“Слава Богу, мой дружище, есть у нас враги…” -Yuri Vizbor
The debate that is happening around the Iran deal right now is in some ways very stupid. People who are for the deal say: “this deal is better for nuclear nonproliferation than not having a deal and having the sanctions regime crumble” – this is true. Then people who are against the deal say: “this deal is not ideal at stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb” – this is also true. Then the people who are for the deal confidently say: “well, this is the best we were gonna get with Iran, and with having to ensure China and Russia don’t back out of sanctions”. And then the people against the deal confidently say: “No, you could have gotten much better”. The thing is, nobody actually knows whether this is the best possible deal, possibly apart from the negotiators (who face strong incentives to lie). Making this discussion even less grounded in reality is the fact that we (at least I) have very little idea how negotiations work.
So for example, VJ has suggested that threatening war would have been effective to get Iran to further concessions because then “saving face” for Iran would have been avoiding confrontation. Would that have worked? I must admit that I have no idea, and so I don’t know whether the Iran deal is as good as it could be. It’s definitely better than a lack of deal + lack of sanctions, and it’s definitely worse than an ideal deal. After that, I suspect everyone just goes with what politicians and analysts they trust are saying. Most round-ups of arms control experts I have seen are positive, but that probably has to do with my sources of information.
As I said, I have very little idea how negotiations work, but I have a guess as to how they almost certainly do not work: what probably doesn’t happen is that the parties come together and start by discussing who the good guy is between them and who the bad guy, and leave off all other negotiation until they come to an agreement on that topic. “Admitting that you’re the bad guy” is something no party to an actual negotiation, instead of a surrender after defeat in war, would do. So the complaints about the Iran deal that boil down to complaints about Iran still being Iran – e.g. this rather long-winded Leon Wieseltier number – are not reasonable complaints.
But there’s something being hinted at here, and in a lot of anti-Iran deal commentary that I want to make explicit: the idea that maybe there’s an advantage to signalling that Iran’s the bad guy that outweighs the advantage of a deal. That is, in not agreeing to a deal, the US gets to clearly say “Iran is our enemy, and they are the bad guys, and so no deal for them”. This kind of strategy is called “moral clarity” to its supporters. In domestic politics, this is often called “the politics of resentment” – rather than concentrating on what is useful, do what would piss off people you don’t like. I don’t think anyone I respect thinks this is a good idea in domestic policy. But many more people think it’s a good idea in foreign policy, because a lot of foreign policy is about signalling, and what people think of you is potentially very important.
So is it useful to keep enemies just for the purpose of keeping enemies? Just from a pure utility perspective, it’s a really bad idea. Thus, for instance, Noah Millman pretty clearly disagrees with that way of looking at the Iran deal. But it seems to be, for example, what Kissinger and Shultz are saying. (Are you reading Anna? I am linking to your favourite war criminal!). Keeping Iran as an enemy is powerful signalling to our would-be friends and enemies. Whereas a deal with Iran gives “comfort to the enemy”. How true is this? My initial suspicion is to go with Millman and say that keeping enemies just for the sake of it is not good policy. My confidence in this statement is very low. But I do think that since the negatives of keeping enemies just for the sake of keeping enemies are very clear and obvious, the burden of proof should be on the people who claim that it’s a good idea.