The Paris climate agreement. The Iran nuclear deal. The Bring Back Our Girls campaign. How did these deals get made? On The Negotiators, each episode will feature one person telling the story of one dramatic negotiation. Hosted by Jenn Williams, The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates.


About our host: Jennifer Williams is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy and the host of The Negotiators. Before joining FP, she was the senior foreign editor at Vox and co-host of Worldly, Vox’s weekly foreign affairs podcast.

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Episode 1

Inside the Paris Climate Agreement

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Jenn Williams: [00:00:00] From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. Welcome to the first episode of The Negotiators, a show about people working to resolve some of the world's toughest conflicts. Each week will feature one person, one unsung hero telling the story of one dramatic negotiation. It could be a peace agreement or a hostage drama or a gang mediation. We'll also try to learn some lessons along the way. I'm Jenn Williams, one of the deputy editors here at Foreign Policy. I've been following conflicts around the world for a long time. How they get resolved and how they don't. My particular focus is the Middle East, an incredibly dynamic region where, as you know, there's been a fair amount of conflict going on. But on today's show, we're going to hear about the Paris Climate Agreement that was reached in 2015 after a grueling negotiation. [00:00:54][54.1]

Jenn Williams: [00:00:55] Just think for a second about all the heated debates people wage here in the United States about climate change. Now imagine 195 countries, each with its own problems, its own agendas, all of these countries trying to figure out together how to mitigate the damage from global warming. One of the people at the center of it all was Tom Rivett-Carnac. He served as the senior adviser to Christiana Figueres, who led the United Nations effort on climate change. You've probably never heard of at Carnac, and that's no coincidence. The people we've interviewed for the show often work behind the scenes, developing trust and maintaining confidence. That's the nature of this work, and it's one of the reasons we wanted to make the show, to pull back the curtain and allow listeners to understand what the process entails. All the hard work, the late nights, the creative thinking, the empathy. So Tom had never worked for the U.N. before. He starts today's story by describing how he met Christiana Figueres. [00:01:47][51.3]

Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:01:50] I was running the Carbon Disclosure Project's New York and United States Division. Carbon Disclosure project is a not-for-profit that encourages corporations to disclose and subsequently manage their climate change-related risk. And I'd actually decided to leave that job, and I had communicated this to the CEO of our organization, a man called Paul Dickinson. And Paul had said to me that he had a friend who is interested in trying to find a critical role for an important process that was going to unfold over the next few years with no details. And would I be interested? And about three or four days later, I had a phone call from Christiana Figueres, and Christiana was very well-known to me. I didn't know her personally, but as the head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, as holding overall responsibility for the international negotiation process, she's kind of the head of the profession of everybody who works on climate change. And she was coming to New York, so she suggested that we meet and that we spend some time talking about what was to come. We met in Lower Manhattan and spent an entire day together, we walked all the way through New York - all the way, we had lunch, we walked through the parks. We ended up on the Upper West Side by the evening. And during that time, we talked about the road the world still had to travel. This history of failure of international negotiations, what had gone wrong, how this kind of knot of resentment and anger existed in those negotiations and how difficult it was to overcome it. And by the time we got to this northern part of of the Upper West Side, she looked at me and she said, "Well, it's clear to me, you have none of the experience necessary for this job, but I think you'd be great. Let's do it." So I think Christiana was intrigued by my slightly circuitous path. [00:03:30][100.0]

Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:03:33] I had wanted to be a Buddhist monk for really as long as I can remember, I know it's an unusual thing to aspire to as a child, but I felt growing up that I wasn't in complete control of my mind and it worried me. And so when I finished my undergraduate degree, I went to Southeast Asia, to Burma and to Rangoon, and I found a meditation retreat center with a meditation teacher there, and I spent some months and time there. And then I ended up ordaining and spending some years there and then some further years in a monastery in northeast Thailand. Now, when you first go into a monastery, it's kind of awful because we, in day to day life, are accustomed to this flow of interesting things, interesting conversations, interesting sensations or experiences or things to eat, whatever it may be, and we distract ourselves all the time with this sort of stimulation. And then when you go into a monastery, all of that stops. And you end up with a lot of isolation. Not much happens and your mind slightly revolts against that and begins to panic, and it wants to keep those habits going. But if you stay with it and if you stay calm, then after a while, after some weeks and months, then your mind slows down and begins to appreciate much subtler levels of detail about life. And I still treasure memories of time in the monastery when I could look around unencumbered by busy mental processes and see just how beautiful this planet is and experience it in a way I never had before. And when you have that type of experience, you can really also observe yourself and you can learn a great deal about how you work and your own mental and emotional processes that become more obvious to you because you're quieter. [00:05:24][111.3]

Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:05:27] So I left the monastery because I felt even then that climate was a rapidly unfolding emergency and I wanted to play my part. So this was in the early 2000s, 2002. I did a traditional apprenticeship and I thought for a while that I would be a woodworker and do woodland crafts and make chairs. And that was my first career. But throughout that process, life kind of led on to way. I had a series of serendipitous meetings and then that led me into life as a consultant in the private sector and eventually onto the career that I've subsequently been very surprised but completely delighted to have. What Christiana said to me when I soon after I arrived was, "Your job is to make the agreement more ambitious and more likely, and you can't tell anyone you're going to do it." So in that context, my role was to pick up where traditional diplomacy failed and to find alternative ways to actually solve the problem. So in that scenario, when there were moments where particular countries would refuse to step up with their national ambition, or they would play a role in the negotiations that was blocking progress from others, my job was to map out how can we help move through that? The way I did that was I looked at individuals and organizations that could encourage leaders to be their best selves and to be their boldest selves at the critical moment. So let me give you an example. One of the challenges that we had in the negotiations, obviously, was Russia. And for the longest time, the Russians would refuse to come forward with a nationally determined commitment. And indeed, they would also be quite obstructionist in the negotiations, themselves, to try to reach an agreement. Now, how, as a small U.N. agency that has no control over sovereign governments, try to exert some influence over sovereign governments? And the way that we looked at encouraging the Russian state to show up with its best self and its best ability to meet the future was we mapped it out and we actually identified that one of the individuals who could probably help with that was Patriarch Bartholomew, the patriarch of Constantinople. Now, Patriarch Bartholomew is the head of the Coptic Christians. And he's based in Istanbul. Very powerful religious group, most powerful Christian group in Russia. Happens to be big into climate change. So we found our way to him, we went to see him and we said, "Look, we know that you have big followings in Russia and we also know that you're big into climate change. How do you feel about trying to bring those two things together?" And actually, once the dots were joined in his mind, he took it upon himself to speak to the Kremlin. I believe he made three trips to Moscow and met personally with very senior figures or even with the head of state and encourage them to step forward. So that's just one example. We did hundreds of these, both public and private, to encourage these leaders to actually be their best selves and show up in Paris. [00:08:34][186.6]

Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:08:36] So for years, the climate negotiations have been beset by this issue of fairness. This is known in negotiating language as Common but Differentiated Responsibility, which comes out of the 1992 Rio Protocol. And the idea is that everyone has responsibility to deal with this issue, but some have more responsibility than others. Now it is a fact that certain countries have created this problem. Countries like my own, the United Kingdom, as well as to the US, Europe, countries that industrialized first and if you look, historically, have been responsible for the vast majority of the emissions in the atmosphere. So in 1992, those developed countries said "Well go first, we'll take some serious action to reduce emissions and you do what you can, developing countries." But what happened was that they didn't do very much or they certainly didn't do enough. And over the years, that concept began to change. So what the developed countries would then start saying to developing countries, and this was the issue in the run up to Paris, was they would say, "Look, this has changed. No longer are we creating the majority of the emissions we now see in the rise of China, the rise of India, South Africa, Brazil, all these other countries. We can't solve this problem on our own. This now needs to be all of us." And the developing countries would say to developed countries, "You said you'd sort this out. You said in 1992 that you'd sort this out and you've not done anything. So go away and do something serious about this and come back and then maybe we'll talk about doing something together." And the interesting thing about that is both of those positions were right, intellectually, and those two sides would butt heads for years through the climate negotiations in multiple different forms. [00:10:18][101.6]

Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:10:22] Now, the year before Paris, we were in Lima, Peru, and we were negotiating and we were having a very difficult time because we knew that that negotiation was critical to lay the groundwork upon which the Paris Agreement was going to rest. And unless we could find a resolution to this concept of Common but Differentiated Responsibility, we were never going to make our way through. And it was the 11th hour, it was the night before the final text had to be signed off. And there was a soft knock at Christiana's office door at about midnight. And it was Minister Xie. And Minister Xie, Xie Zhenhua is the longtime Chinese negotiator. He's back in position now as counterpoint to John Kerry. And he always would turn up at these last minutes and solve these difficult problems. So when he came in, Christiana said, "I've been waiting for you, Minister Shia." And so he came in and he said to us, "If you want to solve this problem, you need to use the language that we negotiated for the U.S. China Agreement, and it's here in this page. And here's how you find it." And off he went. So we immediately, of course, pulled out the US China Agreement, found that specific passage, inserted it into the draft text and then had this kind of comical experience of running with that draft text in printed form - because we couldn't send it to anyone - back and forth across the negotiation hall for the next several hours, checking it with the EU delegation, checking it with the group of 77 negotiating countries, making little changes here and there. That was the breakthrough that finally got us through this concept of Common but Differentiated Responsibility to a new way of seeing a spirit of togetherness in dealing with this issue. The passage that was relevant is simply that all countries have a responsibility to take action in line with the science in their national interest. So it's kind of simple at the end of the day. It flips from being a nasty thing that everyone's trying to get rid of: climate action, which everyone's like, "No, I don't want to do it, you do it," and we got we got stuck in that for a long time - to "Just do what you can, bring what you can, bring your best efforts. If you're a forest country, commit to keeping your forests. If you are a country with lots of hydro, commit to expanding hydro. Do the bit that's relevant for you." And of course, the big risk for us in this process was if we go to that kind of language, how many national commitments are we actually going to get? Will we just end up with a handful because we have no authority to actually get them to do it? But this was the big lesson that I took and I think many of us took. Once you flip to seeing instead of the lack and the risk and the downside to seeing what's in it for all of us to seeing what's possible, to seeing this sense of a kind of determined optimism of a future that can be better, actually, what you do is you build a wave of momentum that ultimately crashes over you and delivers an outcome that is better than you could have done if you'd remained all controlling and down in the weeds and trying to control something that can't be controlled. So by the time we arrived in Paris, a lot had been done and a lot remain to do. There were still more than 100 issues under negotiation in different negotiating groups that we knew we would have to land of varying degrees of importance. Success was far from guaranteed, even at the moment we turned up in Paris. [00:13:45][202.7]

Jenn Williams: [00:13:46] You're listening to The Negotiators, a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. We'll be right back. Welcome back to The Negotiators. I'm Jenn Williams. So it's November, 2015 and Tom Rivett-Carnac is finally headed to Paris for the critical talks. The conference is called COP 21. COP stands for Conference of Parties, as in the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and 21 because it was the 21st annual meeting where almost all of the countries in the world discuss how to cooperate on climate change. OK, Tom picks it up from here [00:14:32][45.9]

Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:14:33] 195 countries trying to reach agreement on any amount of text. The complexity that exists in that process is legion in any situation. So even though we had broad agreement that everybody wanted to do this, there was a range of issues like, you know, one critical one was the islands couldn't accept anything that had a commitment to more than 1.5 degrees of warming because that was a death sentence to them. That meant that their islands were going to go under water and they were like, "We cannot sign an agreement that is a death sentence." But lots of other countries were saying at that time, "Even two degrees feels impossible. How on earth can we now sign up to a 1.5 degree agreement?" Tony deBrum was at the time the foreign minister for the Marshall Islands, who was a veteran, and he understood that there would come a moment in the Paris talks where an ambitious outcome would be under threat and where it was possible that it would slip away from us because that's what often happens. There are countries that want to water this down, and it's very easy to put a spanner in the works of a process that ultimately needs to be unanimous and to start drawing people off, casting doubt, creating division. And this all happened around the middle of the Paris negotiations in the middle weekend. And Tony, then, put into action the plan that he had been putting in place for some time before that, and that was the creation of what became known as the High Ambition Coalition. This was a coordination of vulnerable countries, small countries, initially, like the small islands, like low-lying countries, that came together and said, "We will form a negotiating group and we will hold each other's backs. We will protect each other and we will ensure that together we will create enough momentum and enough energy that will actually take these negotiations through and refuse to be drawn back by these forces that are trying to slow us." And they executed that with such brilliance that they ended up with the United States joining, with India joining, with Brazil joining. And they delivered it with incredible theater. They locked arms - countries that were vulnerable, countries that were wealthy countries that caused the problem, countries that did nothing to cause the problem - they locked arms and walked through the negotiating halls to gather all of these negotiators that have been on opposite sides of arguments for years and came in to the negotiation hall to thunderous applause. They created this momentum. They protected each other, and they held together at a moment when it could have fallen apart. In the end, that was resolved very skillfully in the negotiations by saying that we would aim for a temperature rise of well under two degrees with best efforts to one point five. That was the textual solution to that process. [00:17:27][174.1]

Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:17:32] Now, I should add all of this happened the day after Christiana and I were in her office and the head of security came into her office and said, "I have to tell you that we have found an explosive device and we found it in the nearby train station." Don't forget, this is two weeks after the Bataclan attacks, when so many people were killed in Paris in 2015. And he said, "We found explosive device. The dogs found it. It was in a bin in the nearby train station." This is the train station that all the negotiators were using to come in and out of the negotiation hall. "We've destroyed it. I need to know if you want the conference to continue or not." So we had trust in the security forces. It was Christiana's decision. I was party, you know, witness to it. But actually, I think about that decision quite a lot because that was a really consequential moment, right? Where, if we had fallen back from that and not gone through, then the chances of us reaching back all of the things I've described about the specialness of that moment, the individuals, the determination - it's very difficult to recreate that, actually. We weren't sure that we'd get back to that moment and then we'd push through and which subsequently reach the Paris Agreement. We didn't want to be put off track by that, but we stopped using the ministerial car. We started going through the train station, same as everybody else. We didn't feel it was fair for us to avoid that risk. I didn't tell my wife, but thankfully, you know, we relied on the security forces and it all turned out well. [00:19:03][91.6]

Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:19:06] The night before the agreement was due to be signed, there were some final textual changes that were being edited and put into the document, and there was one particular clause and it was to do with the provision of climate finance. And the text, as it read, was that developed countries should provide support of climate finance for developing countries. And there was a few comments on that and the editing teams - I'm not sure how it happened in the end - took the feedback to me that that word should be changed from "should" to "shall." Now, "shall" has a very different meaning in an international agreement than "should." "Should" is, "It would be great if they did it and they should do it." "Shall" is a legal requirement and necessitates, for example, in the U.S., Senate approval. And within 20 minutes, John Kerry was at the door, incandescent with rage about the fact that actually this now contained a clause that would make this agreement impossible to sign up to. And the entirety of that day was spent going around different negotiating groups. And Christiana did this and she went in front of them and she said, "I take personal responsibility for this. This is my team. This is what happened." You know, because of course, developing countries wanted this and this was a moment where they could double down and say, "No, it says, 'shall,' that's what we want. We want this." That would split - that would split it and we would go back to where we were before we developed on one side and developing on the other. Christiana went there. She put her hands up. She said, "This is my team. This is my fault. It's my error. It is a textual change. I want you to believe that there is nothing. There's no mal intent here. You can dig in if you want, but we will lose the agreement if you do." And nobody stood in the way. [00:20:44][98.4]

Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:20:49] On the day of the adoption of the agreement, it was delayed, as it always is. And there were a few countries that decided that they were going to hold out. And principal among those was Nicaragua. And Nicaragua decided that they had a few problems that they wanted to try and delay the signing, and it ended up delaying things by a very long time. So we were all in the negotiation hall. I was in the front row and everything started to look as though it was going sideways. It was Nicaragua and a couple of other countries that were holding out and refusing to go along with what ultimately had to be a unanimous agreement. I believe the pope put in a call to Nicaragua which encouraged them that actually this was a moment where they wanted to put the future of humanity ahead of national interest. Now, the Deputy Executive Secretary had to go through and read textual changes that were put into the agreement that were different from the previous draft, including the "should" and the "shall." And even though we had actually been round and spoken to all the different negotiating groups and explained to them what was going on, it was still a vulnerable moment. So there was about eight or nine of them. And he did it brilliantly. He put his head down, saying, "There's a few changes. We missed a comma. There's this issue here. We're going to have to change the 'shall' to the 'should.' There's another comma missing here." Handed over to Laurent Fabius, who was the president of the COP, and he said, "Seeing no objection, the Paris Agreement is adopted," gaveled it through and then all hell broke loose. The climate negotiators aren't necessarily known to exuberant displays of emotion, but it was an amazing moment. I wasn't necessarily expecting anything like that to happen, but the entire place erupted. Al Gore was laughing and crying, and people really felt like this was really something. This was really the moment when this had happened. And after the adoption, I still remember President Hollande gave a speech, and I was always kind of impressed with Hollande and throughout this process. And he said this phrase that this was "la révolution plus belle et plus pacifique," the revolution most beautiful and most peaceful, which I thought was this remarkable moment that he captured it in its essence like that. And it was great. We then we stayed for hours as all the countries spoke, and then we all went to a party in town. And when we came in, this was an enormous dance floor with a band playing and everybody roared when they saw Christiana and carried her off across the top of the crowd as negotiators and ministers and all sorts of people in there. It was - everybody really came together and felt like this was the moment when we'd really done what was required of us. [00:23:32][162.7]

Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:23:35] I feel like having been a Buddhist monk has changed all parts of my life, actually, I feel like it's changed all my relationships. I feel like it's changed so many things and it's difficult to kind of pin down exactly in what way. But I think I would describe it like this: When you are quiet in the woods like that for a long period of time and your own mental processes and your own emotional processes become more evident to you, you find this tiny gap between things happening and you reacting. To most of us, most of the time, it feels like our reaction is fundamentally connected to what happens around us. Someone shouts at us and we feel frustrated. Someone does something and we immediately have a reaction, good or bad, and we feel like we have very limited control over how we react. One of the things I observed in myself, not that anyone told me, but I observed, was that something happens and then we, ourselves, have a sensation in our bodies and then react to that sensation. And in that reaction there's a choice. We don't have to react like that. We can choose to remain calm and equanimous and experience the situation without going down a route of craving more of it or trying to get rid of it. I now live a life where I have children, I live a busy life, all these other things. I'm not saying that I have complete access to that state or to that insight all times. But at the most critical moments of my life, that's kind of been a superpower for me, because what it's meant is that at these moments of reaction and chaos, I've been able to see what's happening, understand it, but then chart my own course through it. And that's been enormously helpful in all elements of my life, particularly in these years of negotiating the Paris Agreement. [00:25:20][104.9]

Jenn Williams: [00:25:23] Tom Rivett-Carnac was one of the main negotiators of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. He and his former boss, Christiana Figueres, have their own podcast called Outrage and Optimism. They also wrote a book together called The Future We Choose with tips on how to save the planet. It's worth pointing out that, for all of the celebration after the accord, most countries haven't been able to meet their Paris targets. In fact, global CO2 emissions have increased almost every year since 2015. So what happened? Well, one shortcoming of the Paris Climate Agreement was the lack of an enforcement mechanism. It's mandated by the UN, but countries can basically do what they want. Another difficulty is what Tom describes as the "ratchet mechanism," basically the idea that countries are supposed to come up with new climate targets every five years. [00:26:09][46.3]

Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:26:10] We always knew that the first round of commitments weren't in line with the long term goal. But what we thought was that every five years, technology will improve, politics will improve, the understanding of the severity of the science will improve, and we'll keep coming back to the table and we'll keep strengthening our commitments and eventually we'll bring those two lines into balance. [00:26:29][18.9]

Jenn Williams: [00:26:30] That table Tom is talking about? This year, it's in Glasgow, where countries will meet in late October for another U.N. climate change conference: COP 26. [00:26:37][7.0]

Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:26:37] Countries need to come forward with their next nationally determined commitments. Right now, we're heading for nearly four degrees of warming. The test of Glasgow will be how far down we can pull that trajectory towards the long term goal out of Paris. Getting it to 1.5 might be too ambitious. Getting it to under two degrees, in my view, would be a success. [00:26:58][20.7]

Jenn Williams: [00:26:59] OK, so now we all know what to expect from the conference in Glasgow and just how complicated these negotiations can be. The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today's show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Metha, Amjad Atallah, and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show's senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton, and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. If you want to help us out, please subscribe on your favorite platform and leave us a review. Next week on the show, you'll hear about the hard work of ending a decades-long conflict in the Philippines. [00:27:48][48.4]

Woman: [00:27:49] The tragedy revolved around a police operation to catch a highly wanted target who had a $100 million prize on his head put by the US government. [00:28:02][12.8]

Jenn Williams: [00:28:03] That episode next week on The Negotiators. I'm Jenn Williams. [00:28:03][0.0]

These days, with the world divided as it is, it’s hard to imagine that just six years ago, more than 195 countries came together and agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet that’s precisely what happened in 2015 with the Paris climate agreement. The accord was a landmark achievement, one of the most remarkable in the history of diplomacy. But what do we really know about how it was achieved—how countries, organizations, or individuals reach significant agreements? What really happens behind closed doors? On the first episode, we hear from Tom Rivett-Carnac, who helped bring countries together in Paris. Rivett-Carnac began his adult life as a Buddhist monk and eventually became the senior advisor to Christiana Figueres, who helmed the U.N. talks that led to the climate agreement.

Episode 2

Negotiating a Peace Deal Is Hard. Implementing It Is Harder.

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Jenn Williams: [00:00:00] From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. Welcome to The Negotiators. Each week, we feature one person telling the story of one dramatic negotiation that either succeeded or failed. I'm Jenn Williams, one of the deputy editors here at Foreign Policy. This week, we're going to hear about a conflict in the Philippines that raged for years and killed more than 120,000 people. And yet many people don't know about it. The Philippines is majority Catholic, but it also has a Muslim population in the southern part of the country, known as the Bangsamoro. Muslim separatists there fought for independence for years, especially during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. One of the main rebel groups that was part of this armed resistance is called the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF. For decades, mediators tried to negotiate a deal between the MILF and the Philippine government. And they finally did in 2014. [00:00:55][55.0]

Jenn Williams: [00:00:58] Miriam Coronel-Ferrer led the government's negotiating team. She was a peace and conflict professor before going to work for the government in 2010. One thing that made her effective at negotiating with the rebels? She, herself, had been an anti-government activist during the Marcos era. Coronel-Ferrer was actually the first woman in the world to lead a successful peace negotiation with a rebel group. Ok, here's her story. [00:01:20][22.0]

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer: [00:01:21] I was involved in an underground resistance against a dictatorship which entailed, really, sympathizing with people who were fighting the government at the time using armed struggle. And, eventually, peace negotiations were opened up with the Moro Liberation Front. And as a member of civil society, I ended up being one of the negotiators. Although, in the beginning there were some hesitancy because of the fact that I was a woman and the president was a little bit concerned about how the other side will respond. And of course, his main concern was not to make the negotiations any more difficult than it was. But he took the risk and appointed me the chief government negotiator. [00:02:06][45.0]

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer: [00:02:11] So the Moro Islamic Liberation Front really is an old school type of revolutionaries. They engage in guerrilla warfare. They're able to get the sympathy of the people on the ground who suffered from the militarization, especially during the period of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos. So they do have that kind of following from these very remote communities. We were meeting with MILF in Kuala Lumpur, in a third country, and they were sort of really "protocol-ish." A protocol, for instance, meant that we could not meet with them directly. Everything had to happen in the presence of the facilitator, and they really rejected all our attempts to sort of connect to them independent of the facilitator. After all, we knew them before. I tried several times and I was rebuffed. You know, even the handing out the document to them, we couldn't do it directly. Our secretariat needed to hand out the document to the secretariat of the facilitator and that facilitator's secretariat will hand out the document to the people on the other side of the table, just two meters away from us. It was very clear for us from the beginning, independence is not on the agenda. Autonomy? Yes. Independence? No. And we wanted them to telegraph that as well to the public, because that was the fear of the public. The president was very clear about this. "You need the public to be with us on this," because he was staking his own political capital. He came in as quite a very popular president, and he was using that political capital to sustain these political negotiations. At one point in the negotiation, the MILF came up with the declaration, saying, "We are Bangsamoro in identity, but Filipino in citizenship." And that was a clear message. "Yes, we are willing to work out some good, autonomous arrangement and not independence.". [00:04:22][131.3]

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer: [00:04:26] A negotiator must never forget that you are dealing with a human being, despite the difference between you. When they were highly emotional over some issue, anything that challenged their cultural identity was something that was really like a button that can set off an explosion. And we would just keep our cool. But there were also in that mode where they had to repeat the history to us again and again. Of course, you already studied the history and up to a certain point, you just can't go back to history again and again. And we had to find ways and means to get that message across that we were dealing with the future and not with the history. And that was what we were trying to define: what the future would look like. And we can't waste hours and hours just going back to the history again. The MILF very early on submitted to us their Draft Comprehensive Compact, which is how they call it. So it was a book -very thick- and we acknowledge having received your draft, but it took us a long time to get the consensus within government to produce just a three page draft. But as far as we were concerned, it encapsulated the key areas of what they wanted. Of course, they didn't see it that way. They saw it as an insult. They saw it as really way, way below their expectations. And it was Ramadan when we finally got to sit down with them and send this draft over. And the next day they were so angry, saying, "This is unacceptable. We are rejecting this draft." And at that moment, they were ready to walk out on us. For them, it's really the question of self-governance. "We can do this. This is our call." And that's why I really appreciate one expert who came over and talked to them and said, "Be careful what you ask for." [00:06:35][128.8]

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer: [00:06:40] In 2013, December, we signed the three or four annexes, which meant that we only had one more annex to go: power sharing, wealth sharing, normalization, which dealt with the security and transitional justice component. Then we needed to come up with a text that will introduce the whole text, which was, as it turned out, not that easy again. So, March was when we set the signing, and a few weeks before, we were not sure if we could get that introductory text done. And there were the fears that the date of the signing won't happen at all because of some few words that they wanted to change or the president wanted - in this instance, the president wanted to change. So, March for the signing. Of course, you have all of this security preparation for the event. We were flying in two planeloads of MILF commanders and political leaders, and there had to be a coordinated effort to transport them from the airport to the hotel where they were going to be lodged. And then again from the hotel to the seat of the presidency, the Malacanang Palace. And as it turned out, some police officers actually still wanted to assert the fact that some of those leaders had arrest warrants on them, and they were being told that they could not come to the palace to attend the ceremony because there was a danger that the police will do its own thing. And that certainly was not acceptable to the MILF, and they even threatened that if one of them could not come, the rest of us will not come. And the compromise arrangement for that was for the head of our ceasefire secretariat to be seated with them at the back of the hall - inconspicuous, not be seated together with the rest of the delegation of the MILF who was just on the other side of the room. And that was a pity, because our ceasefire secretary chief was somebody who really did a lot for this process and he could not even be seated with us. But it solved the problem. [00:09:07][146.7]

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer: [00:09:10] After the speeches, we were asked to come up to the stage. The Prime Miniser Najib of Malaysia asked his facilitator, "Oh, so this is the Iron Lady," he said. [Laughs] And pointing to me. And I was wearing some kind of a maroon blouse and the presidential adviser was wearing a red gown, a Filipinaina gown, which is like our traditional gown. And the president commented something like, "Oh, you are both wearing red." [Laughs] Yeah, so we took our seats. We were instructed about the pens that we were to sign. These were very special pens, actually, and it had John Lennon's record "Imagine" on it. And the facilitator was a little bit nervous, because no ink was coming out of his pen. [Laughs] So I had to tell him, "Maybe you need to tilt it a little bit more so that the ink would come out." And then he leaves his scrawl, so that's how it happened. Then we stood up and exchanged documents. That was really a very emotional moment for a lot of people who really, you know, were there accompanying the whole process in the last seventeen years. So, of course, after we signed the agreement, that was just the beginning of another process, which was to get the implementation done. It was crucial to pass a law that will put in place a new regional government that had most of the power. So, we were really moving forward with a very cooperative Congress at the time. But things changed radically about 10 months later, in January 2015, after what is now known as the Mamasapano tragedy. [00:11:09][118.9]

Jenn Williams: [00:11:11] You're listening to The Negotiators, a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. We'll be right back. Welcome back to The Negotiators. A production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I'm Jenn Williams. So, after a long peace process, government negotiators, led by Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, reached an agreement with the MILF. But all of that work was suddenly jeopardized by a single act of violence, an incident known as the Mamasapano tragedy. [00:11:52][40.9]

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer: [00:11:53] So the tragedy revolved around a police operation to catch a highly wanted target who had a price on his head, put by the US government. And it involved several teams who went into the province, deployed in different areas, including a strike force that was supposed to enter the marshland and get into the hut where this person by the name of Marwan was hiding and arrest him or kill him, depending on how the operation turns out. And, as back up team, there were some 44 Special Action Forces who were deployed in another village, and they had to cross this river which turned out to be a very difficult thing to do because of the murky waters. And they were sighted very early in the morning by members of the community who wake up early for their morning prayers. And seeing all these armed men descending on their community in the wee hours of the morning, their automatic response was to get their weapons. And when one civilian was shot as he was crossing the river, that really opened up the fire fight. All the 44 members of the Special Action Force, except for one, were killed in that incident. Things turned out badly because of the public backlash - public arguments saying that you have a peace agreement and why is the MILF killing our police? But it was very hard to explain to them that there were protocols that had to be observed to avoid these kinds of misencounters between the government forces and the MILF. And that precisely was what happened. This was not the first time we had problems with the police trying to override the ceasefire protocol. We were undergoing the process of committee hearings in the Senate, particularly on the law that we wanted passed to implement the agreement. And suddenly, the committee hearings became hearings on the Mamasapano incident, which turned really hostile against the MILF and against even the whole peace process, the government, as well as the president. In the Senate, I was asked who was I representing in these negotiations, implying that I was not faithful to my job as a government representative. Of course, I simply said, "I represent that the president of the Philippines. It's just the fact of the case." But one difficulty we had was to convince the MILF to come and attend the Senate hearings. And they were saying, you know, "Although we signed the agreement, we haven't implemented it and we are not really part of government yet. So why should we get involved in a Senate proceeding?" But for us, it was very important to give them a face before the public. I mean, we've met them, we know them, but many people have not met an MILF person before. Certainly not even the senators have met any MILF member. And that took some time. They needed the political face of Mr. Iqbal, because he was the face of the negotiation. And eventually, Mr. Iqbal came in and we started out together throughout the whole proceedings, the hostile proceedings. But there was a particular senator who really was ramming down their throats the fact that they were terrorists and bringing all these terrorist framing back into the picture after we have signed the agreement with a group that has decided to leave the armed struggle behind and enter a political process and even become government themselves. That was really very difficult. The protocols were examined in Congress, and it was very hard to explain exactly what the protocols entailed. It was very hard to just, basically, explain it to the senators. And at the end of the day, the sentiment was for the 44 Special Action Forces who were killed. [00:16:18][264.6]

