SALT Lessons for the Iran Nuclear Talks in Moscow

By Bilal Y. Saab – There is a consensus among American analysts and several current and former officials in the Obama administration including Dennis Ross that Tehran concedes only when it is under pressure. This makes sense and it applies not just to Iran but to any country, corporation, or societal actor that is in the midst of negotiations. You can say that these are the ABCs of negotiations. If you find yourself at risk of significants costs, you concede, it’s that simple. Or is it?

Is it really true that a hard bargaining strategy by the P5+1 and the threat of comprehensive sanctions will push the mullahs to make the necessary concessions (no 20% enriched uranium on Iranian soil)? Some assess the record of the negotiations since 2003 and find evidence to suggest that tough bargaining coupled with economic sticks and threats of military action have led to Iran softening its position.

But if you read Seyed Hossein Mousavian’s new book The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir, there is a crucial point made by the author regarding Iran’s refusal to agree to anything if it is seen as doing so under pressure. Mousavian is not just a scholar at Princeton, he was Iran’s Ambassador to Germany, head of the Foreign Relations Committee of Iran’s National Security Council and a spokesman for Iran in its talks with the EU.  David Ignatius of the Washington Post picked up on this theme in a May 24 column of his. Ignatius says the following:

It’s useful to view recent negotiating history through Iranian eyes, as Mousavian does. Here’s what this optic reveals: Khamenei in 2005 removed his ban on negotiations with America; Iran in 2009 offered to export to the U.S. its 20 percent enriched uranium, and it renewed this offer with greater specificity in 2010 and 2011; Iran last July accepted a Russian proposal to suspend further enrichment capacity and accept the IAEA’s so-called “additional protocol” for intrusive inspection. The Iranians think they got nothing but more sanctions for these moves.”

One can understand Iran’s rationale. A major concession by Tehran can be interpreted by the West as a sign of weakness. But if Tehran does not concede, it could face military action and will have to deal with devastating sanctions. The challenge for Iran, therefore, is to prevent war and more painful sanctions but refrain from showing weakness. The challenge for the West, on the other hand, is to induce cooperation by Iran without appearing too tough and exploiting Iran’s vulnerability. If we believe Catherine Ashton’s and other EU diplomats’ statements that a deal can be reached and that there is sufficient common ground between Iran and the West, it comes down to bargaining strategies and skills on both sides.

History is almost always full of useful lessons. If reading and assessing the record of the Iran-West nuclear talks is proving to be difficult, you can always examine the records of other tough inter-state negotiations in the past and try to see what bargaining strategies were used by both sides to achieve agreement. I take a look at the record of the SALT talks.

In an influential, September 1984 study called Negotiating Strategic Arms Control, 1969-1979, Lloyd Jensen suggests that a hardline stand by the United States produced Soviet concessions in the SALT talks, as well as in earlier negotiations on the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. For the 1969-1979 period, which witnessed 23 rounds of US-Soviet negotiations, Jensen compiled 113 concessions and 6 retractions for the Soviet Union, and 81 concessions and 7 retractions for the United States. Because each concession and retraction was not equal, Jensen weighed them by using a five-point scale. A major concession such as the United States’ acquiescence to inspection by national means or the Soviet Union dropping its demand for abolishing or counting forward-based systems as strategic arms was represented by a higher score. That the Soviets made more concessions than the Americans was not that significant or particularly revealing because it said nothing about initial negotiating positions. However, the fact that there were so few retractions on the part of either side was indicative of a continuing narrowing of differences that facilitated the successful conclusion of both SALT I and SALT II (though the Carter administration failed to win the consent of the Senate to ratify SALT II, but that is irrelevant to this point).

Such narrowing of differences is desperately needed between Iran and the P5+1, but if history is any guide and previous strategic arms control talks between the superpowers offer any lessons, the US-led P5+1 should stick to a hard bargaining strategy to induce concessions by Iran. But another equally important lesson of past US-Soviet interactions during the SALT period, which Richard J. Stoll and William McAndrew discuss in a June 1986 article of theirs also called Negotiating Strategic Arms Control, 1969-1979, is that such interactions were characterized more often by cooperative reciprocity (various forms of tit for tat) than by inverse reciprocity (various forms of exploitation). Of course, Iran is not the Soviet Union and there can be a gazzilion of reasons why the Soviet Union made concessions which might have little to do with the US negotiating strategy. Controlling for other variables is always a challenging exercise. But despite its potential irrelevance to the Iran nuclear case, the US-Soviet record in SALT is hard to ignore.

For the Moscow talks, the bottom line is this: Washington and its allies might be better off keeping their hardline stance but also sweetening the pot in order to create this virtuous cycle of mutual concessions with the Iranians. Obviously this is not just about the bomb for Iran, it is about the survival of its regime and the protection of its security interests.