How not to negotiate

We have to dispel the illusion in the foreign-policy establishment that a deal, any deal, is the penultimate objective of diplomacy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents Iranian nuclear files to reporters at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, April 30, 2018. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents Iranian nuclear files to reporters at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, April 30, 2018. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Sarah N. Stern
Sarah N. Stern
Sarah N. Stern is the founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a think tank that specializes in the Middle East. She is the author of Saudi Arabia and the Global Terrorist Network (2011).  

When a new administration enters office, it often seems like their major foreign-policy objective is to undo the perceived “errors” of the prior administration rather than evaluating where we are today, and how to enhance America’s national security interests and that of her allies. It is almost as though the “enemy” is the prior administration—not America’s very real strategic foes, throughout the world.

This is certainly the case with the incoming Biden administration, which even on the campaign trail, promised that the United States will go back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal that was negotiated in 2015 between Iran and the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China. When the United States, under President Donald Trump, decided to withdraw from it in May 2018, there was a collective cry of alarm among the international community and the foreign-policy establishment.

However, we know now—certainly since Israel delivered the treasure trove of nuclear-related documents in the spring of 2018—that Iran’s entire negotiation strategy was built upon deception. It was obvious from this archive that there had long been “possible military dimensions” to their nuclear program, which the Iranians never came clean on.

We also know that Ben Rhodes, who was Obama’s foreign-policy guru, created a false narrative of a more moderate camp within Iran, represented by the election in 2013 of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, and that Obama was working with “the moderate camp.” As David Samuels had written in The New York Times, Rhodes deliberately manipulated the news media to whitewash the Iranian regime and to make them look more reasonable and responsive to our overtures to encourage negotiation.

Rhodes said he “created an echo chamber of newly minted experts,” who, according to Rhodes, acted as vapid cheerleaders for the nuclear deal and “were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

We know that some of the same people who enabled Iran to deceive the world will be part of the Biden administration, including John Kerry, Anthony Blinken, Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Jake Sullivan.

We remember with sadness how the Obama team virtually groveled to have a face-to-face meeting with Rouhani and how ecstatic they were when he actually took a phone call from them. Their over-eagerness diminished the stature of the United States and elevated that of Iran.

This is certainly no way to enter into negotiations.

The Iranians must believe that the world outside of their borders is easily duped. Last week, they announced their plan to install advanced uranium-enriched centrifuges underground, which can enrich uranium up to 20 percent purity.

The Iranians also passed a law in their parliament, the Majlis, saying that they do not have to open up their nuclear sites to U.N. inspectors.

At least, France, England and Germany found these steps “deeply concerning,” saying, “if Iran is serious about preserving a place for diplomacy, it must not implement these steps.”

How, though, is one able to verify whether or not Iran is in compliance with the agreement if international inspectors are denied access to their sites? And how can one sit on the other side of a negotiating table from the Iranians, when he knows that their modern centrifuges, which replaced their older centrifuges, are currently humming along, enriching uranium to 20 percent, a much higher level of purity than they would need for “peaceful purposes?”

The Iranians, of course, have been playing us like a fiddle. They know that President-elect Joe Biden is hell-bent on making a deal—any deal. That seems to be a fundamental part of the democratic foreign policy strategy. Whether or not the Iranians hide behind the deal to cheat and obfuscate seems secondary to them.

The important thing is that piece of paper and the illusion of a foreign-policy victory.

The Obama administration was so desperate for a deal that they unfroze more than $150 billion of Iranian assets as an incentive to sweeten the negotiations and gave them an additional $1.6 billion in foreign currency and pellets.

When the deal is the sole objective of foreign policy, one feels he must “bet the barn.”And when one is so determined to get a deal, he almost, out of necessity, creates a tendency to “look the other way” at Iran’s many malevolent activities coming out of Iran, such as its development of ballistic missiles, its egregious record on human rights and its many proxy terrorist organizations throughout the globe.

If there are to be new negotiations, there are several lessons we should learn from the last round.

Congress must be informed every step of the way. The JCPOA was an arms control treaty, and according to the Constitution, it required ratification of two-thirds of the Senate. Congress and the American public were kept in the dark about the details of this deal, until after it was a done deal.

We have to dispel the illusion that is so prevalent in the foreign-policy establishment that a deal, any deal, is the penultimate objective of diplomacy.

But a deal cannot be used as a smokescreen behind which Iranian malicious behavior is concealed—particularly not if our values of intellectual honesty are compromised in order to mislead the American public and Congress as to the actual behaviors of a negotiating partner.

In that way, we will maintain our integrity, and the world might actually become a bit less of a treacherous place.

Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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