Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

How to Negotiate with Iran

A diplomatic primer for dealing with the sometimes maddening, always challenging Islamic Republic.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

The various messages and statements floating back and forth between the United States and Iran since the election of U.S. President Barack Obama signal one of the few moments since 1979 when a real warming of the relationship may be possible.

It's unclear, of course, whether the United States and Iran will sit down anytime soon for public and open negotiations. And the prospect of Obama meeting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, let alone Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seems very remote. Nor would the mere existence of a serious dialogue at any level guarantee that the many issues that divide the two countries can be resolved satisfactorily. Still, the United States at this moment must think hard about how to negotiate with Iran, should the day come.

During the past 14 years, I've visited Iran more than a dozen times, both to attend conferences as an academic and to take part in diplomatic discussions as a Canadian official. During this time, I've learned some hard lessons about how to negotiate with Tehran, even on sensitive issues such as security. I've also seen the crippling mistakes that many Western countries, including the United States, make in their understanding of the Iranian body politic. Here is my advice -- on the whom, the how, and the what of talking with Tehran.

The various messages and statements floating back and forth between the United States and Iran since the election of U.S. President Barack Obama signal one of the few moments since 1979 when a real warming of the relationship may be possible.

It’s unclear, of course, whether the United States and Iran will sit down anytime soon for public and open negotiations. And the prospect of Obama meeting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, let alone Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seems very remote. Nor would the mere existence of a serious dialogue at any level guarantee that the many issues that divide the two countries can be resolved satisfactorily. Still, the United States at this moment must think hard about how to negotiate with Iran, should the day come.

During the past 14 years, I’ve visited Iran more than a dozen times, both to attend conferences as an academic and to take part in diplomatic discussions as a Canadian official. During this time, I’ve learned some hard lessons about how to negotiate with Tehran, even on sensitive issues such as security. I’ve also seen the crippling mistakes that many Western countries, including the United States, make in their understanding of the Iranian body politic. Here is my advice — on the whom, the how, and the what of talking with Tehran.

First: whom. The Iranian political scene is an extraordinarily diffuse beast. There are many power centers and many players, all perpetually locked in intense competition. Western analysts often refer to reformists, traditional conservatives, technoconservatives, radicals, and others. But, in all my time in Iran I have never heard these terminologies used by Iranians themselves. A continuum, akin to the leftist-Democrat-centrist-Republican-rightist one in the United States, is not appropriate. For, in reality, the Iranian political scene is highly fluid, with coalitions continuously forming and reforming. Iranians’ understanding of their political universe simply does not accord with Westerners’ understanding.

Because a significant portion of the debate over how to approach the Iranians concerns which factions to approach and how to do it, this misunderstanding bears significant consequences. A long process of engaging Iran at multiple levels lies in store if Westerners are to better understand the internal situation. After 30 years of isolation from Iran, analysts and officials in the West have a lot of catching up to do.

Western analysts must also recognize that the president is far from the most important figure in Iranian politics, whatever Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric may suggest. Even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is not all-powerful. Rather, he acts to preserve the delicate political balance, while subtly pushing his own agenda. The supreme leader can be difficult for outsiders to reach. Former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati runs a foreign-policy machine for the supreme leader, and that might be one avenue of approach. The most direct is simply for Obama to write directly to Khamenei — from one supreme leader to another.

Second: how. The process of negotiation will surely prove just as important as the substance, at least in the beginning. Discussions with Iranians often take place in an elaborate, formal language, which establishes pecking orders and conveys unspoken messages. Concealment and dissimulation are not regarded as negative behavior, and speaking in broad terms of theory and history is commonplace.

From my own experience, Iranians spend a good deal of time at the beginning of a discussion invoking concepts such as justice and respect and saying that the Western approach to Iran has traditionally lacked both. But Iranian negotiators are very adept at avoiding the need to define these concepts in concrete terms or linking them to specific policy avenues. This tendency gives the conversation a circular dynamic that can be very frustrating. Faced with this tendency, Western negotiators should patiently and firmly, but also politely, insist that they be provided with practical links between these concepts on the one hand and policy issues on the other — rather than endless rounds of exchanges over their esoteric meanings.