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer: [00:16:27] Things sort of spin downwards from there, even for the president. For the first time, his popularity rating really dipped and, more so, the peace agreement. So much so that, since elections were already approaching - this was 2015 and elections were in May 2016 - legislators sort of played their game of shifting on the side of public opinion and withdrew their support from the passage of the law. So it became extremely difficult now for the champions of the law in Congress to really push it and get their colleagues in Congress, their fellow legislators, to go all out and support it. So as it happened, it didn't pass under the term of the president, severely postponing the implementation of significant parts of the agreement. I left the government on the same day that the president left the government, so we all tendered our resignation because it's really the next president's call who will come in. And I can see that the president really, even at the last minute, tried to push the law within his own powers to be able to convince other legislators, but politics was preeminent by the time. The law was not passed until 2018. That's a good four years of waiting period when we had the presidential elections. You had new people coming into Congress, a new Congress getting its act together, electing its officers, splitting up its committees, you know, doing the politics among them before they actually sat down and passed the law, finally, in 2018. But the MILF stood back. They didn't go back to war. No major outbreak of violence after Mamasapano in 2015 has happened. And in fact, the MILF has joined forces with the army in fighting the other armed groups, including the jihadist groups - or providing some kind of back up. [00:18:27][120.5]

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer: [00:18:30] I read somewhere that a good agreement is one that really prevents the parties from going back to war. And I think that's the kind of test that we have surpassed so far, so many years after we signed the agreement in 2014. But it's not the end of the process, it's just another beginning. I feel bad about some of the provisions in with regard to the police force, as you can imagine, another very controversial thing, because I did think that there were some innovative proposals that came out of the study group that we created. But that's how it goes. You win some, you lose some. Get something workable on the ground, get it working, and then improve on what you have as you go along. What does it really entail, engaging armed actors and sort of moving them from the war path to this political nonviolent path? It really requires a lot of understanding of their history, their circumstances, what they are fighting for, and being able to discuss these things with them genuinely. Not because you are there to convince them of something, but basically for yourself, the process. But also to co-process with them what's going on in the society, in the politics of the country, sort of exchanging ideas with them. And that's very important. [00:20:19][108.9]

Jenn Williams: [00:20:36] Miriam Coronel-Ferrer headed the Philippine negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that led to a peace agreement in 2014. Those negotiations led to the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, where a transitional government is now in place. While challenges remain, the peace agreement has mostly ended the violence. The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today's show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show's senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton, and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. If you want to help us out, please subscribe on your favorite platform and leave us a review. Next week on the show, you'll hear about the Iran Nuclear Deal from the lead U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman. [00:21:40][63.7]

Wendy Sherman: [00:21:41] I was most furious, because they were putting the entire deal at risk at this eleventh hour, and so I started to yell and get angry and say, "You've put this all at risk." And no matter what I did, I could not stop the tears from streaming down my face. [00:21:57][15.3]

Jenn Williams: [00:21:59] That episode next week on the Negotiators. I'm Jenn Williams. [00:21:59][0.0]

In 2014, the government of the Philippines signed a peace deal with Islamist separatists in the southern part of the country, known as the Bangsamoro region. The agreement brought a gradual end to a conflict that had killed more than 120,000 people since 1978. This week on The Negotiators, we hear from the government official who navigated the talks: Miriam Coronel-Ferrer. She was the first woman ever to lead a negotiation with an armed rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.  Coronel-Ferrer was a political science professor before going to work for the government in 2010. One thing that made her effective at negotiating with the rebels was she, herself, had been an anti-government activist during the era of former Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos.  

Episode 3

Inside the Grueling Negotiations That Led to the Iran Nuclear Deal

+ReadClose transcript

Jenn Williams: [00:00:00] From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. Welcome to The Negotiators. Each week, we feature one person telling the story of one dramatic negotiation that either succeeded or failed. I'm Jenn Williams, one of the deputy editors here at Foreign Policy. [00:00:12][12.0]

Jenn Williams: [00:00:16] Today, you'll hear about the Iran nuclear deal, one of the most significant diplomatic agreements in recent history. When it was struck in 2015, lots of people praised it, while others called it a bad deal, including many U.S. Republicans and many Israelis. President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement in 2018, but the Biden administration is now trying to restore the deal. So we're going to do something a bit different with this episode. First, we're going to hear from Wendy Sherman, who was the lead U.S. negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal. She now serves as the Deputy Secretary of State. The story you're about to hear from Sherman was adapted from an interview she gave Foreign Policy podcast First Person. Later, I'll sit down with Ali Vaez, the Iran Project Director for the International Crisis Group. Vaez talks to people on all sides of the Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. He'll describe what went wrong and where negotiations stand today. But first to Wendy Sherman, who started her career as a social worker before getting into government. [00:01:12][56.1]

Wendy Sherman: [00:01:13] As a social worker, I got a core set of skills in community organizing and how to work with groups. I got clinical skills, which I joke all the time have been very useful with dictators and members of Congress, and I've used those skills in political campaigns, which certainly take those skills - working on presidential campaigns. And then I got a call about whether I'd come and meet Warren Christopher the next day, who was going to be Bill Clinton's first Secretary of State. I couldn't imagine why he wanted to see me. But of course I said yes, and I went and met him. And he said, "You know, if the president agrees, I would like you to consider being nominated to be the Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs." And I said to Chris, "If you want someone who knows everything there is to know about foreign policy, I'm probably not the right person. But if you want someone who understands Washington and the Hill, maybe I am the right person." I ended up becoming the Assistant Secretary. I then became Madeleine Albright's counselor -she and I had known each other for years- and then Secretary Clinton asked me to come back and President Obama as the Under Secretary for Political Affairs. [00:02:22][68.2]

Wendy Sherman: [00:02:25] I think the Under Secretary for Political Affairs is probably the best job in the State Department. You're responsible for every regional bureau and all international organizations, so it's an incredibly broad mandate. During the four years that I was the Under Secretary, I went to 54 different countries - several of them multiple times. And the Under Secretary for Political Affairs in the U.S. government is the U.S. government's political director, and the Iran negotiations were done at the political director's level. So that's why I ended up being the lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal. And so, while I was worried and had to worry about all the rest of the world, sort of had to do the Iran negotiation over here with my pinky finger. I began to try to negotiate with the Iranians, and there were very set pieces where the Iranians would do their talking points in Farsi, then we do our talking points in English, and we didn't get much of anywhere. But when Rouhani was elected president, things did start to change. He was elected on a platform of reform, which the economy of Iran needed badly, of trying to remove the sanctions. The majority of Iran is quite young, and I think he well understood that if the economy did not improve, then it would be or could become a threat to the regime, though they're pretty good at oppression. So things began to change. The back channel - the secret channel - had actually started under Ahmadinejad, and when Rouhani became president, he was shocked to find out that the United States and Iran had had a secret discussion. It hadn't accomplished a lot, and it had actually gone in sort of a hiatus during the election in Iran. But now it looked like indeed we were going to begin to get some traction. Javad Zarif was named as the lead for Iran in the P5+1 negotiations. Zarif knew the United States extremely well. He lived here 30 years of his life. He understood media quite well, as we all have seen. All of the negotiations were done in English, so it was a whole new ballgame. I was at the UN General Assembly and was set to meet the gentlemen who are going to become my counterparts - the Iranian negotiators, Abbas Araqchi and Majid Ravanchi. It was very awkward. As a woman, I could not shake hands. I sort of would put my hand over my chest and slight nod of my head instead of shaking hands. It sort of looks like a Marx Brothers routine if you're in the middle of a room filled with men. But nonetheless. And so one day, trying to find some common ground with Abbas Araqchi and Majid Ravanchi, I started a conversation about this. I said, "You know, it's sort of awkward. I can't shake your hands. It's a little unusual." But I, in fact grew up in a Jewish community and, in Orthodox Judaism, most men won't shake hands with a woman who isn't their wife or daughter or mother. It was a very fascinating conversation. They were, at first, surprised that I raised this, but it gave us a different way of thinking about each other. And we entered into very, very serious talks. [00:05:57][211.3]

Wendy Sherman: [00:06:01] The United States had been saying in every formal meeting that Iran should have no enrichment facilities or enrichment processes whatsoever. And enriching uranium is one of the methods - the other being plutonium - to get material of such a grade that it can be used in a nuclear weapon. And we wanted for ever to shut it down and have none. But the president had come to realize that people cannot unlearn what they know- that he would consider Iran having a very small, limited, civil nuclear program, which is permitted under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, if it were quite aggressively monitored and verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. [00:06:52][51.6]

Wendy Sherman: [00:06:59] There were hundreds of sticking points, literally thousands of sticking points. But you have to find common ground and part of the way you do that is through human interaction. It doesn't change your objectives, it doesn't change how tough you are in the negotiating room. But it does allow you to see each other in more human terms and probably have more civil conversation. Even Foreign Minister Zarif, when I was really pissed at him, he knew it because I called him Minister Zarif. At other times, when we were just working hard on behalf of our own interests, I might call him Javad. When Abbas Araqchi and I both became grandparents during this negotiation, we swapped photographs, and it just allowed us to understand that we were actually individuals doing the best for our country's interests. It doesn't change how tough you are in the negotiating room, but it does create a better environment to meet your interests. There was a point where - we were getting to the point where we had to put things down on paper, and we were having a very difficult time because the Iranians were very concerned about things being on paper, because then they'd have to take them back to Tehran, get new instructions, their politics might pick those pieces apart. And so it occurred to me that we should use a low tech solution to this. So I asked my team to find a very large wheeled whiteboard, brought it into the room, put every element of the deal on the whiteboard. Then we sat there and went through each element. Everybody, of course, took furious notes and then were able to transmit those positions back to their governments without it being final. So it was incredibly helpful device, and it almost came to disaster because one of the other teams used a regular marker as opposed to a whiteboard marker and couldn't erase the numbers. They ultimately figured way to sort of scratch them out of the board, but it was a very useful, low tech device. And so sometimes the most obvious solutions are quite simple and quite low tech. [00:09:18][138.1]

Wendy Sherman: [00:09:25] What came out of the secret channel, ultimately, was an interim agreement that froze and rolled back some of Iran's nuclear programs in exchange for some small lifting of sanctions. And it was thought that that would give us six months to negotiate a final agreement. It actually took us nearly 18 months. Indeed, before we even began these intense negotiations, I asked my core team to write an entire agreement, not because we thought we'd get exactly that, but because we needed to know - and good preparation requires - that you know what you're trying to achieve. And then after they wrote this 100 pages of agreement, we sat in a conference room for two days and everybody on the team, no matter what their role, went through it line by line so we would be really well prepared. [00:10:19][54.0]

Jenn Williams: [00:10:21] You're listening to The Negotiators, a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. We'll be right back. Welcome back to The Negotiators, a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I'm Jenn Williams. So, Sherman and her team are making progress in negotiations with the Iranians, but opponents of the deal are also hard at work, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Back to Sherman. [00:10:50][29.2]

Wendy Sherman: [00:10:51] When John Boehner invited Bibi Netanyahu to a joint session of Congress to castigate us for the Iran agreement that we were working on without consultation with President Obama, followed by a letter signed by 47 Republicans to the Iranians saying, you know, "Unless Congress has a role here, this isn't going to stand beyond President Obama." Neither of those were particularly wonderful from our perspective, to say the least. But nothing is ever wasted in a negotiation if you're conscious of everything that's going on. So that when the Iranians said to me, you know, "Woe is us, we'll never get this through. They can impeach us," which can happen in their system, I was able to say to them, "Excuse me, we both have problems. You saw what happened in our joint session. You've seen this letter sent by Senator Cotton. So if we're going to get to a deal, it has to meet both of our interests so that it can survive domestically in both cases." So we went to Vienna, the Palais Coburg, for what we thought would be the marathon, and we had no idea what a marathon it would be. President Obama was fully engaged. We would have secure video conferences with him at like 3:00 in the morning Vienna-time, because that worked for his schedule back in Washington, you know, to say, "Here's where we are, what's acceptable to you?" Because at the end of the day, we were coming to the point where the president has to call the shots. He has to say whether what you're arriving at is sufficient to this negotiation. [00:12:27][95.7]

Wendy Sherman: [00:12:33] It was day 25, a time I ate exactly one meal outside the hotel, and Helga Schmidt, who was Cathy Ashton and then Federica Mogherini is deputy and really the unsung hero of these negotiations - she probably spent more time with the Iranians than anyone, just an extraordinary diplomat. Helga and I, a couple of her team who happened to be women as well, were trying to get the pieces together and the agreement, and the ministers had gone off with a couple of aides because not all the ministers were there to have dinner together. And I'm not going to say who started to text us messages that some of the ministers were saying they didn't know why this was taking so long. If they'd been doing it, not we, women, it would be done by now. Helga and I decided to ignore the misogyny and just get the work done. [00:13:24][51.6]

Wendy Sherman: [00:13:29] Yeah, there were a lot of mishaps. Minister Zarif had a very bad back, got the flu a couple of times. Secretary Kerry, of course, broke his femur. Ali Saleh, he had surgery in the middle of this. And I was rushing up to our delegation room at the Palais Coburg in Vienna, where we did these negotiations, an elevator went up to this suite so that it was secure, because we had secure communications equipment in it. It had glass doors after you got out of the elevator, they were usually open. I was rushing quite late at night to get to the phone for Secretary Kerry. Someone had closed those glass doors. I smashed into them, started bleeding like mad. The guys around me said, you know, "Call an ambulance." I said, "No, no, you're clearly not mothers. When you hit your nose, you bleed a lot. Get me an ice pack." I did the phone call with Secretary Kerry. He didn't know for months it had happened, but I went the next day, saw the ear, nose, and throat doctor, who took care of the opera stars in Vienna, and he walked out into the anteroom to greet me and said, in English, "Shit happens." Turns out I'd broken it in several places. These days, unless your nose goes at a 90 degree angle and it disturbs your breathing, you don't do much. He packed it up. Makeup helped with most of the black and blue. A lot of Advil, and most of my colleagues never knew what happened. [00:14:59][90.3]

