PARIS – This month’s agreements on the Greek crisis and Iran’s nuclear program are undoubtedly important achievements. But the comparisons that have accompanied both deals have tended toward hyperbole, impeding rational discussion of their implications for Europe, the Middle East, and the prospects for international diplomacy.
The deal between Greece and its creditors, for example, has been compared to the Treaty of Versailles, with the Greeks forced to accept ruinous terms of “surrender.” But economic depression, however difficult, is not war, and the position of today’s Greece cannot compare to that of the defeated Germans in 1918.
Meanwhile, opponents of the accord to limit Iran’s nuclear activities for the next 15 years have likened it to the Munich Agreement (shameful appeasement of an evil foe), while its supporters have compared it to the rapprochement between the United States and China in the 1970s. But the Iranians are nothing like the Nazis, and there is no country like the Soviet Union posing the kind of threat that inspired US President Richard Nixon to head to Beijing in 1972.
Equally problematic has been the tendency to compare the two sets of negotiations to each other. Beyond timing, they have little in common. What they do share is that their “success” was driven largely by the sense that powerful external threats made the alternative – no deal at all – much worse.
In Greece’s case, negotiations were propelled by the specter of an embittered Greece cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with his dangerous revisionist ambitions, or acting as a conduit for Europe-bound migrants. With Iran, the immediate threat of the Islamic State’s advance proved more frightening than the medium-term prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.
The only other feature the two agreements share is their incompleteness. Neither resolved the issue at hand; both simply bought time – time to figure out whether Greece really can remain in the eurozone, and time without Iran in the nuclear club.
As a result, both deals seem more like wagers than agreements. The Greek bet – whether the country will be able to keep its financial head above water, as it attempts to implement the very difficult structural reforms it has promised – will be decided first. Indeed, the answer will become clear in a matter of months, or even weeks.
The Iran bet – whether the country will resume its aggressive nuclear ambitions – will probably take much longer to be settled, perhaps eight or ten years. Of course, Iran may keep up its end of the bargain for the full 15-year timeline, but then what?
Any international negotiation – whether between partners or adversaries – follows a certain logic. There comes a moment when the negotiating process creates its own dynamic, escaping the control, at least in some ways, of its protagonists. The challenge is to find the proper point of balance – the “fair compromise” – between the parties.
Here is where the Greek and Iranian negotiations diverge. Indeed, beyond the appearance of success in both cases, the results have been very different, if not diametrically opposed. Whereas Greece, the weaker party in its negotiations, was unnecessarily humiliated by its European partners, Iran, also the weaker party in its negotiations, was given new legitimacy by its adversaries in the West. Family members, it seems, are treated more severely than outsiders.
One might argue that the deal with Iran represents a fundamental shift in the country’s stance toward the West. But the fact is that, while Iran may be a potential partner, it has long been a tough rival. The Iranian regime does not share Western values, nor will it anytime soon. And it is well known that in the Middle East, the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend – not even if that enemy is the Islamic State (or general chaos).
If it is true that too much was extracted from Greece, and too little from Iran, it seems more likely that this reflects a fundamental difference between the Greek and Iranian negotiating positions than a discrepancy in the negotiators’ skill. Iran is becoming increasingly indispensable to any resolution of the Middle East’s problems, which gives it a degree of clout that Greece, which many in Europe still view as entirely dispensable, does not have.
This explains why US President Barack Obama and his chief negotiator, Secretary of State John Kerry, were dead-set on reaching an agreement with Iran. Greece’s European partners, by contrast, were deeply divided on whether to give the country the relief it needed to keep it in the eurozone.
To be sure, there were also divisions among Iran’s interlocutors, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany. But, with China and Russia essentially on its side, at least partly, Iran could exploit those divisions to its advantage.
Greece had no such option. While Germany and France disagreed on the concessions they were willing to offer, Greece could not pit one position against the other. Regardless of the merits of French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as negotiators, the fact is that, with the Greek economy totally dependent on official financing by Europe, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was in no position to reject a last-chance agreement.
Perhaps the most important difference between the two deals is that Greece’s fate, though relevant to the world economy, mostly concerns Europe, whereas the accord with Iran has far-reaching consequences, from the balance of power in the Middle East to global nuclear non-proliferation. Both are incomplete and provisional, fueling skepticism among their critics. But it also seems clear that both agreements were the best that negotiators could achieve. To the extent that time heals wounds, that is reason enough for hope.
Dominique Moisi, a professor at L’Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), is Senior Adviser at the French Institute for International Affairs (IFRI) and a visiting professor at King’s College London.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.