The Iran Deal: Now You See It, Now You Don't

Is it an agreement if the parties agreed to different things?

Bare days after U.S. and Iranian negotiators supposedly agreed to a “framework” for a final nuclear agreement, it is emerging that the United States and Iran may not actually have agreed after all.

On his apparent Twitter account, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has condemned the U.S. summary of the framework as “contrary to what was agreed,” adding, “They always deceive & breach promises.” Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, declared that he expected sanctions to be lifted immediately once a signed deal is implemented, not in the staged phases described by President Obama.

All of this reminds me of a decade-old story. Back in the Bush years, negotiations with Iran were entrusted to a three-power contact group: Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. I once spoke with one of the lead negotiators during a dinner at his nation’s embassy. He told me that repeatedly he and his Iranian counterpart would agree on some point—only for the counterpart to open the next meeting by denying that anything had been agreed the day before, casting them back to zero.

After this had happened more than once, the Western negotiator introduced a new tactic. He would have a member of his delegation take notes on the discussions in Farsi. At the end of the day, the Farsi-language notes would be presented to the Iranian counterpart for his review. “Have we understood everything correctly?” The counterpart nodded. “Would you then please kindly sign these notes to confirm that understanding?” The pen was produced, the document signed.

The next meeting opened as usual, with the Iranian counterpart rescinding everything that had been agreed at the last meeting. The Western negotiator triumphantly produced the signed minutes. The Iranian glanced contemptuously at the paper. “That’s not my signature,” he said.