Zarif and Lenin in Historical Comparison

Monday, October 6, 2014

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Can a bad deal be still somehow a good deal and advantageous to no deal at all? "Over time, a bad deal may be viewed as good, a pertinent example being the 1794 American-British agreement, so-called Jay Treaty, which is now considered a diplomatic victory for US, although at the time it was seen as a bad deal – that settled the outstanding issues between the two countries."

There is no general answer to this question that can be posed not in abstraction but rather concretely with respect to specific circumstances and objective conditions. The evaluation of any deal, particularly an international deal, requires the intervention of strict criteria, such as vested interests and short and long-term consequences, which must be germane to the parties entering the deal and weighing its merits from their vantage point.

In terms of the current nuclear negotiations between Iran and the world powers, the above question owes it relevance to the recent statement of Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, that "any deal with Iran would be better than nothing...if you compare any deal with a no-deal, it's clear that a deal would be much preferable." 

Raising eye brows on 'both sides of the isle', Zarif's statement during his recent visit to the United Nations in New York was in direct response to the US Secretary of State John Kerry's comment that the US would not enter into a "bad deal" with Iran. 

The big question is, of course, what are the parameters of a good deal that can then be used to assess a potential deal as good or bad? Should these parameters be simply intrinsic to the nuclear issue or should they include related and yet extrinsic criteria, such as the broader Iran-West relations and the regional security issues, etc.? There is no simple answer to this question, particularly since the regional environment over the past year has experienced radical changes that, in turn, require serious policy adjustments. 

As expected, inside Iran the political reaction to Zarif's above-mentioned statement has been rather harsh and it has been compared to "the language of capitulation." Such criticisms do not seem to have taken into consideration the exigencies of an utterly new situation that dictates tactical maneuvers on the part of Iran's nuclear negotiation team.

Nor do these criticisms evince sufficient awareness of the combination of diplomatic energy and bold foresight that is discernible in Zarif's delicate verbal utterance, targeted to a specific audience in the United States. Unfortunately, Zarif's statement has been subjected less to careful analysis than to furious attacks that for the most part extrapolate important strategic points from what was clearly a time-bound tactical maneuver, which in this author's mind raises an interesting, albeit limited, comparison with the leader of Bolshevik revolution, Vladimir Lenin, and the strength of Lenin's tactical mind that was in full display in Lenin's signing the "disgraceful peace" with Germany in Brest-Litovsk in March, 1918. 

Lest we forget, at the time Lenin despite a powerful internal opposition defended the historical deal with the Central Powers by arguing that "the peace must be accepted as a respite enabling us to prepare for a resistance." As we know, the Brest-Litovsk Peace treaty ceded a large chunk of Russian territory (and population) to the other side, yet from Lenin's world-historical perspective was still a good deal despite the unfavorable terms simply because it ended Russia's involvement in WWI and thus allowed the nascent revolutionary state to consolidate itself, convinced as he was that sooner or later the tide of events would shift in Russia's favor and thus render that treaty obsolete. 

As it happened, Lenin's premonitions proved on the mark and Bolshevik Russia unilaterally abrogated the Brest-Litovsk treaty and over time was able to regain a great deal of the losses reflected in that one-sided deal, which Lenin used to save the "most important thing at the moment," namely, the revolution. The important lesson to be drawn from Lenin's handling of that crucial decision – to sign or not to sign a bad deal under the duress of an unwinnable war -- is the role of dialectical thought and leadership attuned to the fluid dynamic of changing balances of power and the related demands for changes in tactics and strategy. Only then one can begin to appreciate why in a specific circumstance a seemingly bad deal may actually be good or advantageous, taking into consideration the short versus long-term effects, or vice-versa. A good example of the latter is perhaps the Treaty of Versailles, that at the moment, appeared highly advantageous to the winning parties such as France and, yet, turned out to be a bad (i.e., lop-sided) deal that nested the seeds of WWII and subsequent capitulation of France to the defeated Germany, i.e., a historic embarrassment for the French that they have not yet fully recovered from.

Now, of course, nothing that has been mentioned above should be mistaken for a lame justification for a "bad nuclear deal" particularly one that from Iran's vantage point would lead to the obliteration of its self-imposed "red lines." Rather, the purpose here is to direct our attention to the necessity of dialectical thinking in tackling the 'Gordian knot' of Iran nuclear standoff, instead of self-garrisoning in immobile positions fed by the intoxication of bold yet ultimately vacuous phrases. 

One reason why Zarif's statement invites a limited comparison with Lenin is that sanctions are war by other means and Iran's number one priority is to succeed in meeting the challenge of international sanctions. As President Rouhani himself stated in his recent New York trip, the nuclear talks have yielded a "healthy baby" in the form of the Geneva "Joint Plan of Action" which must be nursed and nurtured in order to reach the fruition of a final agreement. With the approaching deadline of November 24th, the nuclear talks are at a critical threshold --- of either reaching a historic deal or a breakdown, or perhaps a new interim agreement, one that would give a new lease of life to the multilateral negotiations. 

In the present condition of uncertainty about the fate of these talks, Zarif's calculated statement must be interpreted properly, as a warning not to be perfectionist, which could prevent a potentially "win-win" deal, and simultaneously an open admission that the price of failure can be prohibitively too high for both sides, i.e., a lose-lose proposition. Given the overt signs of US's inflexible and excessive attitude at the negotiation table, such warnings must be considered timely and an apt initiative to jolt the American, and altogether Western, audience into thinking ahead about the undesirable consequences of failure, above all, a re-escalation of tensions over the nuclear issue at a time when the regional insecurities are on the rise and require collective effort by the international community. There are strong disinclinations to sign a less than perfect deal, yet the protean value of Zarif's statement is to shift the focus on the disadvantages of a no deal, which can clearly serve the function of a timely catalyst to bridge the existing gaps by virtue of stimulating the positive and negative feedback of greater awareness and sensitivity to the 'road not taken' by failing to reach a deal.

*Kaveh Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

Key Words: Mohammad Javad Zarif, Vladimir Lenin, Historical Comparison, Bad Deal, Good Deal, Interests and Consequences, Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty, Joint Plan of Action, Nuclear Talks, Afrasiabi

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