How to Negotiate with Iran
It may only be a matter of time before the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran sit down for serious negotiations. But how can these two implacable foes get to “yes”? Herewith, a brief how-to guide.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
As Lewis Carrolls wise walrus said, The time has come to talk of many things. Sooner or later, Iranians and Americans will sit together to negotiate the issues that divide them. When they do, there will be much to discuss: Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism, nuclear programs, sanctions, Middle East peace, security guarantees, and human rights. For the last 30 years, with some limited exceptions, these two erstwhile allies have preferred to communicate through posturing, exchanging insults, threatening, sermonizing, and resorting to occasional violence. So much antagonism has brought predictable results. Like an annoying neighbor, neither side has gone away. Nor has either side, in that patronizing phrase beloved by policymakers, changed its behavior to any meaningful degree.
The mutual distrust now runs so deep that when one side does make an approach, the other draws back, assuming that an adversary so evil and so crafty would not make such an approach without a malign, ulterior motive. Things have reached such an impasse that the most innocuous statements are greeted with the question, What are they up to now?
Whenever Americans and Iranians do realize that each has much to gain from a serious dialogue, both sides may still find the talks difficult and unpleasant. They will have to keep expectations realistic and understand that progress will be slow and agreements difficult to reach. There may be no smooth road to a grand bargain.
In dealing with Iran there are, however, some key points worth remembering that will help avoid some of the missteps that have doomed previous attempts to start a dialogue. These points are worth repeating even if they seem obvious to those with experience in negotiation and to those who have dealt with the Middle East in general and Iran in particular, because in diplomacy, style often matters as much as substance.
Separate your view of the person from your view of the problem. In any negotiation, its best to leave ones preconceptions about the other sides rationality, trustworthiness, and stability at the door. Otherwise, one approaches counterparts assuming that they are, for example, crafty, devious, mendacious, or grasping, and negotiates based on these assumptions. The other side will easily perceive these assumptions and react accordingly. And once each side concludes that the other side is interested only in deceiving or humiliating it, the prospects for agreement become remote. In other words, if you approach your negotiating counterparts as irrational, stubborn, dissimulating cheats, they will likely, on the basis of what they perceive, fulfill those expectations.
From 1951 to 1953, for example, during the British-Iranian crisis over oil nationalization, both sides found themselves in a classic downward spiral because neither could separate person from problem. The British concluded that Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh was the problem. He was, in their view, so unstable, irrational, xenophobic, and blinded by his resentments over past British actions that there could be no settlement until he was removed from power. On the other side, the Iranians concluded that British attitudes were the problem. The issue for the Iranians was not oil but centuries of Britains dealing with them as inferior people who needed Londons guidance and firm hand. Mossadegh and his nationalist allies decided that there could be no settlement of the oil dispute until a semicolonial relationship had been corrected. Mired in mutual dislike, each side sought to defeat the other.
As for Iran and the United States today, they do not have to like each other to find areas of agreement. They should separate their underlying hostility from their underlying interestssecurity, energy, nuclear programs, terrorism, and so on. They should not let distaste for one another cloud their judgment about what is possible and what is beneficial.
Be aware of (and beware) history. In Iran, the countrys long and tragic history (or at least someones version of it) matters. Americans are often accused of being ahistorical and of dismissing inconvenient facts with the phrase, Thats just history. Iranians, on the other hand, may be said to suffer from Ozymandias syndrome. The monuments of a glorious imperial past cover the Iranian plateau. At the ruins of Persepolis, Iranians can see how their pre-Islamic kings ruled a world empire and received tribute from Egyptians, Scythians, Cappadocians, Ionians, and many more. For the last 300 years, however, Irans history has been anything but gloriousa series of defeats and humiliations leading to loss of territory and influence to outsiders. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a bankrupt Iran avoided being an official colony only because Anglo-Russian rivalry kept the country feeble, but nominally independent. In the last hundred years, Iranians have seen foreigners frustrate their constitutional movement (1906-11), occupy their territory (1941-46), and stage a coup to overthrow their nationalist leader (1953).
Many analysts have noted how Irans driving foreign-policy goal is attaining the respect worthy of its size, population, resources, and historical greatness. The journalist Barbara Slavin calls Iran the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East. As a result, the Iranian side may approach a negotiation with a combination of grandeur and grievance. Whoever negotiates with Iran should be prepared to deal simultaneously with both sides of this coin: the sense that outsiders owe Iran deference for its cultural and political glories, and the sense that powerful outsiders have betrayed, humiliated, and brutalized a weak Iran and will do so again if given the opportunity. In such a setting, phrases like axis of evil and regime change have confirmed Iranian suspicions that the U.S. government is determined to rid itself of an assertive Islamic Republicor at least deprive it of its rights.
Give Iranians credit for their intelligence. Iranian negotiators will be smart enough to detect falsehood and hypocrisy and understand when they are being taken for fools. Underestimating them will only intensify the existing cycle of mistrust. There are numerous cases in recent history. In October 1979, for example, the White House thought it could placate Iranian public opinion by announcing that the United States was admitting the deposed Shah for medical treatment. Given the history of Iranian-American relations, few Iranians would have believed it. The rationale, rather than reassuring its Iranian audience, inflamed it by insulting its intelligence. For most Iranians, Americas admitting the Shah confirmed what many in the highly charged atmosphere of late 1979 already suspected: that the United States was plotting to restage the events of August 1953 in order to overthrow the new revolutionary regime and restore the monarchy. Under such conditions, it would have been better to recognize that there was probably no explanation for the American action that Iranians would accept.
Nothing will derail a negotiation faster than leaving the impression that one considers the Iranians inferior. Having often been treated thus in the past, they will be very sensitive to anything that even hints at insulting their intelligence.
Negotiators who remember the above principles may reach an agreement, but success is far from guaranteed. Both Iranians and Americans still come to the negotiating table burdened with preconceptions, grievances, ignorance, and a firm beliefbased on a different reading of historythat the other side is deceptive and infinitely crafty, that its goal is to humiliate, and that it will in the end reveal its true nature in hostility, treachery, and lies. With this difficult background, success will mean keeping expectations reasonable and remaining focused on interests, not on the supposed evil intentions of the other side.
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