Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2014

Stepping Stone, Stopping Point, or Slippery Slope? Negotiating the Next Iran Deal

by James K. Sebenius


The November 2013 "interim" nuclear deal between Iran and the "P5+1"—the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany—raises challenging questions. Will the initial deal function as a stepping stone toward a more comprehensive deal? Or will it drift into becoming a stopping point that leaves Iran dangerously close to nuclear weapons capability with the sanctions regime in decline? Or will it devolve to a slippery slope that would end up requiring a painful choice for key players between either acquiescing in a nuclear-capable Iran or attacking Iran's nuclear facilities? With Iran and the P5+1 each splintered into contending factions, a successful stepping stone strategy requires converting enough "persuadable skeptics" on each side to forge a "winning coalition" on behalf of a more comprehensive nuclear deal. This supportive group must be strong enough to overcome the potent "blocking coalition" that will oppose virtually any larger, next-stage agreement. The best chance for the interim accord to become a stepping stone to a more valuable deal calls for a two-pronged negotiating strategy with both value-enhancing and cost-imposing elements. The first prong of this strategy should strive to craft the most valuable possible next deal that credibly offers Iran a range of benefits, not limited to sanctions relief, that are greater and much more salient than those available from the interim agreement. The second prong should significantly worsen the consequences of failing to reach the next nuclear deal by a strong public U.S. Presidential commitment to sign a bill, prenegotiated with the Congress and P5+1 allies, imposing enhanced sanctions if negotiations toward an acceptable, but relatively narrow, agreement denying Iran an "exercisable nuclear option" do not succeed by the reasonable but firm deadline no later than twelve months from the start of the interim talks.

Keywords: negotiations; Iran; nuclear; conflict resolution; winning coalition; blocking coalition; Strategy; Negotiation; International Relations; France; Germany; Iran; China; Great Britain; United States; Russia;


Sebenius, James K. "Stepping Stone, Stopping Point, or Slippery Slope? Negotiating the Next Iran Deal." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 14-061, January 2014. (Revised March 2014.)