Is a Nuclear Deal with Iran Possible?

By on / Iran Nuclear Negotiations Working Group, Middle East Negotiation Initiative (MENI)

Professor James K. Sebenius, Director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, and Michael Singh, former Adjunct Fellow at the Belfer Center and currently Managing Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, have analyzed efforts to negotiate Iranian nuclear issues. They observe that two U.S. administrations and many others have sought to negotiate with Iran to credibly limit its nuclear program to peaceful purposes. Their lack of success has prompted analysts to offer tactical and process advice (e.g., be more or less confrontational; impose or avoid preconditions; start with “easy” issues to build momentum; use back channels or third parties, etc.). They argue that a more basic question must first be answered: “is there a ‘zone of possible agreement’ between Iran and its main counterparts?” They develop a framework to answer this question, and conclude that:

· On widely accepted assumptions, there does not at present appear to be a zone of possible agreement that is better for each side than its best no-deal option. As such, tactical and process-oriented approaches have failed and will likely continue to fail to achieve desirable agreement.

· If there is no zone of possible agreement, the challenge for negotiators is to create and widen such a zone to include feasible deals that are better than war and accommodating a nuclear-armed Iran.

· If such a zone is to be created and expanded to include desirable agreements, Iran’s no-deal option must be sufficiently worsened by a range of cost-imposing measures, and/or the value of a potential deal must be sufficiently enhanced by a range of inducements. Such costs and/or inducements must be credible, meaningful to the Iranian administration, and of sufficient magnitude.

· Downplaying both coercive options and upside potential, as international negotiators appear to have done, works against this two-pronged strategy.

· If and as a zone of possible agreement opens, skillful diplomatic tactics and process choices will be required to achieve a worthwhile deal.

Their argument is summarized in a March 2011 policy brief, “The Iran Talks: Opening a Zone of Possible Agreement,” and developed in considerable detail in James K. Sebenius and Michael K. Singh, “Is a Nuclear Deal with Iran Possible? An Analytical Framework for the Iran Nuclear Negotiations” Belfer Center Working Paper, Harvard Kennedy School, February 2011.

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