Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Haggle and the Macho Match

Juan Cole today quotes Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, as saying
Mr President [Ahmadinejad] made the comment in a subtle way. If you paid attention to his comments, he said: Start the 20-per cent enrichment, but the doors for cooperation are still open and we are still ready for fuel swap. In other words, we - although we will start the 20-per cent enrichment tomorrow - will stop the enrichment as soon as they (West) come to their senses and provide our fuel.
There are a number of ways to parse this; they will stop the 20% enrichment? all enrichment? The fuel must come tomorrow? Unfortunately, this kind of uncertainty clings to all statements on the subject coming out of Iran.

I am probably the world's worst haggler. When I try to analyze this situation in those terms, there's an awful lot that doesn't make sense. That could be my haggling inadequacies or it could be that the parties are not making sense in their bargaining.

There seem to be two things going on: a haggle and a macho match. The two can be combined in diplomatic negotiations, but the addition of too much macho, it seems to me, has poisoned a compromise for both sides. Add in the uncertainties of who is speaking for the Iranian government and the internal changes of personnel and policy, and it’s not clear that any agreement will be possible.

Not showing weakness may be a reasonable strategy in international negotations. Of course, there’s that kind of strength and there’s the kind of strength that can dare to show weakness. The US and other P5+1 have that kind of strength, but whether it is wise to show weakness in this way depends on the situation, and the way Iran has presented its case has had aspects of forcing a show of weakness on the part of the P5+1, which makes it much more difficult to do, even from a position of unquestioned military and economic strength. To be sure, the Iranians may feel that the P5+1 has been playing a similar game, hoping to force Iran to take their offer without modification. I’m talking about perception, not intentions. Whatever the intentions, if either side accepts the other’s position, it involves a certain amount of humiliation.

That’s the macho side of the interaction. As Cole noted, Saddam Hussein was playing the macho game too, and the Iranians might well note what it got him. And there are additional macho players within Iran and the bomb-Iran faction outside.

The macho game has brought both sides to a place where they can’t move. The haggle is the part I don’t understand, which may be my inadequacies or it may be the strange moves Iran is making, most probably because of their internal disagreements.

I will oversimplify and say you want to buy a rug in the bazaar. You offer $50 and the merchant says, no, $500. That's the start, and we expect that the two will be some distance apart. With various protestations of not having any more money in your wallet and the prospect that his children will go hungry, you get to $150 offered and $200 demanded. Suddenly another guy jumps up from behind the stall and says that he’s really the one in charge and for just ten dollars more ($160), you can have the rug, and at the same time the guy you’ve been negotiating with says no, he really can't let it go for less than $450. It seems to me that that is the current state of the Iranian negotations.

The question is who has the power in this negotiation. It seems to me unquestionable that it's not Iran in terms of military and economic might, to the extent that sanctions work. What power Iran has is to move toward a nuclear weapons program. That's a very negative sort of power and potentially involves a great deal of international disapprobation, not to mention Israel's nuclear arsenal. But Iran behaves as though it possesses the greater power.

That's nice for a bluff, I guess, and at this point we get into the kind of haggling that is simply incomprehensible to me. It's also like poker, which I have finally come to terms with as a pastime that people enjoy but is quite outside what I consider pleasurable.

I think there's misjudgement on both sides here as to what each can do, and perhaps a deliberate attempt by both sides to break the other. Humiliate yourselves and offer us the uranium in desperation to make us stop enriching, say the Iranians. Humiliate yourselves and agree that we've given you a good bargain, say the P5+1. What has been offered by the P5+1 is indeed a good bargain, bringing Iran into nuclear commerce with the rest of the world and allowing them to continue enriching to reactor grade. It might have been better haggling for the P5+1 to have offered something more imperfect and allowed the Iranians to have saved some face by offering their modifications, which could have been accepted.

I don't quite understand why the P5+1/IAEA have been so rigid in response to the Iranians' desire to modify their offer. Some of what the Iranians have suggested (like the location of the swap) seems innocuous to me. The time-delay stuff, not so much.

I think that part of the Iranian dance, with those guys popping up from behind the stall, has been their internal disagreements and power struggles. But their changing presentations of their position do not inspire confidence, particularly given their less-than-candid performance with the IAEA.

It’s probably a good thing that I’m not in charge of the negotiations. I really don’t know where I’d go from here. The Obama administration was buying time by letting the negotiations drag at the end of the year, but the Iranian claim of moving up the enrichment to 19.75% ups the urgency. Cole was not quite right yesterday in saying that the increased level of enrichment changes nothing; the time to a bomb, if that is the intention, is still fairly long. But the higher enrichment will teach the Iranians more of what they need to know to get there. It would be better if they did not do this.


Anonymous said...

There are a number of ways to parse this; they will stop the 20% enrichment? all enrichment? The fuel must come tomorrow? Unfortunately, this kind of uncertainty clings to all statements on the subject coming out of Iran.

Here's what Salehi specifically said regarding a swap and enrichment:

"It [a swap] should be simultaneous, and we accept the custody of the agency in Iran. The uranium can be under the custody of the agency (IAEA) in Iran and it could be sealed until the time we receive the 20 percent enriched fuel from outside. So the deal is still on the table. If they come forward and supply the fuel, then we will stop the 20-percent enrichment."

Putting Iranian uranium under the "custody" of the IAEA sounds like it might be a minor concession, but it's not clear exactly what that means.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Thanks, Andy.

One of the things that has bothered me about the discussion in the media of what is being proposed by both sides is that we're not getting clear statements.

That's not too surprising in a negotiation; there's no requirement to publish the proceedings. But the details are extremely important, and we're not getting them.

Anonymous said...

You're right about the media and I think this is a consequence of "podium" negotiation that's long characterized our relationship with Iran. Personally, I think we need to reestablish formal diplomatic ties for just this reason.