Western negotiators must also recognize that the stereotypical American style of negotiation — blunt, direct, transactional — irks and frustrates Iranians. Iranians fear that abbreviated and quick discussions deprive them of the context and the time they need to situate themselves to what is going on. All this argues for a long-term approach and not one that is linked to the need to solve any particular issue according to a unilateral timeline.

Additionally, U.S. diplomats will learn that the Iranians could teach the Chinese a thing or two about Middle Kingdom thinking. The Iranians are, justifiably, very proud of their history and culture. Their worldview flows from a sense of being the center of everything (a feeling many Americans share) due to their thousands of years of history. Iran’s history also teaches them, not unfairly, that the outside world is usually a source of danger.

Thus, Iranian politicians and diplomats have enormous sensitivity to any sense of losing, or losing face, in any encounter with Westerners — and especially Americans. In the vicious world of domestic Iranian politics, walking away from a good deal that makes you look weak is far preferable to accepting it. The United States must learn how to work with Iranians to frame solutions to differences in a way palatable to these sensitivities, even as these solutions address U.S. needs. Track two diplomacy, talks in unofficial channels, could help foster a conceptual and political framework for track one discussions between the governments themselves.

More broadly, both Americans and Iranians must recognize that, even as they seek to address specific issues, dialogue should be about more than political elites making deals. Dialogue, instead, should be about these two great societies coming to terms and developing a real rapprochement. Scholarly, cultural, and sporting contacts will help. Westerners should also bear in mind that it may well be the Iranian leadership that will be most suspicious of these openings, fearing that the revolution could be imperiled by such contacts.

Third: what. Despite the ongoing infighting that marks Iranian politics, a key point for Westerners to bear in mind is that all factions in mainstream Iranian politics support the idea that Iran should have the fuel cycle and a nuclear option. The factions may have differing views on what constitutes an option and what can be traded for it. This may be an area for discussion — a search for limits to Iran’s enrichment program and greater transparency surrounding it.

But U.S. negotiators should be under no illusions. The idea that Iran should have some form of fuel cycle commands broad consensus within its current political system. The reasons why have as much or more to do with a very hardheaded analysis of Iran’s security needs as with any ideological questions. It is not a matter of waiting for the present political order to throw up a leader who sees differently. That is not going to happen.

Those on both sides who seek to make the nuclear question the only issue, and who frame it in absolute terms and argue that it must be addressed before anything else can be considered, are not serious. This need to address other matters, even as the nuclear question is discussed, may have the effect of playing into Iran’s hands as to the timing of its nuclear program, but it is a reality anyway.

This is not a way of saying that the nuclear issue should be shelved. It is a way of saying that no relationship is one-dimensional. Afghanistan, Iraq, drug smuggling, and others are issues where there can be some common purpose. There are also issues where there will continue to be serious differences, such as Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and other matters. All of these issues will have to be on the table.

This reality suggests that, ultimately, this will be a long process. Spoilers on both sides will try to sabotage it. Each side will have to carry on in the face of such frustrations. Westerners should also recognize that the presidential elections in June mean that nothing too serious will likely happen before then. It is very important for the West to avoid interfering with that process.

And, finally, U.S. officials must realize that real dialogue, improved relations, and broader rapprochement mean more to Iran’s elite than a simple thawing of relations. For Iranian hard-liners, all this heralds the end of a central tenet of the revolution — that Iran must guard against contamination by, and collaboration with, the decadent West, and especially the United States. The Iranian people want a new relationship with the West. They are tired of being isolated. But in many ways, discussions between Tehran and Washington will be more of a watershed for their leaders than they will be for us.

Peter Jones is associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. Prior to joining the school in 2005, he worked for the national security advisor to the Canadian prime minister for seven years and as an official in the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

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