Iranian Nuclear Weapon Capability Negotiations and its BATNA

Whatever the difficulties or failings in the attempts of the President Obama administration to negotiate an end to Iranian moves towards nuclear weapons, the recent letter to Iran by 47 Republican Senators seems to me like an act of ill thought through madness.

But setting that to oneside, there is the key question when anyone criticizes a negotiation strategy: what is your alternative strategy? I haven’t really heard one, and when I raise this issue with Republican critics of the President’s strategy on line, they tend to fall silent or talk about endless much tougher sanctions and they are equally silent when I ask what their alternative to a negotiated agreement is: their BATNA in technical negotiation analysis: the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement which is your walk away option, what you will do if you can’t make a good agreement and what you can do unilaterally.

I thought it might be interesting to reflect on this issue as a way to critique the critiques of the negotiating strategy and give some thoughts on the factors at play:

  • The US has not traded with Iran since 1979, with the exception of President Reagan who broke his own countries sanctions to trade arms for hostage releases in the Lebanon as part of the Iran Contragate scandal
  • The US is therefore not really in any position to increase or continue damaging sanctions on Iran, without the support of other countries most critically the EU, China and Russia who did or do trade with Iran.
  • So any negotiating strategy based on sanctions needs international support, whether the Republican Party leaders or its base like it or not. That is the reality.
  • So far the sanctions currently in place with international support seem to be working to force the Iranians to negotiate. What and how we negotiate is harder to know.
  • But clearly agreement would need to include strong provisions to prevent current Iranian nuclear capacity leading to its possession of nuclear weapons and for onsite inspection to monitor and verify this. This is not easy work.
  • For those who argue against any negotiations at all, or who are trying to sabotage the current multi-nation negotiations, I would ask what their BATNA is, their Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement is? In the context of these other realities:
  • Iranian nuclear facilities are widely distributed, and unless the Iranians have only half a brain, built underground in long tunnels that make  it hard even with bunker buster bomb strikes for them to succeed. They must have been expecting air strikes on these facilities for a decade or more.
  • Moreover, Iranian air defenses are not 1980s Soviet era Iraq level defenses, but 2000s era Russian defenses: mobile best in the world air to ground S-300s etc, mobile radars which are protected by hundreds of decoys rendering HARM anti radar missiles useless.
  • So air strikes will likely be both useless in eroding the nuclear capability and costly
  • A ground invasion is a deeply forbidding project, requiring huge numbers of ground troops, $ trillions and based on the Iraq invasion, would take maybe 6-12 months to prepare for, more than enough time for Iran to actually build the damn bombs and deploy them against an invasion, use them on Israel or whatever suicidal acts the opponents of negotiation attribute to them
  • To me, watching Iran over the last 30 years or so, their leaders seem deeply strategic, cautious and patient. They are difficult people to negotiate against for these reasons. Fanatical and stupid they don’t seem to be, whatever terrifying things they occasionally say to distract their people from domestic discontents, and much as I might dislike what they stand for.
  • So I don’t actually see a military BATNA, a military solution that makes sense, though you might want to leave it as a sort of hinted at unspecified option, it doesn’t seem to me a credible one. And for negotiationg power BATNAs have to be credible or you just look foolish.
  • So we are left with the President’s strategy:
  • Negotiate with international support backed by international sanctions to achieve a no nuclear weapons agreement on Iran with appropriate verification
  • Recognize that the only real BATNA is indefinite continuation of sanctions
  • In the event we opt for long term sanctions without an agreement, I don’t see the incentive for Iran to not just go ahead and develop a bomb, knowing it has the sanctions with or without developing a bomb.
  • Not a negotiation place I would like to be in.
  • Or of course, we could move away from focus on the nuclear weapon issue to try to achieve a grand bargain to sort out the middle east once and for all. Good luck with the US leading that when the Republican opposition only includes a few grown ups any more. This is not President Eisenhower or even Reagan’s Republican Party.

I would welcome critique of my analysis.

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About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict History, Conflict Processes, Middle East Conflict, US Political Conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Iranian Nuclear Weapon Capability Negotiations and its BATNA

  1. Your analysis is great. I accept it because I accept your assumption–that there is no better practical alternative. But then I don’t have an unending well of emotional confidence. When others see an opponent, they see a fight–that’s their emotional stance. In this case they have unending emotional confidence in their own power. In this case they have no “skin in the game,” to use Nassim Taleb’s phrase. This case is like fantasy football without any real football to measure against. In this case the imagination gets to work without any constraints. In the imagination, people can say, “Just because it’s true doesn’t mean I have to believe it.” The advantage of playing “without skin in the game” is that they can easily just assert that they don’t need an alternative or that they are sure there is another sanction or two that haven’t been tried or haven’t been pushed far enough. It’s like the people who peddle success: if you don’t make it, it’s because you haven’t tried hard enough. If a person’s policy alternatives are driven by the absolute and emotional belief that you’re not trying hard enough (the fact that you’ve been trying hard for a long time and not succeeding is irrelevant), then you are arguing with an opponent whose emotion is driving his response. I always come back to Jonathan Haidt’s statement that a person will find a way to believe whatever he wants to believe. Desire is the driver, and very little trumps desire.

    • @Living in Las Cruces. Well said. And what a decent media that actually did its job would do would be to constantly at every public opportunity demand the alternative strategy from Republican politicians. This is somewhat what would happen in the UK. At very least journalists would be waiting in packs as pols arrived or left a meeting with mikes under their noses: saying what’s your plan? Then the media would show the answer or non answer. Also when in Prime Minister’s Question Time the leader of the Opposition had a go at the government’s policy, the Prime Minister would simply nail the lack of an alternative and hammer the leader of the Opposition until they either came up with one or fell silent: either of which would then show on the Prime Time News.

      As for desire being the driver and Jon Haidt’s Elephant in control, in negotiations I always found ways politely and firmly to repeat my friend Bill Ury’s great question over and over again: “why do you want what you want?” I don’t doubt you want it, but why is this demand of yours in your interests? What are your interests and is this only way to meet them. Often this works. I once did it for 8 hours each day on two successive days with my union and towards the end of the second day 7th hour they finally told me and I already knew their interest and had a solution and we agree it in about 45 minutes in detail. This deal saved their plant from closure 4 years later. On another occasion we hammered out a modern operating agreement by negotiating 6 hours a day for four weeks using the same approach. The agreement made the plant efficient so it survived the next 16 years. The union were immensely emotional in both cases and found ways to believe whatever they wanted to believe, until I unpicked their beliefs and they saw their real interests and we could cut a good deal. That is what is needed with Iran. And no thanks, don’t want the job. 🙂 AS there be 47 traitors on my own side.

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