Neocons Fail Negotiation 101 Yet Again

If you want to know how the neoconservatives who brought us the Iraq War are reacting to the interim deal to freeze Iran's nuclear program, the best way is to head over to the website of the Weekly Standard, where you can witness their wailing chagrin that the Obama administration doesn't share their hunger for yet another Middle East war. All five of the featured articles on the site concern Iran, including editor Bill Kristol's "No Deal" (illustrated with twinned photos of Bibi Netanyahu and Abraham Lincoln, believe it or not), one titled "Don't Trust, Can't Verify," and "Abject Surrender By the United States" by the always measured John Bolton.

These people would be simply ridiculous if they didn't already have so much blood on their hands from Iraq, and the idea that anyone would listen to them after what happened a decade ago tells you a lot about how Washington operates. But there is something important to understand in the arguments conservatives are making about Iran. Their essential position is that now that Iran has finally agreed to negotiate, we must "keep the pressure on" by not negotiating until they offer, to use Bolton's words, an actual abject surrender. We should not just maintain but increase sanctions, to make them understand that they'll get nothing and like it. The only way to get future concessions from Iran is to maximize their pain now.

You'll recall how much progress the Bush administration made in getting Iran to pull back its nuclear development with this approach (none). It seems pretty clear that the neocons understand about as much about negotiating as my dog does about delayed gratification. So let me suggest that an easing of sanctions now is exactly what could get them to agree to more concessions at the end of the interim agreement's period of six months. The reason is that what we've done is give the Iranians not only something to gain, but something to lose.

You may be familiar with the theory of loss aversion, which states that we tend to fear losses more than we are eager for gains. The pain of losing ten dollars you have is greater than the pleasure of gaining ten you don't yet have. According to Daniel Kahneman, who pioneered the theory with his late colleague Amos Tversky, the "loss aversion ratio" in experiments is usually around two to one. For instance, if I offer you a bet in which you'll lose $100 if you're wrong, I'll probably have to offer you $200 if you win in order to induce you to take the bet. Loss aversion has been demonstrated in a large number of experiments in a wide variety of contexts.

But as Bob Dylan said, when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose, which brings us back to Iran. Sanctions have by all accounts had a devastating effect on the Iranian economy. What conservatives would like to offer Iran is continued economic misery, in the hopes that a little more of that will get them to do what we want, i.e. dismantle their nuclear program. But under this new agreement, they'll get a bit of temporary relief. Money will flow in to their economy, easing some of that misery. It might not be actual prosperity, but things will be better than they are now. The Iranian public will be pleased about the improved economy, likely making the regime feel more politically secure. Then at the end of the agreement's time frame in six months, the country as a whole and the government in particular will have something to lose. The western powers will be able to say to them: Things are going better for you know. If you don't take the next step in dismantling the nuclear program, we'll reimpose the sanctions, and you'll squander what you've gained.

Obviously, there are many other variables at play—the need to save face, the desire to be considered a world power, and so on. But if this agreement gives the Iranians something to lose, it might be just the thing to induce them to give up more later.

Or we could just listen to the neocons and start another war. Because that always works out well.

You may also like