Wendy Sherman: [00:15:04] One of the last pieces of the negotiation was the U.N. Security Council resolution, which, although not fundamentally a part of the negotiation, had to be reconciled with previous resolutions now that we were hopefully going to have a deal. And because the U.S. holds the pen on Iran resolutions, it was me, Rob Malley, my deputy, - an extraordinary diplomat - sitting across from Abbas Araqchi and Majid Ravanchi to negotiate this. None of us had had much sleep. I'd put a piece of paper in the middle of the table of elements that I thought could work - a couple of different options to get to some of the details we needed in the resolution. And Abbas Araqchi said, "Ok, I think this one can work." And I thought, "Oh, we're we're actually going to get this deal done." And then he said, "But one more thing," which is a totally Iranian tactic, there's always one more thing that they need. And I was furious. I was furious because of the delay and the extension of the talks. My plan for the fall when I was going to retire from the State Department to go to Harvard was now completely screwed up. And I was most furious, because they were putting the entire deal at risk at this eleventh hour. And so I started to yell and get angry and say, "You've put this all at risk." And no matter what I did, I could not stop the tears from streaming down my face. You know, as a woman, somewhere along the line, I was taught - and I think most women are taught - you're not supposed to get angry. And so when I get angry, I cry because crying is something women are permitted to do. I've tried over the years to stop it. I dig my fingernails into my hand. It does no good. So I've just come to accept that's what I have to live with. Everybody was silent, even Rob wasn't sure what to do with me - this was a Wendy Sherman they hadn't seen before. And after what seemed like a long time, but I guess was not, Abbas leaned forward and said, "OK, we're done." So I would never urge women to adopt this as a tactic, but I tell this story because we are most powerful when we are our authentic selves, and when we try to be other than our authentic selves, we undermined our own power. [00:17:32][147.2]

Wendy Sherman: [00:17:38] The final agreement was 110 pages long. It included a series of very complex, detailed annexes. This is a very technical agreement. I'm sure most of the Republican senators - and probably some of the Democratic senators, as well - have never read it, because it is a very, very complex agreement. I spent 27 days in that hotel. I ate one meal outside of the hotel. No, you don't know that you're going to get to the end. There is a lot of momentum to get to the end. But there were many setbacks during those 27 days, and there were times during these days where the secretary went to Zarif's room and said, you know, "If you can't do this, go get more instructions or tell me it can't be done." And you just have to be ready to do that. In the end, we got to an agreement. It was terrific on one hand, but for the United States, we really couldn't celebrate, because we had to go back and make sure that Congress didn't disapprove the deal, which is how the congressional review process was set up. It was a disapproval, and we knew that we had only so many days to work that, because the time limit of the legislation meant that we had to resolve this by September 17th. So we got on the airplane. We had a quick toast, and then we all passed out, because we were exhausted knowing that we had to go back and immediately begin working the Congress. [00:19:09][90.8]

Jenn Williams: [00:19:14] So that was Wendy Sherman describing how she helped broker the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. But of course, President Trump's withdrawal from the deal more or less killed the agreement. To bring us up to date, I spoke to Ali Vaez, the Iran Project Director at the International Crisis Group. Vaez is this one of the smartest analysts around on this issue, and he's in touch with people on all sides of the debate. Here's our conversation. [00:19:34][20.1]

Jenn Williams: [00:19:35] So this is a really general question, but what do you think the American public misunderstands the most about the Iranian side in these negotiations? [00:19:42][7.2]

Ali Vaez: [00:19:44] I think the U.S. public doesn't have a good sense of what Iran's nuclear program - what threat Iran's nuclear program actually poses to the U.S. The reality is that recent surveys demonstrate that the majority of Americans - above 60 percent - believe that Iran already has a nuclear weapon, whereas the reality is that Iran not only has not had nuclear weapons, it's still far away from the ability of having nuclear weapons. A lot of people believe that, for instance, the breakout time, which is the amount of time that takes for Iran to enrich enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon, means the breakout time to developing nuclear weapons. [00:20:23][39.6]

Jenn Williams: [00:20:24] Right. [00:20:24][0.0]

Ali Vaez: [00:20:24] The reality is, once you have enough fissile material, you have to fashion that into a nuclear weapon and then put that on the cone of a missile tested, and that process, itself, takes about two years. And so even now that Iran's nuclear breakout time has shrunk significantly from 12 months that the nuclear deal had envisioned to now one month timeline, you know, Iran is still at least two years away from being able to have a single nuclear weapon. And, so, Iranian nuclear weaponization is not an imminent or inevitable threat, but I don't think the American public really have that perception. [00:21:01][36.8]

Jenn Williams: [00:21:02] So what do you think were the biggest achievements of the deal? And then what do you think were the biggest flaws of the agreement that was actually finally reached and signed in 2015? [00:21:10][8.3]

Ali Vaez: [00:21:11] Getting multilateral agreements between adversarial countries is a rare phenomenon. It doesn't happen every year. [00:21:19][7.7]

Jenn Williams: [00:21:19] Sure. [00:21:19][0.0]

Ali Vaez: [00:21:20] Every decade even. [00:21:21][0.8]

Jenn Williams: [00:21:21] Right. [00:21:21][0.0]

Ali Vaez: [00:21:22] So that in and of itself is an achievement. Second, Iran's nuclear program at that time was about two months away from the ability to breakout, and the deal basically rolled back Iran's nuclear program, put it in a box, and put it under the most rigorous international inspection regime ever established anywhere in the world. I used to say the good news is that we have a nuclear deal. The bad news is that we only have a nuclear deal. [00:21:48][25.7]

Jenn Williams: [00:21:48] [Laughs] Right. [00:21:48][0.0]

Ali Vaez: [00:21:49] You know, the reality is we had a narrow transactional agreement in the context - in the broader context of enmity between Iran and the United States and their regional allies. And you know, by definition, those tensions eventually spilled over into the nuclear deal, as well. And some of the measures that President Obama took in order to alleviate concerns of U.S. allies in the region, for instance, by providing them with billions of dollars of sophisticated weapons in fact deepened and exacerbated Iran's threat perception, pushing them to double down on their ballistic missile program and on the regional activities, which then in turn was used by opponents here to point to the shortcomings of the JCPOA and to prove that the deal has actually exacerbated Iran's behavior on other fronts. And eventually, they managed to convince the Trump administration to withdraw from the deal. But you know, again, any deal by definition is imperfect, and the JCPOA on that front was not an exception. But I think if it had been achieved, maybe in the early years of the second term of President Obama, it would have had a different fate. [00:23:00][71.5]

Jenn Williams: [00:23:01] So obviously a lot has happened since the deal was signed. As you said, you know, Trump pulled out in 2018. Iran is now closer to having a nuclear weapon than they were back in 2015. Is that right? [00:23:12][11.1]

Ali Vaez: [00:23:12] Mhm. [00:23:12][0.0]

Jenn Williams: [00:23:13] And the election in June in Iran brought in the leadership that is potentially more critical of the agreement. So what do you think both sides need to do to to actually get back to the table? [00:23:24][11.3]

Ali Vaez: [00:23:25] So look, the reality is that both sides want the same thing. The Iranians want sanctions lifted, want the JCPOA restored, despite the fact that the new Iranian administration was very critical of the previous Rouhani administration who negotiated the deal. And the Biden administration also wants to once again put Iran's nuclear program back in a box and under monitoring. The problem is, I think, that there were two misperceptions on both sides. On the U.S. side, you know, we treated Iran as any other adversarial negotiating partner. Whereas Iranians, because we reneged on the agreement in 2018 and inflicted enormous harm on their economy, they believe that they're the aggrieved party here, and they expected the U.S. to understand that the onus is on Washington to apologize, to try to make it up to them. And these two misperceptions, I think, eventually resulted in the fact that although both sides wanted the same thing, after six rounds of negotiations in Vienna between April and June of this year, they were not able to find a mutually acceptable formula. And talks now have been in deadlock and in limbo since Iran went through a presidential transition in June. Iranians would eventually come back to the table, I believe, in October or maybe November. But it is expected that they would have a much harder position, try to drive a much harder bargain, which is bad news because it probably means that the deadlock will continue and could potentially result in the collapse of the agreement. We'll see if the new Iranian government has new demands or has changed some of these priorities. None of them are without solution. But it requires really flexibility on both sides if they are to bridge the gaps and restore the deal, which I think remains the least costly option compared to all alternatives. [00:25:14][108.2]

Jenn Williams: [00:25:14] So on that note, what gives you hope? I mean, do you have hope? It sounds like you have a pretty optimistic kind of read on the fact that there are ways out of this, there are pathways toward a negotiation. What gives you that kind of optimism that there actually could be a solution here? [00:25:29][14.8]

Ali Vaez: [00:25:30] So I'm actually quite cynical that both sides will be able to - [00:25:35][4.3]

Jenn Williams: [00:25:36] [Laughs] You're in good company, so it's ok. [00:25:36][0.6]

Ali Vaez: [00:25:36] [Laughs] - will be able to, you know, overcome these differences. I've seen this during the negotiations that led to the JCPOA, that, at the end of the day, the most important factor is political will. If there is political will, at the end of the day, you'll figure out a way. I remember when the talks started in 2013 about the JCPOA, Iran had about 10,000 centrifuges then. Iranians wanted to keep those 10,000 centrifuges. The U.S. wanted them to have 500. [00:26:01][25.3]

Jenn Williams: [00:26:03] That's a big difference. [00:26:03][0.4]

Ali Vaez: [00:26:04] A big difference. The Iranians wanted to accept limits for about two years. The U.S. wanted them to accept limits on the program for 30 years. And eventually, they ended up somewhere in between. It took two and a half years of negotiations. It was grueling and difficult, but there was political will, so they ended up with a compromise. And, so, I think if both sides truly understand that the alternatives to this agreement - you know, which is not really difficult to imagine. Maybe in 2018, the opponents of the of the JCPOA, who wanted the Trump administration to get out of it, were promising us a better deal. But now we know, in the absence of diplomacy, what's the outcome, which is a race of sanctions against centrifuges. It's a lose-lose dynamic with the risk of military confrontation. During the Trump administration's last year in office, we came three times to the verge of a military confrontation between Iran and the U.S. Iran is now a month away from breakout. In a few months, breakout will be near zero. It's much better to put this issue on ice and start negotiating about a better for better arrangement. So that's the only thing that still gives me a little bit of hope - that maybe they would realize that this is in their best interest and the alternatives are less attractive. Again, unfortunately, I think mistrust is marrow deep on both sides, and political obstacles to restoring the agreement remain formidable. [00:27:32][88.2]

Jenn Williams: [00:27:33] Yeah, great. Thank you so much, Ali Vaez, Crisis Group's Iran Project Director. Really appreciate your time. [00:27:39][5.7]

Ali Vaez: [00:27:39] Absolute pleasure. Thanks for having me. [00:27:40][1.3]

Jenn Williams: [00:27:49] The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today's show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah, and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show's senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton, and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. If you want to help us out, please subscribe on your favorite platform and leave us a review. Next week on the show, you'll actually hear about a hostage negotiation between the U.S. and Iran, shortly after Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. [00:28:29][39.6]

Mickey Bergman: [00:28:30] "It's important to realize these conversations can never start with, 'Oh, what do you need me to give you in order for you to give me the prisoner?' Because, from the perspective of the captor, that person is never a political prisoner. They're a criminal that is paying for their crimes." [00:28:46][15.9]

Jenn Williams: [00:28:48] That's Mickey Bergman. Next week, on The Negotiators. [00:28:48][0.0]

The Iran nuclear deal is one of the most significant diplomatic agreements in recent history. This week on The Negotiators, we’ll hear the inside story from Wendy Sherman, who led the U.S. side of the negotiations as the undersecretary of state for political affairs. She now serves as the deputy secretary of state. This interview was adapted from FP's First Person podcast with Sarah Wildman.  Of course, much has changed since the Iran nuclear deal was reached in 2015. Then-U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the agreement in 2018. To catch us up, host Jenn Williams talks to Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s Iran Project director, about where talks stand with Iran these days.  

Episode 4

Inside the Secret Talks That Led to a U.S. Prisoner Exchange With Iran

+ReadClose transcript

Jenn Williams: [00:00:00] From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. Welcome to The Negotiators. Each week, we feature one person telling the story of one dramatic negotiation that either succeeded or failed. I'm Jenn Williams, one of the deputy editors here at Foreign Policy. This week, we're going to hear about a prisoner exchange negotiated in 2019 between the United States and Iran. Relations between the two countries at the time were at their lowest point in decades, in part over Iran's nuclear program. President Trump had pulled the United States out of a nuclear deal with Iran and expanded economic sanctions. In the midst of all that tension, a small organization headed by a former U.S. governor set out to try and win the release of Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American imprisoned in Iran. Wang was a graduate student at Princeton in 2016 when he traveled to Iran for research. Iranian authorities arrested him on charges of espionage and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. The organization that mediated his release is called the Richardson Center for Global Engagement. It's headed by Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico, U.S. congressman, and ambassador to the United Nations. Mickey Bergman, the group's vice president, conducted much of the negotiation. He begins the story by describing a phone call he received from Wang's wife in 2018. [00:01:15][75.2]

Mickey Bergman: [00:01:17] We had the family of Xiyue Wang approach us around March of 2018. That is the typical way we work. So, we work on behalf of families, so we do not work on behalf of governments. We don't get paid by governments. We're a non-for-profit, non-government organization, and our mandate comes from the families. And in this case, it was Hua, who was Xiyue Wang's wife, that reached out to us. She was trying to explain what her situation is, what her husband's situation is. Xiyue Wang was a Princeton Ph.D. student, and his Ph.D. focus was on the Persian culture, and he was in Iran as a part of his research work. And he was arrested in Iran. And so Hua was sharing some of the frustrations of some of the walls that she felt like she's been hitting and was very curious and eager to see if there's something that we can do to be helpful with this. [00:02:14][57.7]

Mickey Bergman: [00:02:19] When you meet with a family, it is very, very intense, because here you are meeting somebody that you've never met before, and you can only imagine the situation in which they're in, emotionally, physically. And you're trying to talk them through this and to ask questions to get information that you know that they've been asked a million times already. And they're frustrated with it. But you want to make sure that you get the information that you need while at the same time explaining to them what it is that you think you might be able to do. And those conversations are really, really hard, because the family would typically take about an hour, an hour and a half. I can't schedule another thing after that for quite a while, because I absrob a lot of those emotions and I need to find a way to defuse them, myself. With every case that we take- and we get a lot of phone calls and approaches- we have to do our own due diligence, because we are in the business of trying to help families of unlawfully detained or hostages. But we are not in the business of helping criminals get out of prison. So there's a lot of Americans out there that for one reason or another, break the law in countries that are not the United States, and that's not what we do. We're not trying to get them out of jail. And so, the first avenue that we take is looking at what is publicly available. So you start looking at documents that are public on the story behind the detainment, the story about the person. And in this realm, you see a lot of misinformation, a lot of partial information, but you're starting to get a little bit of a picture of what are the different claims around a specific arrest. The second avenue that we take is actually trying to to work with our own colleagues inside the US government- many of the Department of State, because the people are held in other countries. And there is something called the Privacy Act, so they are not allowed to share any specific information with us about the case, and they absolutely adhere to that guidance. So what we do have is a level of trust and familiarity with individuals in which I asked a simple question. I would ask them, "Hey, this family has approached us about this case. I just need to know if there's a red flag around it." So if there is somebody who is a pedophile and went to a country, you know, for sex tourism, for example, and got arrested, people in the Department of State will know very clearly, very quickly that there is true evidence against this person. And it doesn't mean that the person gets deserted and unaccompanied and not helped. But we are not in the business of helping criminals get out of prison. [00:05:03][164.6]

