The Perils of Backseat Negotiating

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.

Moreover, because it comes at a time of exceptional tumult in the Middle East, the agreement will have to survive another barrage of criticism. Putting aside the Israeli government’s well-known skepticism about Iran’s sincerity and intentions, to suggest that Saudi Arabia’s opposition simply has to do with geopolitical competition with nearby Iran is to overlook one of the main factors driving the current crises in the Middle East.