Despite repeating the mantra that "no deal is better than a bad deal" with Iran, the United States seems to be negotiating on the basis of a belief that the worst possible outcome of the current negotiations is no deal. Many supporters of the deal that is now apparently on the table are arguing that there is no realistic alternative to this deal. That sort of thinking out loud empowers the Iranian negotiators to demand more and compromise less, because they believe -- and have been told by American supporters of the deal -- that the United States has no alternative but to agree to a deal that is acceptable to the Iranians.
A perfect example of this mindset was Fareed Zakaria on his CNN show this past Sunday. He had a loaded panel of two experts and a journalist favoring the deal, and one journalist opposed. This followed Zakaria's opening essay in favor of the deal. All those in favor made the same point: that this deal is better than no deal, and that any new proposal -- for example, to condition the sunset provision on Iran stopping the export of terrorism and threatening to destroy Israel -- is likely to be rejected by Iran, and is therefore, by definition, "irrational" or "unproductive," because it would result in no deal.
The upshot of this position is that Iran essentially gets a veto over any proposal, but the United States does not get to make new proposals. If it were true that this deal is better than no deal, it would follow that any proposed change in this deal that Iran doesn't like is a non-starter.
That's why Netanyahu's reasonable proposal that the sunset provision be conditioned on changes in Iranian actions and words has been pooh-poohed by the so-called "experts." They haven't tried to respond on the merits. Instead, they are satisfied to argue that Iran would never accept such conditions, and therefore the proposal should be rejected as a deal breaker.
This is the worst sort of negotiation strategy imaginable: telling the other side that any proposal that is not acceptable to them will be taken off the table, and that any leader who offers it will be attacked as a deal breaker. This approach -- attacking Netanyahu without responding to his proposal on their merits -- characterizes the approach of the administration and its supporters.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria, July 14, 2014. (Image source: U.S. State Department)
We will now never know whether Iran might have accepted a conditional sunset provision, because the advocates of the current deal, both inside and outside the administration, have told Iran that if they reject this proposal, it will be withdrawn, because it endangers the deal. What incentive would the Iranians then have to consider this proposal on its merits? None!
The current mindset of the deal's advocates is that the United States needs the deal more than the Iranians do. That is why the U.S. is constantly leaking reports that the Mullahs may be reluctant to sign even this one-sided deal, which has shifted perceptibly in favor of the Iranian position over the past several months. But the truth is that Iran, which is suffering greatly from the combination of sanctions and dropping oil prices, needs this deal -- a deal that would end sanctions and allow it unconditionally to develop nuclear weapons within ten years. That doesn't necessarily mean they will accept it. They may push for even more compromises on the part of the United States. The reality is that we are in a far stronger negotiating position than advocates of the deal have asserted, but we are negotiating from weakness because we have persuaded the Iranians that we need the deal -- any deal -- more than they do.
Most Israelis seem to be against the current deal, especially the unconditional sunset provision. Author David Grossman, a left-wing dove who is almost always critical of Netanyahu, has accused the United States of "criminal naiveté." He opposes Netanyahu's reelection, but urges the world to listen to what Netanyahu told Congress.
"But what [Netanyahu] says about Iran and the destructive part it is playing in the Middle East cannot and should not be ignored," Grossman said. "Netanyahu is right when he says that according to the emerging deal there is nothing to prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear bomb once the deal expires in another 10 years, and on this matter there is no difference in Israel between Left and Right."
There are considerable differences, however, between the Obama administrations' negotiating position and the views of most Israelis, Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians and Jordanians -- as well as most members of our own Congress. We can get a better deal, but supporters of a deal must abandon their unhelpful public claims that the current deal is the best we can get.