Mickey Bergman: [00:05:06] Very quickly, in the case of Wang, we concluded that- even though we can't know for certain- that this case was a case in which Iran basically detained Wang because of their interest in influencing U.S. policy and that it was clearly stated that only an intervention by the U.S. will get him out. And these are two very strong indicators that a detainment is unlawful. So we decided to take the case, and at that point, I'm supposed to try and come up with a strategy of what are the things that we can do to try and kind of poke and see what we can get. And with the Iranians, at that point, I did not have any connections or previous relationships. This is a general statement about this work: It's very hard to establish a trusting relationship in the middle of a crisis. Therefore, it's so important to establish trusting relationships and to build them and to maintain them before there is a crisis. So when there is a crisis, you can call on those and you can already have that sense of trust, which means that you can exchange ideas and conversations with a trusted partner without them feeling that they're risking something that you will expose them. And that trust that you build over time, you know, for us, it can be through humanitarian work, it can be through just meaningful engagement. But it's important to know it's not fake trust. You're not just pretending that somebody can trust you. You actually need to demonstrate and to act as if they can trust you and that you can trust them, which means that we spend a lot of our time not only on resolving and negotiating the release of prisoners, we spend a lot of time on engagement, on building up relationships, especially when there is no prisoners around. At some point we actually used a colleague that has the relationship with the Iranians and had built that trust with them and had him basically vouch for me and for the governor in order to get a meeting and to establish kind of a relationship. And that manifested itself around the summer of 2019 in a dinner that we had with the Iranian representative to the United Nations. [00:07:29][143.5]

Mickey Bergman: [00:07:32] This was a private dinner that we hosted. It was only five people in the room. Introducing ourselves to begin with: The governor has a way of doing that with a lot of humor, which is always very helpful. And we started kind of exploring and saying, "Look, you know, we know things are bad on the bilateral between the U.S. and Iran." Don't forget this is 2019. So this is this is at the height of the Trump administration and the maximum pressure approach. And then we argue for the humanitarian angle, you know, trying to convince them that they're better off finding a solution for it that can benefit them rather than holding an American, because God forbid something might happen to that American in prison. But the conversation goes- it starts with a soft conversation. We're talking about humanitarian needs: What is it that we can do to help? And it's important to realize these conversations can never start with, "Oh, what do you need me to give you in order for you to give me the prisoner?" Because from the perspective of the captor, that person is never a political prisoner. They're a criminal that is paying for their crimes. And if you attack that, then you won't have the conversation that you want to have. We're not engaging here in a direct, you know, give me X, I will give you Y. Instead of that, our framing of the conversation is: What is a set of humanitarian gestures, that are independent of each other, that we can do in order to create goodwill, in order to change the direction of the communications and the bilateral relations between the two countries? Is it about finding avenue to have medicine supplied? Is it about access to food? Are there any things, you know, anything that is specific that we can try and help on the humanitarian level of the policy concession in order to create that goodwill that might enable us to move forward and have a goodwill gesture on the other side, which for us should be the release of the Americans. So that was- again, it was initial conversation, initial dinner. A lot of ideas were surfaced on that dinner, but it was also very clear to us that we need to find an opportunity to actually meet with the foreign minister himself when he is in town. [00:09:48][135.8]

Mickey Bergman: [00:09:52] When it came specifically- when we started working on on Wang's case, we actually had a conversation with the national security adviser at the time, which was John Bolton, to let him know, "Hey, we're stepping in on this, and we're going to engage." Sometimes there are places in which we can come up with the right leverage independent of the U.S. government and figure out a way to get an American back. But sometimes, and that we knew clearly in the case of Iran, what will be needed in order to resolve it will have to come from the U.S. government. Except that the U.S. government cannot directly engage in these conversations. And so our role in this case is to basically almost brainstorm informally with our counterparts of what might a solution look like and then try to bring it to the U.S. government. And then the U.S. government can make a decision whether that's good enough for them or not good enough for them. And knowing that that's going to be the end game, it would be silly of us not to brief the government early on about our meetings and about what we're doing. [00:10:58][66.7]

Mickey Bergman: [00:11:01] So the next meeting we had was in September with Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif. It was during his visit to the United Nations and we were able- thanks to the help of former congressman Jim Slattery- to get us this meeting with Zarif. For me, it was the first time I've met Zarif in person. It was a very, very warm and friendly meeting. Anybody who has engaged with Zarif knows he's a very charming and charismatic individual, very friendly. And the conversation started with him repeating to us that Iran wanted to do a global exchange of prisoners, meaning that all prisoners, Americans that are in Iran, Iranians that are in the United States, but also Iranians that are in Australia or Iranians that are in Europe. He wanted a comprehensive deal that just- everybody let's everybody go. That was kind of his concept. And I think they thought about it because they knew of how much President Trump was talking about the high value he places in bringing back American prisoners. And they were surprised that the United States just completely dismissed that concept from the start. It was a nonstarter. And sitting in that meeting, we tried to explain to him that while it is true that President Trump wants to bring back Americans that are imprisoned, he does not want to appear as if he's paying for it or giving something in return. And the foreign minister looked at us and said, "Well, if that's the case, I don't think we can solve this." And we said to him, "Look, actually, you can. You just need to break it into one at a time, and you need to find for each of those a package of humanitarian gestures that are happening simultaneously. And if we can identify what that is, we can start knocking off that list." And he to his credit, he said, "Well, that's actually can be interested," and so that's where the conversation started about breaking down from that concept of global exchange of prisoners into individual cases and what are the certain packages that might fit for that. [00:13:13][132.1]

Mickey Bergman: [00:13:18] I've learned something very important about our Iranian counterparts, and that is the importance of them of symmetry. It's a matter of high priority to them that we are seen on equal footing. It means that if we are looking at releasing an American who is an academic in Iran- which Wang was a Ph.D. student doing his research there- the gesture that needs to happen simultaneously is a release of an Iranian academic. And that's when we started zooming in and looking at the case of Soleimani. You know, his name first surfaced for us in that meeting, but of course, the foreign minister needed a few days to figure out whether that's going to work for him. Soleimani, he's a professor. He was arrested in the United States for a violation of sanctions. A couple of his students were trying to move back some vials with specific material that was relevant to their research. Whether it was a legitimate case or not, that remains remains in question, but that's the reason he was detained. But he was pretrial in the United States. He has not stood trial yet. And so at that point, Governor Richardson and myself went into the White House and we spoke to National Security Council and told them what it is that we think might be doable and ask them kind of to get an indication from them whether this is something that they might be willing to do. And the initial response was very positive. They said, "Well, you know, of course, we need to run it up the flagpole," but we left the White House thinking, "Oh yeah, we have it." And so we knew that the new national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, was supposed to call the governor a few days later to confirm whether this is a go or no go from the American side. And that's where things started to get a little complicated, because we were waiting for that call and the call was not coming. [00:15:16][118.0]

Jenn Williams: [00:15:22] You're listening to The Negotiators. We'll be right back. Welcome back to The Negotiators. A production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I'm Jenn Williams. So Mickey Bergman is making some progress on a deal that would bring Xiyue Wang back to the United States and send Masoud Soleimani home to Iran. When we left off, Bergman was waiting for a phone call from the National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien. Bergman picks it up from there. [00:15:56][34.3]

Mickey Bergman: [00:15:57] After a while, when we haven't heard back, we realized that there's something about human nature: When you don't have good news, you don't like to have those conversations. And it's true about the Americans, and it's true about Venezuelans, and it's true about North Koreans. It's just our nature. If you have good news, you will call the person. If you don't have good news or if you have bad news, you're much more reluctant. So you take the fact that they are not calling back and saying, "OK, there's something- something went wrong here." And that's an interesting thing, because you think- typically you would think that the hardest negotiations are happening with the captors. And that's not always necessarily the case, because the negotiations here inside the government are also very, very complicated. And so we started exploring, and again, in the same way that I have that you build trusted relationship with people abroad, you build trusted relationship with people in your own government. And I had a colleague of mine who's very, very solid and trusted individual, and I took him out outside of the White House and said, "What's going on?" And that's when he said, "Look, the principals wanted this to happen, like the National Security Council actually wanted this to happen. It fits within what the president wants to do. But the Department of Justice is absolutely against it." And I said, "Do we know why?" And he says, "Well, we can't really have that kind of conversation with them for whatever internal reasons and standards." And so the next question was: Can we go to the Department of Justice? "We" meaning Richardson, myself and Slattery go and talk to the Department of Justice just to understand what it is that is their concern about it, because maybe we can restructure it in a way that will meet their concerns. And so we had a meeting inside the Department of Justice, and we asked them, we said, you know, "Tell us. We understand that you have concerns about this. What are your concerns?" And they said, "We have two main concerns. One, the United States- we should not get into the practice of having swaps in tarmacs. It's just not what we do, because if we do that, we run the risk that it becomes a thing. We increase the number of people that get kidnaped or taken prisoner that way, because they know they can get that. And we said, "Well, that's legitimate. What's the second concern?" And they said. "The second concern is that the integrity of the judicial system in the United States has to be maintained. And if you have somebody who's pending trial, who's guilty of charges in violation of sanctions, we have to see it through, and we can't just have somebody coming in and interfere with that, because then we lose credibility for a system." And we took that and we said, "Look, thank you for explaining to us. Let us go back and think through whether there's something we can do to structure this deal differently, in which both of your concerns can be met.". [00:18:47][170.0]

Mickey Bergman: [00:18:51] We went back and we started looking, and that's where a congressman, Jim Slattery, who is a lawyer, actually reached out to Soleimani's lawyers and to the prosecutor in Atlanta to try and understand where the legal process against Soleimani stands on. And that's when we learned that what the prosecutor would really like there is to avoid trial, is to have a plea bargain in which Soleimani pleads guilty. He preferred that on anything else. And through Soleimani's lawyer, we kind of came up with the concept of saying, "Well, what if he pleads guilty and then he get time served as his sentencing and he basically gets deported from the United States," because that would take care of the first concern of the Department of Justice, which means he actually pleaded guilty. The judicial process in United States was independently completed. Even the prosecutor can check a box and say, "Hey, guilty. I did my job." The second part for us on the concern of the tarmac exchange, we had to come up with a concept in which we get through the plea bargain, the sentencing and his deportation, and then 24 to 48 hours later, for whatever excuse they want to give for their judicial system, they will release Wang for whatever reason they want to. We don't care what it is, as long as one gets released. So the sequencing it doesn't- it creates just a little bit of a buffer, so there's not an exchange in the tarmac. And that way we thought, "Oh, we solved the problem of the Department of Justice." But we had to make sure that the Iranians will go for it, because their guy is going to plead guilty. You want to make sure that's not an obstacle. And so we went back to New York and we spoke and send a bunch of messages back and forth to say, "Look, because of our own system, this is the way that we can make it happen. For your sak, he's going to come home- your guy. But you have to accept the fact that, you know, it will be a plea bargain. He's ok with it. So should you." And that took a couple of days, but the Iranians came back and said, "Yeah, that would work for us." And so at that point, and we are now basically late October, early November, that we knew that we have it- we have it in the works. Now there is still a lot of smaller logistics: How do we get Wang out? The Qatari government helps us a lot. They help the United States with prisoners, whether it's Afghanistan, whether it's Iran and elsewhere. So we were trying to work with the Qataris on a way to make sure that there is a plane that is ready to take Wang out of Iran into Doha. And we started working all of the logistics for that. In that time, the governor, of course, beyond us briefing the White House National Security Council, he also had a call with Brian Hook, who was the special envoy on Iran at the State Department, to let him know that this is kind of in the works. And we knew that Brian Hook was not in favor of this deal. He said so pretty clearly. We didn't know the reasons for it, but we knew he was against it. Brian Hook's policy was the maximum pressure, and letting go and having some sort of a deal like that violates maximum pressure. It's almost a crack in that maximum pressure. So I suspect that that was the initial kind of reaction to it. So we were all kind of very tense to see how this plays off because we also got a date at that point that the judge is scheduled to sign the plea bargain on December 11th. So that's how it all unrolled, of course, before we had our December surprise. [00:22:25][213.8]

Mickey Bergman: [00:22:30] We were coming on early December. I was actually in Bangladesh at the time, part of our engagement work. And from there, I was supposed to fly to Doha and meet the governor there and basically gear up for the release of Wang. And for us, we just learned when it was happening that suddenly Soleimani's lawyer has been denied access to Soleimani- so you know something was going on there- and that Wang's wife was on the plane on the way to Germany. You know, it doesn't take a brilliant mind to figure out one plus one that, that the U.S. has pulled the trigger and the deal is happening. The reason why the lawyer- Soleimani's lawyer was not able to see him is, because Soleimani was no longer in the U.S. And of course, we were completely blindsided by it, because we did not expect it to happen that way. What we learned that took place at that point is that Brian Hook realized that this deal is about to happen, because the Department of Justice signed off on the plea bargain. And so he decided to do it basically four days earlier, release Soleimani himself, take him to Geneva, and have the Iranians deliver Wang and do the exchange on the tarmac. And, you know, as excited as I- we were all aware that- that it's at least it's happening, even though it's, you know, it's not the way we envisioned it and not the way we planned it, but at least we're happy that it was happening. There were some significant drawbacks in the way it's been conducted. Of course, the first one is the fact that by doing it that way, we just violated the two concerns that the Department of Justice had that we were trying to address. Number one: Soleimani left the United States not pleading guilty, because the plea bargain was supposed to be signed four days later. It hasn't been signed, so he left as an innocent guy. His process was not completed. Number two: It was a tarmac exchange with pictures in Geneva. So the two main things that Department of Justice asked us not to do ended up happening not by us, but by our own Department of State. [00:24:44][134.3]

Mickey Bergman: [00:24:50] At this point, Hua, Wang's wife, sends us a beautiful message from the plane as she's flying to Germany. How excited she is, very thankful to all of our efforts. And our response was just like, "Hey, we're just extremely happy that this is happening. Good luck there, and we'll talk to you when you're ready after." Emotionally, I was completely torn, because I was really excited that Wang is back. Extremely excited for her, for their son, for the fact that he's coming home, and it gives you such a great sense of like, "Oh wow, it's, you know, you work on it for a long time, and finally it works. This is why I do this." On the other hand, I was very angry, because I couldn't understand why on earth would our own State Department basically sabotage the way that we did it, because we were all fully transparent with them. All forthcoming. We worked on all this. And why would they do that way, especially if it's going to damage the work ahead with it? And so it was a- it was a pretty intense night. [00:25:56][66.3]

