Worst deal of 2013

Clifford May is the former New York Times reporter who now heads up the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. In his most recent column Cliff takes up our deal with Iran. He thinks it’s a bad deal, of a piece with other comparable deals between democracies and dictators. He also assesses the current state of play since the Joint Plan of Action was announced on November 24:

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the think tank I head, estimates that, over the next six months, Iran will receive $20 billion or more in sanctions relief both directly from the Geneva package and through positive changes in Iranian economic activity. Last Friday at 6 p.m., a State Department spokesman finally answered a query about what concessions Iran has given in return. It turns out that, on the Iranian side, the agreement “has yet to be implemented.”

In the meantime, Iran’s centrifuges continue to spin, turning out 20 percent enriched uranium. Construction is ongoing at the Arak heavy-water reactor, a facility that will be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Weaponization and ballistic-missile development have not been halted — such activities are not even included in the Joint Plan of Action despite the fact that a 2012 U.N. Security Council resolution obligates Iran to “not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” All these issues are to be addressed in a new round of negotiations expected to begin in January — though no date certain is yet on the calendar.

Why do democracies always always seem to come out on the short end of the stick to dictatorial regimes? He writes:

The challenges of negotiating with dictators and authoritarians should not be underestimated. Years of talks intended to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons ended in abject failure. More recently, the vaunted “reset” with Russia led to American concessions on such important issues as missile defense. It is not clear what Russia has given in return. Syria may be in the process of surrendering its chemical weapons but, in exchange, the Assad regime now has a green light to slaughter Syrian men, women, and children by any other means. Indeed, over the past week more than 400 people were killed in residential areas of Aleppo by regime aircraft that dropped steel barrels packed with explosives and shrapnel.

Why are bad guys better than good guys when it comes to deal-making? Part of the reason, I suspect, is that we too often assume that those across the table are, like us, seeking common ground and sincerely open to compromise. In reality, the rulers of such nations as North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Iran regard negotiations as warfare. Their goal is not “conflict resolution.” It is victory — and that implies the defeat of their enemies.

Unlike other deals to which Cliff alludes, however, the Iran deal is farcical on its face. In addition to the factors that Cliff discusses, there is something deeper and more dangerous at play that is required to explain it.