One of the most difficult tactics negotiators may grapple with at the bargaining table is the attempt by outsiders to derail or sabotage a negotiated agreement, as we discussed in our June 2015 Negotiation Briefings article, “Stopping Outsiders from Sabotaging Your Deal.” This exact problem was faced by John Kerry’s negotiating team in early 2015 as they tried to negotiate a nuclear arms deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Congressional Republicans, staunchly opposed to any agreement with Iran, crafted a separate statement that they sent to Iran’s Supreme Leader, an effort many saw as one geared towards subverting any potentially negotiated agreement.
Negotiating an Iranian nuclear treaty has long been a saga in international relations and one that seemingly came to a head in 2015 with an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 bargaining powers (France, the United Kingdom, China, the United States, and Russia plus Germany) for a nuclear inspection regime and agreement to no longer pursue nuclear weapons development. Yet this deal was not achieved without overcoming considerable diplomatic difficulties, both at and away from the bargaining table. US Congressional Republicans crafted a separate, independent message which they then sent to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The statement said that any agreement achieved between the US and Iran is “nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei” and that further it could be abrogated with the arrival of a new President or by an act of Congress. Many analysts interpreted this action as one intended to directly undermine the negotiations with Iran. Veterans of the negotiating game will recognize this problem as the common but no less vexing issue of grappling with outsiders to the negotiation while attempting to forge an agreement.
Newly elected US Senator Tom Cotton and the congressional Republicans behind him took actions intended to cause delay or obfuscation during the negotiations, perhaps even to the point of derailing any agreement. John Kerry and his team reportedly worked extra diligently to assure the Iranian regime that any agreement signed would be honored, adding another layer of complexity to negotiations already fraught with tension.
Congressional Republicans claimed they acted independently because they felt like the Obama administration was shutting them out of the decision making process with regard to Iran. To voice their opinions, they chose a forum exterior to the negotiations yet prominent enough to impact their course. While treaties require two-thirds congressional approval, US Presidents often engage in such executive actions with their international counterparts, and the executive action is typically honored by the incoming administration as a matter of diplomatic continuity. As the struggle between Congressional Republicans and Barack Obama demonstrates, sometimes the most difficult obstacles to agreement are away from the negotiation table.