Mickey Bergman: [00:26:06] There are times when you fantasize about the return of an individual and how you are able to be there for them. I can tell you, when I was on my way to North Korea, when Otto Warmbier was there, and I was trying to head over there to try and negotiate his release, we knew that my trip at the time was not going to end- in all likelihood- it was not going to end in his release. But oh boy, did I dream as I was on that plane flying in, thinking that the empty seat next to me will be filled with Otto when I come back? But life is much more complicated than that. It very rarely happens that you're actually at that spot. You're also being talked out of the conversation after it happens, and you're all being diminished by the authorities. It hurts, and sometimes it hurts more than others. As the governor likes to say, "Look, we're in this business, not for the credit, because it's just that moment when you're able to see the individual when he's back." It's very rewarding. It fills you up with energy for the next adventure that might be completely draining emotionally. [00:27:15][69.5]

Jenn Williams: [00:27:20] Mickey Bergman is the vice president and executive director of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement. After Wang's release, Bergman and his team managed to negotiate a second prisoner exchange with the Iranians, bringing home an American Navy veteran and sending an Iranian-American doctor back to Tehran. The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today's show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Metha, Amjad Atallah. and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show's senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Gavinda Clayton, and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the show, you'll hear about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a former aide to the Palestinian negotiators, Khalid Elgindy. [00:28:21][60.6]

Khalid Elgindy: [00:28:21] I think it was pretty far-reaching for an Israeli proposal. I think Olmert's ideas were serious, and you would be insane to dismiss it out of hand. [00:28:33][11.3]

Jenn Williams: [00:28:33] That episode next week on The Negotiators. I'm Jenn Williams. [00:28:33][0.0]

International talks aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear program are expected to resume later this month, for the first time since Iranian elections in June. It remains unclear whether the United States will participate in the talks, and even if it does, diplomatic breakthroughs between the two countries are rare.  But to mark the occasion, we decided to focus this week’s episode of The Negotiators on one recent example of successful diplomacy between the two countries.  In 2019, when relations were at their lowest point, the Richardson Center for Global Engagement mediated a prisoner swap between the United States and Iran that brought home Xiyue Wang, a Chinese American graduate student.  Mickey Bergman, the center’s vice president and executive director, helped direct the talks. He has also helped bring home other political prisoners, including Otto Warmbier from North Korea. Bergman describes the Iran negotiation on our show this week.

Episode 5

Just How Close Did Israelis and Palestinians Come to a Peace Deal in 2008?

+ReadClose transcript

Jenn Williams: [00:00:03] From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, welcome to The Negotiators. I'm Jenn Williams. This week, we're going to hear about a round of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians that began with the Annapolis Peace Conference in late 2007. And look, I understand what you're probably thinking when I say Israelis and Palestinians: endless conflict, hopeless peace process. But the talks following Annapolis were actually different. In direct negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian leaders came really close to outlining a shared vision of peace between their two nations, closer than the two sides had ever come before. In the end, though, they failed to reach a deal. And to this day, each side blames the other for that failure. In the first part of today's episode, we're going to hear from Khaled Elgindy, who served as an advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team during the Annapolis talks. He was a member of the Negotiation Support Unit. You'll hear more about that in a minute. Later, we'll talk to Govinda Clayton, a co-creator of the show and an expert on conflict resolution. [00:01:14][70.9]

Jenn Williams: [00:01:15] OK, so before we get to the story, here's a little glossary for the episode. So Elgindy mentions President Mahmoud Abbas. He's the president of the Palestinian Authority. Some people also refer to him as Abu Mazen. Elgindy also talks about Ehud Olmert. He was the prime minister of Israel during this time. And he refers to the dramatic events in the Gaza Strip in 2007. So what he's talking about there is the takeover of Gaza by the Islamic militant group Hamas, which caused a really big political rift between the West Bank and Gaza. That remains a big problem to this day. OK. Elgindy takes it from here. [00:01:54][38.2]

Khaled Elgindy: [00:01:55] I came to the negotiation support unit almost by accident. I happened across a job announcement that was cryptically written but didn't mention the negotiation support unit, and it just said, you know, "We're looking for policy advisers to provide technical support to Palestinian negotiators." And so it sounded very intriguing. I applied. They flew me out to Ramallah for an interview, and two months later, I had packed my bags and moved to the West Bank. The negotiation support unit was set up actually as a donor funded project. There were European donor countries who kind of came together and decided that Palestinian negotiators were lacking, specifically in technical expertise. They had been going to these negotiations throughout the Oslo years with no lawyers and no maps of their own. And so this was a way for the donor countries to help level the playing field on some level, and they managed to convince the leadership that this was in their interest. And so the first iteration of the negotiation support unit were mostly Palestinian-American or Palestinian-Canadian or Arabs from the Diaspora. I'm not Palestinian-American, I'm Egyptian-American. But as a political nerd and history nerd, I sort of came of age during the First Intifada. I was in college. I was sort of the same age as the Palestinian activists who were out in the streets organizing, mobilizing against occupation. And it had a real impact on me. And so my role at the NSU was as a policy advisor on the settlements file, which mainly meant collecting data and maps related to the settlement project in the West Bank and, you know, looking at the territorial situation in future negotiations. It was a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Palestinian leadership. On one hand, I think they appreciated the fact that there was this bank of expertise that they could go to that could produce materials fairly quickly and reliably, and they could do it in English and in some cases, French and Spanish and even Hebrew - we had a number of Hebrew speakers at the NSU. On the other hand, there was sometimes a little bit of resentment from these young upstart kids who seemed to be telling these seasoned veteran negotiators how to conduct their business. So they didn't always take kindly to our advice. President Abbas had been pushing for a return to permanent status negotiations pretty much since the moment he got elected in 2005. It really didn't gain any traction, though, either inside the Bush administration or in the Israeli government. The Israeli government was more concerned with the disengagement from Gaza, and then it was really after the events in Gaza - in which Hamas took over the Gaza Strip violently in 2007 and basically kicked out the Palestinian Authority from Gaza - that suddenly it became urgent to restart negotiations. And so they held this conference in Annapolis in 2007, and from there they launched a pretty elaborate process with two tracks: the leadership level and then the technical committees. So after this international conference to relaunch negotiations, we had a meeting with the Palestinian leadership as advisors and the question in my mind - and I think the same question was on everyone's mind - was: Does President Abbas have a mandate to negotiate? I mean, he was in the weakest position he'd ever been - that the PLO leadership had ever really been in - because this was happening after Hamas had taken over Gaza, and we now had this split between the West Bank and Gaza. And was he going to have the ability to actually make these far reaching compromises? The answer that I got was not unexpected. It was, of course, President Abbas has a mandate and the legitimacy, because he's not only president of the Palestinian Authority, he is chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which represents all Palestinians everywhere. And it's not even just limited to the West Bank and Gaza. You know, that was technically true, but clearly the split affected the legitimacy of this leadership. And so I wasn't at all convinced. I don't think many folks were convinced that these negotiations were going to succeed, if only because the Palestinian leadership had never been in a weaker position. So it just it didn't make a whole lot of sense. [00:07:07][312.5]

Khaled Elgindy: [00:07:13] I think there is a school of thought inside the Palestinian leadership that the way to overcome Palestinian weakness was to clinch a conflict-ending permanent status deal with Israel that would give birth to an independent Palestinian state. And from a substantive standpoint, the gaps aren't insurmountable, whether it's on Jerusalem or borders or even an issue like refugees. You know, the pieces, they felt, were there. And if they could just find the right combination in terms of an American administration and an Israeli leadership that could bring it all together, they could clinch it and sort of save their legacy, and it would negate all of this pettiness between Hamas and Fatah. But it was also a very, very tall order. It turns out that for negotiations to succeed, you need to have more than just good substance that is being discussed around the table. You need to have the right conditions outside of the negotiating room, and that's where things were just completely out of whack. [00:08:26][73.1]

Khaled Elgindy: [00:08:31] So shortly after the conference, after everyone came back, there was an announcement of a major settlement tenders, I believe in Har Homa and other East Jerusalem settlements. And that immediately caused a crisis. From a Palestinian perspective - actually from, I would think, a logical perspective, if the goal is to negotiate over a pie, and one side is eating the pie as you're negotiating, then it becomes obviously very problematic. And to be doing it in the midst of negotiations is even, I think, more egregious. And so it's screamed this contradiction with a negotiated two state solution. There was a real debate inside the leadership as to what they should do: Should they continue or should they sort of fall on their swords and say this process isn't going to work? Otherwise, we're going to be giving cover to settlement activity. And I think the Americans were putting a lot of pressure on the Palestinians: Don't walk away from this process. And of course, the Palestinian leadership decided to continue. I think what was behind that reasoning was this ever-present Palestinian fear that the leadership had of being blamed for the process failing. And so they weren't going to pull out from this process, but they were going to make their objections known. [00:10:02][90.4]

Khaled Elgindy: [00:10:06] The approach for the negotiations was to set up two tracks: There was a technical track and then a political track. And of course, the technical track was supposed to support the political track. And in that two track process, there was very little progress made. You know, I headed the territory team on the Palestinian side, and whenever we would meet with our Israeli counterparts, which we did quite frequently on a regular basis - we even did field visits out to various parts of the West Bank together - those meetings were really pointless, to be honest with you, because, you know, we began almost every meeting with the same argument: What is our starting point? What are the terms of reference? And for us, the terms of reference naturally was international law, the 1967 Lines, Resolution 242. That's the starting point. And we can make deviations from the 1967 line through land swaps and other things, but that's the starting point. The Israelis kept insisting the starting point is realities on the ground, which meant where settlements are now and where the separation wall was now, and then we could negotiate from that standpoint. And so we had this sort of Groundhog's Day kind of dynamic with the Israeli side where we were having the same debate over and over in these meetings, and we would go back to the leadership and say, "We're not really getting anywhere, because the Israelis won't acknowledge the 1967 line as the starting point." And we were told by leadership, in so many words: Just keep meeting anyway. And so, certainly at the technical level, we weren't getting anywhere. There really wasn't any real progress until it escalated to the top leadership level between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert. And they began negotiating directly one on one. [00:12:07][120.1]

Khaled Elgindy: [00:12:10] Well, Olmert had his own set of personal and political calculations. He was facing corruption charges, and most people felt that an indictment was imminent, and there were going to be elections early the following year. And so everyone saw him as a lame duck. And so he was in a position where he very much wanted to clinch his legacy. And so when he took control of the process on the Israeli side and began to engage directly with President Abbas, I think Abbas welcomed that. And we had a relatively serious process of negotiations between them that happened. And the third part of that was Condi Rice as secretary of state, who also very much wanted to clinch a deal. So theoretically, the three key pieces are there. So there was this moment where Olmert presented a fairly detailed vision for how he saw final status on the whole range of issues, from refugees to Jerusalem to statehood and borders, and presented that in a pretty detailed way to Abbas in this one on one meeting. Olmert was prepared to hand back almost all of the West Bank, with the exception of around 6.2 percent that would be swapped with territory inside Israel as part of a land swap arrangement. And he later improved on that proposal and brought it down to 5.8 percent. I think it was pretty far reaching for an Israeli proposal. I think Olmert's ideas were serious in that he clearly had thought about a map and a vision that was in the realm of possibility for Palestinians to accept. You know, when he got feedback from the Palestinian side, he tried to improve on his position. The conditions for Jerusalem - he had an international commission that would be set up that would be responsible for the most sensitive areas like the Al-Aqsa Mosque / Temple Mount area. There would be an international body made up of - I think it was Morocco and Saudi Arabia and a bunch of other countries. This was a nod to the specialness of this particular site and essentially giving up Israeli sovereignty over this very sensitive area. So again, from a substantive standpoint, you would be insane to dismiss it out of hand. [00:14:48][157.4]

Jenn Williams: [00:14:50] You're listening to The Negotiators. We'll be right back. Welcome back to The Negotiators, a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I'm Jenn Williams. So it's 2008, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has offered to withdraw from more than 90 percent of the West Bank in exchange for peace with the Palestinians. But even though the offer itself is groundbreaking, other things are not going so well. Olmert has been indicted for corruption and his time as prime minister is running out fast. Also, tensions are rising between Israel and Gaza, with Hamas firing rockets across the border. Elgindy picks it up from there. [00:15:43][53.1]

Khaled Elgindy: [00:15:45] Basically, the way Abbas responded was, he said, "Thank you, and I'm going to take this back, look at it." And he gave it to us. We analyzed it, and we had a number of questions. Can you clarify where exactly the swaps would be? Can you clarify this point on the mechanism for the Al-Aqsa Mosque? So I think it was something like 14 or so questions that we had put together to convey to Olmert for him to clarify before the Palestinians could have any official response to the proposal. And from what I remember, we didn't get a response to those questions. I think everyone understood that the clock was running out. The clock was running out on Olmert's tenure as prime minister. The clock was running out on the Bush administration. And so people naturally were looking at early 2009 as the drop dead point. Any deal would have to be clinched really before the end of the year. And there was, I remember, an interruption in the process because of the US election. You know, Americans were distracted. Of course, everyone was focused on who would win and what would the dynamic be. And there was a bit of a pause after November, and let's wait to see how things play out going into the final weeks of the administration. I do think that there was an expectation that things would pick up pretty quickly in December. On the other hand, there was some real dysfunction on the Israeli side. Tzipi Livni, as foreign minister, was sending the message: Don't bother with Ehud Olmert. He's a lame duck. He's not going to be prime minister. I'm going to be the next prime minister. Keep talking to me. I'm the track that matters. And Olmert was trying to compete with that, I think, in one-upping his own proposals. You know, he was trying to show how serious he was, and I think he was quite desperate, even, to clinch a deal - maybe to seal his legacy, or maybe he thought it would prolong his life politically. And so that conflict between Livni and Olmert was pretty evident for all of us, and we didn't honestly know what to make of it. I think, you know, President Abbas had made it clear: There's one prime minister. He's my counterpart. He's the one I'm talking to. And so that - that was the default process. [00:18:32][166.9]

Khaled Elgindy: [00:18:34] President Abbas asked us to put together a Palestinian counterproposal to Olmert's maps. It wasn't a full blown vision for all the permanent status issues, but it was mainly the map that seemed to be what the Palestinian leadership was mostly focused on. I believe it was a 1.9 percent land swap, so significantly less than Olmert's, but it still included a majority - an absolute majority of the Israeli settlers who would not be evacuated. They would remain in settlements that would be swapped. But it did include some major precedents, like evacuating key settlements inside East Jerusalem, like Har Homa. They were not going to let a bad faith settlement like that go. And so it became a red line for the Palestinians. And so this was unprecedented in terms of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a Palestinian leader to put forward his own map. [00:19:39][64.9]

