While a student of American and Israeli foreign policy, I am no expert. I have little to add to the disgust already expressed by the experts with regard to the horrific agreement reached between the P5+1 and Iran – undoubtedly the worst international accord since Neville Chamberlain conceded Eastern Europe to Hitler. But I am an expert in negotiations, especially with difficult and often dishonest counterparties. And in that context, I would like to weigh in on how utterly inept Obama and Kerry proved to be.
A phrase commonly used for a negotiation where everything is up for grabs and there are wide swings between the bids and the asks is a “Persian Bazaar.” The expression refers to the ancient shuks that originated in Persia – now Iran – and remain common today throughout the Middle East, even in Israel. In a Persian Bazaar, the overriding rule is caveat emptor – let the buyer beware – and there is not even a pretext of honesty, integrity or good faith.
The Iranian nuclear negotiations were a prototypical Persian Bazaar. The Mullahs repeatedly spoke out of both sides of their mouths, professing, simultaneously, a desire for world peace and for death to America and Israel, making supposed concessions and then taking them back, refusing to consider new issues and then adding new conditions of their own. What would you expect? They are Persians playing a game they invented. And the United States was badly outplayed.
There are some basic rules to negotiation in such an environment. Simple and obvious rules that America flubbed at every opportunity:
WALK AWAY: When you are not getting what you need, you must leave the table. The failure to do so sends an undeniable message to your adversary that you are not serious about your demands. Most successful negotiations include at least one such episode.
DO NOT ACCEPT INSULTING BEHAVIOR: You cannot allow yourself to be insulted. When the Mullahs call for “Death to America” or refuse to release innocent hostages as a token of good faith, and Kerry sits there with a smile on his face, he is exuding extraordinary weakness. No self-respecting Iranian would smile in such a circumstance. There is nothing worse than to project weakness.
BE AMBIVALENT: Do not crow about how wonderful it would be to limit Iranian nukes, even if that’s what you think. With every comment, your leverage drops. It would be far better to say – publicly and privately -- that you think the world might be better off just ramping up the sanctions and bringing Iran to the point of surrender.
MAKE NO GRATUTIOUS CONCESSIONS; Don’t try to appear reasonable by taking options (like a military attack) off the table. Maybe that will score you some points in Norway or Japan but not in the Middle East. Again, you just appear foolish and weak.
To give this some context, let’s illustrate how a competent person would go about buying, say, a $5 wooden camel figurine in a Persian Bazaar:
BUYER: I see you have a few hundred wooden camels, they must be very difficult to sell.
PERSIAN: My dearest friend, these are very special camels, made by artists who have received the highest honors in Iran.
BUYER: They all look alike to me. How much are they anyway?
PERSIAN: For you I have a special price of $100, two for $150.
BUYER: No thanks. That is an insulting price – do you think I am stupid, do I look stupid? Goodbye.
PERSIAN: My friend, my friend, wait. What do you want to spend?
BUYER: I don’t want to spend anything after you treated me so rudely.
PERSIAN: I am so sorry, you are right. Even though these camels are worth at least $50 each, because of my terrible behavior I will sell to you for $10 with my apology.
Now, let’s see how our President would have handled this hypothetical negotiation:
OBAMA: Wow, those are some really nice wooden camels. You must sell a lot of those given your huge inventory. I always wanted a camel for the Oval Office. I think this will be covered by my unlimited expense account.
PERSIAN: Mr. President, you have a shrewd eye for great art, but I am not sure that I can let my precious goods fall into the hands of the Great Satan.
OBAMA: Oh c’mon, we’re not so bad. And I’ve already apologized for the sins of my predecessors.
PERSIAN: Well if you want one of my camels, you will have to pay a fair price.
OBAMA: How much is that:
PERSIAN: $100, 2 FOR $150.
OBAMA: Will you take $99 for one?
It’s not much more complicated than that. The United States, the strongest and wealthiest nation on earth was completely out-maneuvered by a rogue nation on the brink of collapse (why the U.S. was so inept is for another column). And the world is now a much more dangerous place.
Obama arrogantly defends his ineptitude by saying that the United States gave up nothing in this deal – all options supposedly remain. He couldn’t be more wrong. The United States gave up the one thing that mattered – the opportunity to rid the world of Iranian nuclear weapons through competent, strategic and hard-nosed negotiations while the Iranians were on the ropes.
What a shame.