The Noise After Defeat

by Ameya Naik

Opponents of this month’s Iran nuclear deal, the E3/EU+3–Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, have rallied to dissect and dismiss it with alacrity. Quickest and harshest to condemn the deal was Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, who called it a “historic mistake” that would deliver a “cash bonanza” to the Iranian regime. Not to be outdone, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham described it as tantamount to a declaration of war on Sunni Arabs, and Governor Jeb Bush denounced it as “appeasement.”

Iran’s Arab neighbors are unhappy as well. The Saudi Arabian government has warned that gains should not be used to “cause turmoil in the region”; Syrian opposition and rebel leaders fear that a better-resourced Tehran will embolden the Assad regime. The Obama administration, they believe, has practically condemned Syria to further repression, perhaps because Washington still “neglects the interrelated nature of Middle Eastern conflicts.”

To better understand this opposition, it helps to distinguish between criticisms and limitations of a given deal, model, or outcome. A criticism – as I learned in high-school economics – is concerned with the proposal itself, arguing that its logic is inherently flawed or unworkable. Limitations, by contrast, place the proposal in a broader context, and argue that it does notaddress something of grave importance.

There is little criticism of the Iran nuclear deal. Reviews of the deal’s contents are broadly positive. Most of the opposition concerns what the deal does not cover: regional security, support for terrorism (or the Assad regime), human rights in Iran itself, and so on. This is a curious pattern: it is no secret that these issues were never raised in the negotiation, so how did anyone sincerely expect to see them addressed in its outcome? While the tone of this opposition may be unsurprising given its partisan sources, it reveals a great deal about these would-be “critics.”

Political scientist Robert Putnam, in his classic Diplomacy and Domestic Politics, explains how each party to a negotiation actually represents a conglomerate of interests, so that any outcome is actually the result of multiple overlapping negotiations—“two-level games.” Parties at the table are simultaneously negotiating “behind the scenes” to maintain their own agency and autonomy vis-à-vis potential domestic rivals or constraints. The agenda and list of participants at multilateral negotiations are intensely contested, as the choice of parties at the table defines the contours of any negotiated outcome, and the inclusion or exclusion of any particular subject matter is a strategic choice to improve the likelihood of success.

Why do the deal’s opponents vehemently (but inaccurately) elide limitation for criticism? Because they lost the internal negotiations—on whether to talk with Iran at all, on who should be part of the talks, and on what they should discuss. As Brookings’ Jeremy Shapiro presciently noted, the details of the deal scarcely matter; that a deal was reached at all suggests that U.S. policy to Iran is shifting from containment and confrontation to engagement and cooperation. When supporters of the deal defend its narrow focus as enabling later and broader negotiations, they are invoking the opponents’ worst fear: a reduction in hostility between the U.S. and Iran.

This is not to vilify the opponents as sore losers; their positions, after all, are far from unjustified. The Iranian regime is inimically hostile to Israel, an obvious rival for Saudi Arabia, and a source of carnage and chaos in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. A nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat to Israel. That threat is slightly mitigated by Iran’s pariah status; the possibility of Iran being accepted into the community of nations while still retaining the ability to acquire nuclear weapons is thus the worst of all worlds for Netanyahu. It is wholly rational for him to seek to maintain the narrative of Iran as rogue nation, and to rally his allies in the U.S. Congress to prevent implementation of the deal.

Those who champion the deal, however, are visibly skilled at the two-level game. Consider, for instance, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s ability to secure concessions on arms embargoes despite bringing up this controversial issue at the last minute. He pulled this off, I believe, by expertly using a technique Putnam calls “tied hands”: to take on (or claim) stringent commitments at one level, the better to constrain (or demand) concessions at another. Zarif is the agent of an embattled reformist in a secretive autocracy; if he claimed to be under orders to accept no deal without arms relief, that claim would be both plausible and persuasive.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, representing a rather transparent democracy—complete with senators writing open lettersto undermine him—could hardly resort to the same tactic in response. The Obama administration is using the tactic nonetheless, albeit in the opposite direction: faced with the challenge of fulfilling commitments in the face of a hostile Congress, Obama is tying his hands (and those of future presidents) by securing a UN Security Council resolution embodying key provisions of the deal. With the support of the Council’s five permanent members pre-assured, the resolution’s adoption seems inevitable. For all their rhetoric, opponents of the deal are likely to find themselves outmaneuvered again.

About the Author

Ameya Naik is a dual degree MALD-LLM student at The Fletcher School, with a focus on rule of law in post-conflict states. He is a research scholar at The Takshashila Institution, an independent public policy think-tank based in Bengaluru, India.

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