Khaled Elgindy: [00:19:42] Well, what ultimately brought an end to the process was the Gaza War that broke out in late December of 2008 and that went on until early 2009 and really only ended just a few days before Barack Obama was sworn in as president. This was unlike any kind of Israeli offensive that we'd seen in Gaza before on terms of the scale of the bombing. There was a land invasion in the Gaza Strip. It was a massive operation, similar to the ones that we've seen since then, but up until that moment, it was a new escalation, and the scale of death and destruction was too much for the Palestinians to continue in any sort of process. And so they officially pulled out at that point. They had no choice. They could not continue in the process as long as Israel was bombing Gaza. [00:20:45][63.3]

Khaled Elgindy: [00:20:53] I left Ramallah in mid 2009, so it wasn't long after the Gaza War and shortly after Obama had been inaugurated and also after just after Netanyahu was elected. But I didn't leave for those reasons. I left because it was time for me and my family to go. You know, my wife grew up in Palestine, so she was more accustomed to living under Israeli occupation. And so it was home for her. But for me and for our kids, it was, you know, it was time to go. And professionally and personally, we felt like it was just the right time to come back to Washington. It took me a few years to kind of figure this out, like, what is it specifically that the Americans keep doing and doing wrong that is making this process not work? It really is this formula that is so deeply ingrained in Washington that it's almost like a religious dogma. And that is this belief that negotiations can only succeed if Israel feels secure. It has to feel secure militarily, certainly from a security standpoint, but also diplomatically, politically, economically, because that's the only way to get Israel to "take risks for peace." And so the idea is, if you're constantly having to reassure the Israelis, then you're not going to put pressure on them. You're just going to find positive incentives rather than negative ones. And if there are negative incentives, it should mainly be for the Palestinians, who, of course, are the weaker party. There isn't much of a political cost to pressuring the Palestinians, whereas pressuring the Israelis can produce a political cost back in Washington. [00:22:44][111.5]

Jenn Williams: [00:22:50] Khaled Elgindy is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, where he also directs the program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestine affairs. His latest book is called Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, From Balfour to Trump. [00:23:02][11.9]

Jenn Williams: [00:23:04] Israelis and Palestinians have done a lot more negotiating since the talk between Abbas and Olmert ended, but they've still not reached an agreement. So let me introduce Govinda Clayton. He's a negotiations expert at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. He's also one of the creators of the show. We spoke to Gov, not just about Elgindy story, but about the negotiations we've covered in other episodes. We're at the midpoint of our season, so this is a good time to stop and take a look at some of the common threads that all of these high stakes negotiations share and what lessons we can learn from them. So I want to go back to what we just heard about the Palestinian and Israeli peace talks. I've actually Khaled Elgindy for many years - I used to work with him back in my days at the Brookings Institution. And it was fascinating to me, you know, he - he didn't often talk about his experiences in these negotiations. And so even though I know him and I've worked with him, it was fascinating to actually finally get to hear this story. And so, you know, I was wondering what stuck out for you about Khaled's particular? [00:24:09][64.6]

Govinda Clayton: [00:24:10] Sure. I mean, I think firstly, on a personal level, it was very much interesting to hear, I mean, at least as he told the story, how close they were to an agreement on the actual substance of the conflict. And looking back now, 15 years later from those negotiations, and seeing how many difficulties we have in that process now in terms of moving forward, it was a little bit sad to reflect on potentially a missed opportunity in that moment. But I think in a more analytically, what really stood out for me in terms of the case and and what we can maybe learn from it was - was the point that Khalid mentioned in terms of the importance of the context over the substance. So I think even specifically mentioned that the kind of substantive issues were solvable, but perhaps the kind of conditions in the context was - was what was the real problem. [00:24:52][41.9]

Jenn Williams: [00:24:52] Yeah, I found that interesting, too. You know, he said that you have to have the right conditions outside of the negotiating room. What are the context factors that tend to be the most influential for negotiators? [00:25:03][11.0]

Govinda Clayton: [00:25:05] Yeah, it's a great question. And so how we often think about that is in terms of what we might call "conflict ripeness." So just like with fruit, if we perhaps pick a piece of fruit too early, it might be sour and inedible. Or if we leave it to late, it might become rotten and inedible, as well. In terms of the conflict, we're also looking to identify this kind of ripe moment at which the negotiation has the most chance of being successful. And over the years, a number of different key factors have been identified. So first of all, the kind of internal political factors are really kind of key. So having the right leaders under the right amount of pressure with the right incentives and importantly, a kind of shared recognition, but then the need to find a solution. And so in military conflicts, that often relates to the specific military situation on the ground and what we might call a kind of "hurting stalemate," a context in which both of the parties are kind of suffering as a result of the conflict, but importantly have come to the recognition that unilateral solutions are really no longer going to work anymore. And so this kind of shared understanding or this shared recognition that they need to work together to find an agreement. [00:26:07][62.2]

Jenn Williams: [00:26:08] So speaking of this ripeness, you know, theory, it feels like around 2015 was a pretty ripe era for these kinds of agreements for some reason. You know, we had the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Climate Agreement and even the Philippine peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. So basically most of the episodes we've done so far. So why do you think this was a golden era for these kinds of agreements? Or was it just a fluke? [00:26:36][27.8]

Govinda Clayton: [00:26:36] I think in this era a particularly important thing is we did have international leadership that was pushing for these different types of agreements. But I think absolutely having international leadership from major world leaders who are keen to promote international cooperation and multilateral agreements was obviously very much important to a number of these agreements. I think it's obviously very challenging in order to try and bring together the technical precision and the detail that's often required for these agreements, while at the same time satisfying the political demands of the countries in which the negotiators are representing. I think one of the ways in which that came out in a really interesting way across the different cases that we've discussed in this area so far has been the extent to which has been different levels of specificity and ambiguity. And so in negotiated agreements sometimes negotiators - we use what we might call "constructive ambiguity." So that's where parties agree on something that is deliberately vague in order to allow the countries that they represent to sign up to something knowing that there's perhaps not complete agreement on the specificity of the terms. And so, for example, we saw in the Paris negotiations, we saw the use of some very constructive language - talking about "shall" rather than "should" - [00:27:45][68.3]

Tom Rivett-Carnec: [00:27:46] Now, "shall" has a very different meaning in an international agreement than "should." "Shall" is a legal requirement and necessitates, for example, in the U.S., Senate approval. And within 20 minutes, John Kerry was at the door, incandescent with rage about the fact that actually ... [00:28:00][14.0]

[00:28:00] - And kind of inspiring the parties to look beyond two degrees, but not specifying exactly what that should be. And so in this case, this constructive ambiguity allowed multiple countries to sign on to create some momentum in the agreement. Whereas, for example, in the Iranian nuclear deal, the specificity was absolutely key here. And so in this case, for the parties having more detail and agreeing on each of these different technical elements was key. And so in this context, constructive ambiguity was certainly not part of the process. [00:28:27][27.3]

Jenn Williams: [00:28:28] Right. Because I could imagine, you know, it's all well and good to - to build in that constructive ambiguity in order to get a deal passed, but then what happens when you actually have to go implement the deal and then there's all that ambiguity? The constructive piece of that ambiguity: Is it actually constructive in the long run to do that? [00:28:45][16.9]

Govinda Clayton: [00:28:45] Yes. And there's very much kind of two schools of thought on this, and it can also vary very much across different cases. [00:28:50][4.9]

Jenn Williams: [00:28:51] Sure. [00:28:51][0.0]

[00:28:51] And so I think, as you kind of reflected in your remarks from the discussion of the Paris climate change negotiations, the problem with the constructive ambiguity was that there's been problems with implementation. So the lack of specificity and the lack of enforcement in the arrangement means that in the end, it's provided an opportunity for countries to shirk from their responsibilities. And the lack of specificity was perhaps a real problem here. Whereas in other cases, we see the momentum that's created by an agreement and creating an opportunity for the parties to work together in a more constructive way means that getting the agreement was an achievement, and the parties can then, in the future, solve some of these more challenging contexts. [00:29:27][35.6]

Jenn Williams: [00:29:28] Maybe this is a basic question, but you know, it feels like with all of these negotiations - and maybe this is obvious - but the issue of fairness, right, is really kind of critical. If both parties feel like they gave up an equal amount but got an equal amount in return - it seems to be pretty key. So how do you ensure that each party gets their fair share? And what are the other qualities that are important to achieve, maybe besides fairness? Maybe fairness isn't the end all be all at the end of the day? [00:29:55][27.6]

Govinda Clayton: [00:29:56] Yeah. I mean, I think fairness is one way by which we can judge the outcome of a negotiated settlement. But there's different ways in which we can think about fairness. So the first is we can think about fairness in terms of the kind of procedure: What was the negotiation set up in such a way that everybody felt that they had a fair chance to get the outcome that they desired? Or we can think about fairness in terms of the substance? Did the agreement that eventually result in an agreement that everybody felt they could get behind? Another way we can think about fairness is the distinction between kind of equality and equity. So did everybody get a kind of equal share or did everybody get what they kind of felt they deserve in relation to what they're put in? So, I mean, if we think about, for example, how are we going to deal with carbon emissions with regards to climate change - like equality in terms of everybody, having the same level of emissions allowed perhaps isn't the most efficient, effective, or fair way to divide them in terms of this. Different countries have different historical legacies. Different countries have different outputs right now. Whereas equity, thinking more about what do people get out in terms of what they put in in different types of way, would be thinking more creatively about a solution that better reflects the historical patterns and the current situation. [00:31:07][70.8]

Jenn Williams: [00:31:08] Okay, that makes a lot of sense. I think that's really helpful, and especially with the current climate negotiations. You have a lot of experience here. Was there anything that - that you learned from listening to these episodes or anything that surprised you that you weren't expecting, maybe? [00:31:22][14.3]

Govinda Clayton: [00:31:24] What I've really enjoyed the most, and what I always enjoy the most from hearing the stories from people involved in these processes, is the anecdotes and the moments of the little things that happened that you could never predict or you could never teach. [00:31:36][12.6]

Wendy Sherman: [00:31:37] I started a conversation about this. I said: You know, it's sort of awkward. I can't shake your hands. It's a little unusual. But I, in fact, grew up in a Jewish community and in Orthodox Judaism, most men won't shake hands with a woman who isn't their wife or daughter or mother. It was a very fascinating conversation ... [00:31:55][18.8]

Govinda Clayton: [00:31:56] That had an influential effect. So the sharing of pictures of grandkids. The personal connection that somebody had from years gone by. Training as a zen Buddhist monk for some time - [00:32:06][9.6]

Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:32:06] Having been a Buddhist monk has changed all parts of my life, actually. I feel like it's changed all my relationships. I feel like it's changed so many things, and it's difficult to kind of pin down ... [00:32:14][7.3]

Govinda Clayton: [00:32:14] And the kind of elements that are very unique to each of the cases that seem to have had a really influential role, and it's these aspects that can't be taught, that can't be understood, that for me, make a series like this so interesting. [00:32:25][10.8]

Jenn Williams: [00:32:27] That was Govinda Clayton and negotiations expert at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich and a co-creator of this show. The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today's show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah, and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show's senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton, and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. If you want to help us out, please subscribe on your favorite platform and leave us a review. Next week on the show, a former gang member becomes a mediator to stop violence on the streets of Chicago. [00:33:19][51.6]

Ameena Matthews: [00:33:20] His mom just called Tio, saying that he's loading up an AK-47, and we need your help. He's going to go up to the school, and he's going to shoot his teammates. [00:33:33][13.4]

Jenn Williams: [00:33:35] That episode next week on The Negotiators. I'm Jenn Williams. [00:33:35][0.0]

In 2008, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas came close to outlining a shared vision of peace between their two nations—closer than the two sides had ever come. But what really happened in those meetings? And why did they fail to clinch a deal?  This week on The Negotiators, we hear from Khaled Elgindy, who served as an advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team during the Annapolis talks. Elgindy is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, where he also directs the program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. His latest book is Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump Also: Host Jenn Williams talks to Govinda Clayton, a conflict resolution expert at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich and a co-creator of The Negotiators. They discuss Elgindy’s story as well as negotiations covered in previous episodes.

Episode 6

From Gang Member to Gang Mediator

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Jenn Williams: [00:00:00] From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. Welcome to The Negotiators. I'm Jenn Williams. This week, we're going to hear from a former gang member in Chicago who became an interrupter: That's a person who intervenes in potentially violent situations to prevent people from getting killed. Ameena Matthews was born into violence. Her father ran a gang, and her brother was killed on the streets of Chicago. Eventually, she left that world and joined a group called CeaseFire. The idea was simple: Former gang members using their street cred to mediate conflicts between warring factions. In this PBS documentary from 2011, you can clearly hear what a gift Matthews has for negotiating. [00:00:47][47.4]

Ameena Matthews: [00:00:48] "And when I was about your age, I was making some real stupid decisions and some stupid calls that was causing me, my life, blood on my hands and my head. Stop." [00:01:01][12.3]

Jenn Williams: [00:01:03] CeaseFire was actually created by an epidemiologist who saw similarities between violence and infectious disease. His thinking was: If you go after the most infected areas, you can stop the problem at the source. The group eventually became known as Cure Violence. So you're going to hear two stories about interventions that Matthews led, including her very first one as an interrupter. [00:01:28][25.8]

Ameena Matthews: [00:01:30] A really good friend of mine from the streets that I was raised from at the age of 15 called me. He had, you know, did some penitentiary time, came home, got a job at CeaseFire, and he called me and asked me to help them. He said, "Ameena, look, I know you're just getting in, and I know you got your husband, and I know you don't want to leave, but I need your help. There's a guy- he plays football for Leo High School- and his mom just called Tio saying that he's loading up an AK-47. And we need your help. He's going to go up to the school, and he's going to shoot his teammates." So I couldn't understand it. "OK, fine. What do you want me to do about it?" I don't know this guy. I don't know his mom. I don't know his teammates. I don't know his brother. I don't know what the hell you're talking about. So me- sat down for maybe about it seemed like 30 minutes, but my husband said it was three. And he was like, "You got up. You put your shoes on, and you said, 'Babe, I'll be back.'". [00:02:47][76.7]

Ameena Matthews: [00:02:49] At that time, I made a couple of phone calls of some friends of mine that I knew- older guys that I knew lived in that community. And I asked them to ride with me, and I'll tell them when I get there. And so I told them what the circumstance was. And at that time, I had a Nissan Quest, and that was the first really van that was so cool that you can pop it on the side, and it opens up and it looks like you didn't do anything. You know, it was just Hocus Pocus. And OK, we found him. He was walking down the street in the direction of the school, and the guys was like, "There he is." And they popped the back door, and he saw me but I never knew this kid. He bailed, he ran. He jumped over a fence, and then he called back, maybe about 20 minutes later to one of the guys and said, "What do you have sister Ameena in the car for? What's going on? What do you- what's going on?" Now he knows what's going on, because he knows that his brother has been bullied by the team, his brother has autism and you know, these guys need to be educated. But he tried to, and they didn't. So this was the end result. So he knew- he knew what was going on with him. He didn't know why I was looking for him. So they gave him the phone, and I just told him, I said, "Look." First of all, I said, "Did you want to talk to me?" He said, "Yeah, I've been wanting to meet you for a long time." I said, "OK, fine, cool." But a long time- I hadn't done anything. I wasn't an interrupter. I wasn't- I just was a person in a community and- and he said that he had been wanting to meet me, because of his family knows my family. So I said, "Throw your book bag. I don't care where you throw it, but throw it away from me. And let's meet." And after he threw it, I made him and the older guys go get it and give it back to me. And that's what he did. That's when I got the weapon. I melt the weapon down, so it would not be another firearm, another weapon of mass destruction, another death from gunfire coming from that weapon. [00:05:13][144.2]

