The Iran Nuclear Agreement: A Test of U.S. Leadership

Co-authored by Gordon Thompson, Executive Director of the institute for Resource and Security Studies.

The July 2015 Iran nuclear agreement is a turning point in current history. The world waits to see how the US will act. Congress has given itself until September 17 to endorse or reject the agreement. While numerous qualified experts have publicly endorsed the agreement, some political factions are lobbying Congress to reject it. We, a negotiation expert and a nuclear analyst, endorse the agreement from two perspectives. First, the agreement is valuable in terms of its specific provisions. Nuclear experts broadly agree that it will significantly limit Iran's ability to build nuclear weapons during the coming years. Second, the agreement provides a model for US engagement with global issues through a process of mutual-gains negotiation among nations. Application of this model to other issues could restore the United States' reputation as a responsible actor and leader on the world stage. Mutual-gains negotiation begins by uncovering the parties' interests, and moves forward to create options to meet those interests. As options are considered, the parties should also consider what alternative ways of meeting their interests might exist, away from the negotiation table. Negotiation specialists use the term "BATNA" to describe the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. Progress in a negotiation should always be weighed against one's BATNA. Good alternatives (i.e., a strong BATNA) can diminish the impetus to negotiate. A weak BATNA propels parties to stay at the negotiation table, discussing options for agreement. Negotiation research shows that assumptions of dominance can distort a party's thinking about its interests and BATNA. A nation that perceives itself to be all-powerful may not understand the true nature of its own power, the limits to that power, and the ways in which power can be used productively. Its leaders may unreasonably expect that other nations will submit to its demands. True power is context-dependent and takes various forms. An important part of a nation's power derives from its relationships with other nations. Maximizing relational power requires constant attention to the interests of other nations. A nation seeking to use relational power must strive to be known as a reliable partner whose actions inspire respect, admiration, and loyalty. Often, parties to a negotiation differ in their sources of power and their ability to use that power. The strength of each party's BATNA is an important aspect of contextual power. Thus, the parties to the Iran nuclear agreement - Iran, China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, Germany, and the European Union - have different sources of power and different BATNAs. In this context, Iran might appear to be a weak party. However, at an uneven negotiating table, various sources of power can be mobilized. The strength of a party's BATNA can be one source. Other sources are alliances and networks. Alliances may be stronger if an apparently weaker party is subjected to unfair or unreasonable demands, evoking moral power. Nuclear negotiations with Iran began in 2003, initially without US participation, subsequently languished, revived with President Rouhani's election in 2013, and concluded in July 2015. During that period, Iran was subjected to economic sanctions and repeatedly threatened with attack. Yet, Iran continued to strengthen its capability to make nuclear materials (i.e., enriched uranium, and plutonium). The July 2015 agreement sharply reverses that trend. Thus, the agreement is much more attractive than the United States' BATNA - continued sanctions, and threats of attack. Without the agreement, Iran's nuclear capability, already substantially greater than when negotiations began in 2003, would continue to grow. There is a broad international consensus that the agreement is fair and reasonable. The UN Security Council and the European Union have endorsed it. If Congress rejects the agreement, it is unlikely that the non-US parties would be willing to re-open negotiations. They could implement the agreement without US participation. Whatever the outcome, the United States' reputation as a responsible actor would be diminished. Factions advocating Congressional rejection of the agreement seem unaware of the extent to which US power is relationship-based. They assume that other nations will fall in line behind the United States, whatever it does. They ignore the extent to which other nations, increasingly concerned that the US pursues narrow, short-term objectives, are seeking to reduce US influence. For example, there is a nascent movement to replace the US dollar as the world's reserve currency. Secretary of State John Kerry warns that Congressional rejection could trigger a sequence of events that accelerates this movement. Many global issues demand serious attention. Climate change, conflict in Syria and Ukraine, and the potential for disease pandemics are examples. Each such issue requires international cooperation and negotiated agreements. The Iran nuclear agreement demonstrates that the United States can use its power effectively, provide wise leadership, and create important international agreements. Congress should be thinking about ways to promote such leadership, instead of undermining it. Paula Gutlove teaches negotiation and leadership at Simmons College. Gordon Thompson directs the Institute for Resource and Security Studies.