After watching the twists and turns of negotiations with Iran over the last year, I’m convinced that a savvy mom could negotiate a better deal than our experienced diplomats. Why? Because our diplomats seem lacking in good, old-fashioned common sense, which parents need in abundance to survive.
I’ve studied nuclear weapons at MIT, philosophy at Oxford and politics at George Washington University, but some of the most important lessons I ever learned were as a mother enrolled in the school of life. Because learning about weapons’ throw-weights, epistemology or Chinese characters is nothing compared to learning some good old-fashioned common sense. So while the diplomats in Vienna debate enrichment cycles and sanctions relief, they might spend some time sussing out the people they’re dealing with – on both sides of the table. No diplomat can be a good negotiator without the basic skill set most parents learn while navigating the kids through childhood and puberty. In the end, countries are just an aggregate of their leaders and people. They’re motivated by some of the same incentives and disincentives as your typical 6-year-old.
It's not to belittle them, but to acknowledge some fundamentals of human nature, that I offer a few lessons for statecraft that I learned from mothercraft:
1. Don’t let your kids eat dessert before dinner.
That’s what Secretary Kerry is doing. Iran’s supreme leader insists we lift all sanctions upon signing, including unfreezing over $100 billion in assets, and Iran will get around to inspections and changes to their nuclear program over time. If they get everything they want up front, what is the incentive for them to carry out their end of the bargain down the road?
2. You DO want to see what’s in that backpack, especially if your kid’s been caught smoking pot in the past.
You want to have surprise inspections of his room. Of course your kid will argue with you, with all the standard techniques, like “Heh, Mom, don’t you trust me?” And then, as a negotiating tactic, he will concede a small thing, but not the big thing, like, “OK, Mom, give me an hour and then you can inspect my room. But my backpack is off limits.” No way a savvy Mom falls for that!
Yet, according to press reports, that is exactly what Secretary Kerry is considering! Iran’s supreme leader has rejected the idea of anytime/anyplace inspections and flatly rejects the idea of inspectors coming onto military installations. Iran’s Parliament voted to ban inspectors from military sites, documents and scientists while some legislators chanted “Death to America.”
Really? What is the most logical place for Iran to conduct nuclear weapons research? On their military bases, of course! Any agreement that doesn’t allow for anytime/anyplace inspections isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. As Ronald Reagan said, “Trust but Verify.”
Which brings up a very important point. Are the specifics of this agreement written down anyplace? When the U.S. and Iran agreed on a framework for negotiations 15 months ago, they signed a vaguely worded document. The president issued an accompanying fact sheet with more details, which Iran’s supreme leader quickly denounced. There were two very different versions of what had been agreed to in April 2014, and from what we know so far, it seems there are still very different versions. There even are press reports of secret protocols privy only to the Obama administration and the Iranian regime. Supposedly, all these differences will be worked out by signing day. But even the president’s former Iran advisers, former CIA Director General Petraeus, former Vice Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff General Cartwright, former Middle East Negotiator Ambassador Dennis Ross, former Coordinator on Arms Control and WMD Gary Samore are nervous that, as it now stands, the Iran deal is a bad one.
The White House dismisses the supreme leader’s statements as mere political posturing for domestic political consummation and says we shouldn’t worry about it. OK, but then let’s insist that Iran’s Parliament agrees to the same language that gets presented to the U.S. Congress. There should be just one public version of the Iran deal. No secret understandings. No vague principles with details left to be worked out later. Given the very wide gulf between what the Iranians think they’re agreeing to and what Secretary Kerry says they’ve agreed to, the final terms should be very clearly laid out. Every parent knows a kid will exploit any ambiguous edict to his advantage, especially if he can play Mom off against Dad.
3. The store won’t let you return the toy after it’s been opened and played with.
The president says don’t worry about enforcement – if Iran cheats, we can always “snap back” the sanctions. He’s fooling himself. Countries and international companies are already lined up, ready to do business with Iran the second sanctions are lifted. Law firms are already advising clients what they can do on Day One. European automakers want to sell cars in Iran. Apple wants to sell iPhones. China wants to buy Iran’s oil and invest in its energy sector. Russia wants to sell it weapons. Iran has the potential to be the largest market in the Middle East. Does the president really think he can cancel all those contracts? These will be the very same companies he hopes will donate to the Obama Library and offer him fat speaking fees once he leaves office. Even if the president thinks he can snap those sanctions back in place, no other leader is likely to join him.
Once those sanctions are lifted – on Day One – it will be like the California Gold Rush. Even if we catch Iran cheating, the political reality is it will be impossible to re-impose sanctions.
4. Good parenting is just a means to the end.
It’s not all about backpack inspections, eating dessert last or following the rules of the house. It’s about raising a kid who can navigate safely through his youth, who doesn’t harm himself or others and who grows up to be a self-sufficient, well-balanced, mature adult. The Iran agreement isn’t as much about Iran’s nukes as it is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
In the end, it’s not what the president or Secretary Kerry believes about the Iran deal, or the Iranians believe, or even the pundits believe. It’s what Iran’s neighbors believe this deal does or doesn’t do. The whole reason for a nuclear deal with Iran is not a photo op of President Obama shaking hands with the supreme leader. It’s finding a way to prevent a nuclear arms race in the most unstable, dangerous part of the world. If Iran’s neighbors conclude that this deal confers America’s blessing on Iran’s nuclear program, many of them have already pledged to build their own nuclear programs. Some of the president’s supporters have dismissed this as impossible, saying it would take these countries years to develop advanced nuclear programs. But who said they would invent them? They have plenty of extra funds to buy them from impoverished nuclear weapons states like Pakistan.
Once nuclear weapons are introduced into the region, it’s only a matter of time before one gets used – accidentally, inadvertently, intentionally. The Arab Spring has demonstrated that entrenched Middle East autocrats can be toppled overnight, and what replaces them are not stable, pro-Western, peace and freedom-loving democracies, but ISIS, terrorists, the Islamic State and jihadi chaos.
Then we will have what has terrified the world since the dawn of the atomic age: nuclear weapons in the hands of crazy people who want to use them. Last week we saw a Club Med-style beach resort in supposedly peaceful Tunisia stormed by a suicide bomber intent on slaughtering vacationing Western retirees and children. He and his ilk wouldn't hesitate to strap on a dirty bomb – or worse – instead of a suicide vest.
If the Iran agreement is unverifiable, unenforceable and possibly unconstitutional, then it is also very undesirable. If the agreement doesn’t stop Iran’s nuclear program, then it not only won’t prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, it will accelerate one.
No doubt the Iranian diplomats are driving a hard bargain and threatening to blow up the deal if their final terms aren’t met. They know the other side is most vulnerable when it's salivating for the signing ceremony. One of the greatest negotiators of the 20th century, my old boss Ronald Reagan, walked away from an arms control agreement with the USSR when President Gorbachev insisted on significant 11th-hour changes at Reykjavik. In the end, Gorbachev came around, and Reagan got the deal he wanted. It was a turning point in history. Within a few years the Soviet empire collapsed, and we won the Cold War without firing a shot.