The Perils of Backseat Negotiating

The agreement between Iran and the P5+1 is a promising start to the difficult process of dissuading Iran from its nuclear ambitions. While it is too early to declare the deal an historic achievement, it is also too soon to call it a failure – or to claim that "better" Western negotiators could have extracted more Iranian concessions.

DENVER – The agreement reached in Geneva between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (the so-called P5+1) is an excellent start to the difficult process of dissuading Iran from attempting to become the world’s newest nuclear-weapons power. It is too early to praise the deal as an historic achievement, but it is also far too soon to peg it as a failure, or to suggest that better negotiators somehow could have done a better job of wrangling concessions from their Iranian counterparts.

Negotiating across a table is a lot different from talking on a television news program. As with many efforts of its kind, the agreement needs to be compared to alternative outcomes, starting with the real possibility of not concluding any deal at all. Critics of the agreement ought to be pressed to explain how more sanctions could achieve better results than they have shown thus far.

The agreement will be hotly debated in large measure because it comes against a backdrop of unprecedented partisan tension in Washington. The breakdown of bipartisan foreign policy in the United States has rarely been so complete and seemingly irreparable as it is today. The traditional dove-versus-hawk debate is now crosshatched by an isolationism-versus-engagement cleavage, all of which is overlain with a deep mistrust of all government institutions.

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