More Thoughts About the Iran Deal

April 4, 2015

I’m not finished! The Washington Post’s Friday editorial, Obama’s Iran deal falls far short of his own goals, prompted some additional thoughts.

The editorial takes issue with the Iran nuclear deal because, in 2012, President Obama set certain markers which this deal does not reach. Truth be told, the observations in the editorial are measured, and there should be a debate about the deal. That said, it’s simply silly to complain about the deal because the United States did not get everything it wanted.

A major part of my law practice involves negotiating. Some of it gets pretty mundane, right down to where we’re going for lunch. Then, though, there is stuff that matters, like how much a case settles for. Here, while the stakes are much lower than a nuclear deal, much can be learned about the negotiating process.

First, everyone always starts high or low, depending on their role in the process. With $20 for every time I’ve been told by counsel, or told counsel, the initial offer is reasonable and realistic, and close to a best offer, I could take a nice vacation. So, there’s nothing remarkable at all about President Obama announcing his wishes and getting less. That’s how it works!

Second, there is the matter of unequal bargaining power. When I’m suing an insurance company or someone with insurance, we’re not on level ground. If my client does not settle, there may be nothing after a trial. And if the insurer goes to trial and loses much, much more than it had to pay to settle? The adjuster who made the decision not to pay gets a pat on the back in any given case and a “we’ll get ‘em next time.” (The same principles apply, by the way, whenever one side has more than the other.)

Third, parties place different values on issues. Insurers rarely care about anything other than money. (I had an adjuster who refused to settle a small case—30 years ago—tell me, “I don’t pay X attorney’s clients without a trial.” Rare then; rarer now.) On the other hand, I litigate probate disputes, and feelings and emotions play a huge role in these matters. People are often fighting battles that have simmered since childhood, mostly of the “Mom always liked you best” variety.

So, how do the last two negotiating “issues” relate to the Iran deal? There was unequal bargaining power on several levels in the negotiations. Contrary to the sense you get from opponents’ comments, the United States had to deal with Iran, but also with its partners, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Russia. Iran, on the other hand, had no partners. (Imagine making settlement decisions yourself v. having five business partners whose needs must be met.)

Then there’s Iran’s political structure. Ultimately, the ayatollahs make a deal or they don’t, without any real accountability. Not so much for the United States and France, Germany, and Great Britain.

Risk counts too. Iran wanted a deal because its people are not happy about living under sanctions. But, its people matter less to the government than do the people who reside in, at least, the United States and France, Germany, and Great Britain. That lack of concern may leave Iranians at greater risk if there’s no deal, but that matters not so much to the ayatollahs, and that asymmetry forces the United States and its partners to give up more, or face the risks attendant to not having a deal.

Finally, there’s the matter of emotion. Yes, people in the United States have strong, negative feelings about Iran. On the other hand, Iranians don’t much care for the CIA’s role in ousting elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. And, and I say this based solely on my experiences, people without money and a bright future often fall back on emotions. People focused on worthier goals put less energy into being angry.

In the end we’ll never know whether a better deal could have been made. We’ll also never know what would have happened without a deal. That said, any debate about the deal should focus not at all on what we demanded, and should only be about the merits.

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