yemen to aggravate the Saudis and remind the Sunnis of its regional reach. Indeed, with sanctions removed, Iran will likely emerge along with Israel as the most consequential power in its zone of influence. They don’t call it the Persian Gulf for nothing. This broader regional game and the blowback from America’s traditional allies — Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia — will invariably limit any U.S.-Iran rapprochement without a significant change in Iran’s behavior.

I don’t pretend to know how this chapter in the U.S.-Iran relationship will end. Remember that on top of already entrenched congressional opposition, particularly among Republicans and more than a few Democrats, the negotiating and selling of this agreement are about to coincide with the beginning of a U.S. presidential campaign, never the best season for rational and detached thinking.

We should definitely try to avoid extremes right now. What has been accomplished so far certainly isn’t the historic transformation the cheerleaders would have us believe. But neither do I agree with the doomsdayers who believe that any deal with Iran is invariably a result of Satan’s finger on Earth.

Let the negotiators have their negotiations and the politicians their politics. And let’s see what kind of agreement comes out in the wash. Forget transformations, grand bargains, and strategic victories. We’re in the bazaar now bartering, haggling, and negotiating. It would be great if we could actually get a good deal. And maybe that’s still possible. But in squaring off against a wily and formidable counterpart with a lot to gain and little to lose I’m thinking that we’re going to have our hands full just avoiding a bad deal.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

This article was originally published in ForeignPolicy

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Aaron David Miller

Global Fellow
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more