Ameena Matthews: [00:05:17] I took him to Olive Garden over in Forest City, and we talked about his mom. We talked about family life. I let him in in my life and talked about my hot mess of a family that I have and how much of a hot mess I can be sometimes as a family member. And then we talked about the conflict just a little bit. And really, what I talked to him about was that- "Where do you see yourself in the next 18 months?" Because I know me, personally- I didn't think I was going to get out of life past 12. I didn't. I really didn't. My birthday was September 28th, and it was just a little bit overwhelming for me being, you know, the age that I am. I was just so overwhelmed. But just asking him, "Where do you see yourself in 18? In a penitentiary if you go up there and shoot in this Catholic school?" And I gave it to him in the raw about what happens to young guys when they go into those penitentiaries. And guys that are lifers- how they treat you, you know? And then I told him, I said, "Do you trust me?" And he said, "Yeah." I said, "OK." I walked away from the table for maybe about 20 minutes, and him and the other guys was talking, and I called a friend of mine in Morehouse, and I told him, I said, "Look, I got a guy that I need you to holler at.". [00:06:49][92.6]

Ameena Matthews: [00:06:52] What I did tell the young guy's mother is that, "I need to take him out this day, because I need the other side- the football team was active as well, even though they was at a, you know, Catholic school, going to basketball, they still was actively in gangs. And they knew that he was coming. So I needed from the other side to work on their egos, chill them out. So I, that's the way that I hit her, was that, "Let me take him out. I want to take him and show him some things that he's never seen before. We're going to go to Atlanta." I let her know what we were going to do just a little bit. And if it's OK with her, if he likes it, "You can come." She allowed me to take her son over one, two, three, four states, Indiana as well. I let him drive the Quest through the Smoky Mountains, and I used some cash that I put away that, you know, the husband said, "Don't spin this unless it's a emergency, it has to be a tsunami coming in Chicago." But I spent it and it was well worth spending. [00:08:08][76.5]

Ameena Matthews: [00:08:13] We made it to Morehouse. He's never been on a college campus such as that, and he was having a great time. He got a brick from Morehouse. And timing is everything for me. He was able- at this time, they were offering for young African-American kids to take- men to take the GED test or their high school equivalent test and their college entry test. And he did both. By the time we got back to, I think we were maybe 85 miles outside of Illinois, they were calling me saying, "I have to have this guy." His scores was phenomenal. Not just passing the 12th grade. We're talking about: He's doing sophomore answers when he gave essays on these questions. "Can we have him?" So 80 miles out, I'm on the phone talking to his mom. She called me the whole weekend. "When are you bringing my son back?" Because he's the man of the house, right? He's the oldest that- you know, he's taking care of his brother the best way he could, but she still needed some help. And her and I, we had a conversation of getting out of Chicago. And I said he enjoyed himself, and if I can get him in a good school and you don't have to worry about him, and he likes it, if you give me 30 days, we'll move you down there too. And 30 days we moved him down there and hit the family. And him and his family, they have not been back to Chicago since 2006/2005. Family goes to visit them. He's going into his PHD. At first, he went into his- he's just amazing. I see him on Facebook. He'll call me and say, "Hey, what's up?" But he will not come to Chicago. Even though we know other places have their struggles too and the traumas that they're having in other places, he didn't adapt those traumas that was there. He merely took care of what he trained to be eighteen months later, after we had that conversation. [00:10:38][145.6]

Ameena Matthews: [00:10:39] One thing my dad and my husband taught me: They used to tell me, "Ameena, you need to listen more. You need to listen more. You get more. You get more. You can hear more." And once I became a violence interrupter, I really understood that, because eight times out of ten, what the person is going through has nothing to do with the conflict. The conflict was just the reaction. So if I listen. And just be quiet and let them talk about- if the conflict, if it's their mom, whoever they love the dearest. And that's the common effect: They always talk about- there is someone that they love, and they were bullied in school and different things. So I listened to those type of conversations. And one thing that I learned about being a Girl Scout leader is that we have more alike than different. We have more alike than different. And once you hit that alike point, the whole energy of the relationship with the young guy or girl that I am having, it turns into a real relationship. It doesn't turn into "Well they said I'm a bad kid on the block," or "I'm the bad girl. You come to me, you act up, you get snatched up," or whatever the song is, you know, And it doesn't become that. It becomes a human conversation, a human interaction. [00:12:40][121.9]

Jenn Williams: [00:12:50] You're listening to The Negotiators. We'll be right back. Welcome back to The Negotiators. A production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I'm Jenn Williams. So in the first half of the show, you heard Matthew's story about a high school football player who wanted to get back at his teammates for bullying his brother. Her second story involves a young woman named Amanda, whose relationship with another woman led to a violent confrontation. [00:13:22][32.2]

Ameena Matthews: [00:13:24] This particular person, Amanda, was a basketball player at one of the high schools in Chicago, and she was seeing this girl. They were spending the night together, they were kicking it. And the girl that she was seeing was, like, also seeing this guy. And so after the basketball game, Amanda thought that, you know, the girl was going to go with her. So she told her, "Come on, let's go." She didn't. And the guy stepped to Amanda and punched her like a guy in the face. And of course, everyone that wanted to fight Amanda jumped in. Everyone that did not like the guy jumped in. So what I had to do is make sure that Amanda was fine. At one point of time, I put my body in between her and the guy. He had to be about 17/18. He still was playing high school ball and making sure that he doesn't get hurt. And at that point, when he saw that it was me, you know, you can see in his face that he calmed down, but they ended up taking it outside where Chicago P.D. was with guns loaded. And the last thing that I wanted CPD to do is shoot some young kids because they were fighting. [00:15:14][109.3]

Ameena Matthews: [00:15:14] Amanda was just totally wild. She wasn't listening to me. She wasn't listening to her mom. So at this point, I had CPD close a big street, so no one can come through or go back. And I made sure that she wouldn't get to this guy. After she calmed down, we talked about the behavior of relationships, and that was something that she really did not understand. She's part of the LGBTQ community, but she wasn't understanding that there's girls that would also see guys. And looking at how angry she was, it really- for me, when I looked into her soul and saw that anger, that rage, it had nothing to do with the girl. It's about that she's struggling inside, you know. "Should I be gay or should I not? Should I act like a guy or should I not? Should I fight this guy like a guy, or should I?" You know, it was things like that. And that was a conflict within herself, you know, because people, we struggle with those type of conflicts that we don't know how to handle. And you know, the point was she was going to go get the gun- that was it for me. [00:16:55][100.9]

Ameena Matthews: [00:16:58] I asked the young guy's mother, "Can we meet?" It was really kind of hard to talk to her. She wanted to fight me, wanted to fight, you know, Amanda's mom, wanted to fight everyone. And, you know, threatened to blow our heads off. But still not hanging up, because she didn't. And I asked her the way that we can meet, and this is part of one of the conflict mediation rules that I have is that it can't be more than four people. Two on one side, two on the other, because the third person is the agitator: They're not going to listen to what we're saying. So as I spoke to, you know, Amanda and spoke to the mother and spoke to the gentleman, I told a story about my niece- that my niece and her boyfriend was slap boxing, and he hit her in the wrong area of her temple. And she ended up dying. She ended up dying. Once I told that story, you can see the mother, you can see the son, you can even see Amanda dropped their heads. And Amanda did apologize to the young man. She did say, "We're young. We're going to be with a lot of relationships like Dr. Ameena says. We have to get to know ourselves before we can even embark in a relationship with another person. I did not know that she was dating you," And he said, "I didn't know that she was dating you." And at the end of the conflict, the guns were gone. The police was gone. The mothers was hugging, and the son was hugging Amanda. Amanda is out of high school now. She plays basketball with some young ladies and softball with young ladies- and guys -that are part of the LGBTQ+ community. And now she's thriving and, you know, she knows exactly who she is. She's not fighting. She has a healthy relationship, and they have a little poochie, and they've gone to Loyola school. And you know, what more can I ask for? [00:19:32][154.4]

Ameena Matthews: [00:19:41] When I was asked to come to the table of CeaseFire, I thought that we were just going to be breaking up fights. "Stay on your side. Stay on your side." But it was more than that. I learned how to listen and find the common and then build on that. My dad has been locked up for years. I've lost my brother to gang violence and had to identify his body in the Wolf River, knowing that his friends had something to do with his murder. And I had to allow the creator to give us ease, to give us comfort and to show the wrong of each and every one of those guys that harmed my brother. So when you ask me, "What did that look like coming onto the table of CeaseFire?" I did not want another person to have to go and identify- identify their brother in the way that I saw my brother. [00:21:08][87.4]

Jenn Williams: [00:21:20] Ameena Matthews is now the executive director of the anti-violence organization Paws for Peace. She trains people around the world to become violence interrupters. She's also a candidate for U.S. Congress in Illinois's 1st District. [00:21:33][12.8]

Jenn Williams: [00:21:42] The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today's show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Mary Mathis, Japhet Weekes, Jigar Metha, Amjad Atallah, and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Tellem is the show's senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton, and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. If you like the show, please follow us on your favorite platform and leave a review- it really helps. And if you appreciate Foreign Policy and are sick of reaching your article limit, we have a special deal just for you. Head over to to become an FP subscriber, and use the code "negotiate" to get a 10% discount. So next week, we'll actually be off for Thanksgiving. If you're one of our listeners outside the United States, that's the holiday where we Americans stop and think about the people we love and the things that we're grateful for. And then, of course, we eat insane amounts of turkey. When we come back, you'll hear about negotiating with the Taliban. [00:22:51][68.6]

Fawzia Koofi: [00:22:52] One year of negotiation was the most stressful and challenging times of my life. I could see how much people were actually hoping for a political settlement that will end this war. [00:23:03][11.7]

Jenn Williams: [00:23:04] That episode in two weeks on The Negotiators. I'm Jenn Williams. [00:23:04][0.0]

On the show this week, we hear from a former gang member in Chicago who became an interrupter—a person who intervenes in potentially violent situations to prevent people from getting killed.  Ameena Matthews was born into violence. Her father ran a gang, and her brother was killed on the streets of Chicago.  Eventually, she left that world and joined a group called CeaseFire. The idea was simple: Former gang members used their street cred to mediate conflicts between warring factions.  Matthews is now the executive director of Pause for Peace, an anti-violence organization, and a congressional candidate for Illinois’s 1st District.   

Episode 7

Negotiating With the Taliban

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Jenn Williams: [00:00:00] From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. Welcome to The Negotiators. I'm Jenn Williams. This week, we're going to hear from a former Afghan government official about what it's like to negotiate with the Taliban. The two sides started meeting in Doha, Qatar in September 2020. Their goal was to reach a power sharing agreement, but the effort collapsed when Taliban forces swept into Kabul in August. Fawzia Koofi was a member of the Afghan government's negotiating team. She was also a deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament, the first woman to hold that job before the government's collapse. As you'll hear in the interview, Koofi basically feels the talks were hampered from the very start. Former U.S. President Donald Trump signed a peace deal with the Taliban in 2019 without including the Afghan government. By the time the Doha negotiations got underway, the government had little to no leverage. Still, the talks tell us a lot about the Taliban, about why the country fell so quickly, and about what the future holds for Afghanistan. Later in the episode, you'll hear my conversation with Ashley Jackson. She's a researcher and an author who documented a different kind of negotiation with the Taliban, one that Afghan civilians were having across the country in the past few years with members of the group. But first, here's Fawzia Koofi. [00:01:22][82.7]

Fawzia Koofi: [00:01:23] Initially, when I first went, Taliban were thinking that we, women, are there because that's what the world want, because that's what the Western world want. We're not there because we are able or we are like professional, equipped with knowledge and empowered enough to represent our country or etc. We are there because the Americans and other Western world want us to be there. We are there as a token, basically, and that's their approach was also among some of them. One dinner I attended by the Qatar Minister of Foreign Affairs, we agreed that we will share a table, so we don't set woman all in one table, but we will divide ourselves so that we are everywhere and visible. So I was sitting in a table, which was all these kind of Taliban, Islamic scholars and leadership. One of the guys who actually recently joined the Taliban negotiation team, when I sit there, he reacted because he didn't want to sit there. So he said he's going to leave because the fact that I was sharing with them table was against Islam, so he wanted to leave. And I was put in a very difficult situation, because for me it was a test to leave the table -was something, of course, against my struggles because how could I leave basically the stage? And in the meantime, he was making a lot of noise. But then what I did was I continue to engage with other members of the negotiation from Taliban side. I ask them about their families. I try to make the situation normal and look normal so that this guy doesn't make more noises because it was a kind of official dinner. And it looks so bad that this guy was making all this noise. And for me to leave was like leaving forever. Then I decided not to leave, but sit there and talk, and I continue talking with the rest of Taliban. They offered food, the waitors - the people who were working in the restaurant - and of course, because they knew me and I was the only woman there, they served me first for protocol wise, but I tried to share the food with this guy who was making noise, and all of the Taliban guys laughed and said, "You are very -" in their own way, said, "You are very smart." So this was their approach initially, but over time, I think I realized that some of them do not have knowledge of Islamic principles. Their knowledge is just traditional. And I knew, given my experience in the parliament and dealing with so many men like them, I knew how to deal with them. So I then get along with some of them and they try to develop some respect. So in the room, I was like talking and trying to make myself visible, because it was a challenge to make our voices heard, not only for Taliban, but for our own team members. That was a challenge. It was difficult to prove - to prove your, you know, your space or to prove that you are. And it's a challenge. I think it's a woman challenge all over the world, I would say. What they try to do is they try to inject this word of "Islamic" in any kind of agreement conversation we had. And I got frustrated because - and my question to them was, "Why are you so feeling and insecure that you want to just put the word of Islam and then that way you feel that you protect Islam?" Like, for instance, they said we need to train army based on principles of Islam, and we need to protect cultural heritage based on principles of Islam. And my point was: How do you protect the cultural heritage and the principles of Islam? What if there is a cultural heritage - like we had before in Afghanistan, the Buddhas - what if there is a cultural heritage which actually existed before Islam? What are you going to do to that? And they were like - we will assist and see if it is in accordance with Islam. If not, we will destroy it. And I'm like, "Why are you so much in destruction mode?" I didn't ask this question, but this comes to my mind until now. Why would people just think about destruction and like, you know, ruining and not about construction? So I had a discussion with them when we were discussing Islamic structure. When they say they want an Islamic centralized government, we said, "You need to elaborate, what do you mean? What is the form of government that you want?" And then we went into discussion about democracy, and because I'm also a graduate of law and political science, and I know that - how qualified like the replacement of our prophet - peace be upon him - was elected in a way through some kind of consensus. And I said, "In the beginning of Islam, there was some level of consensus on elections, et cetera. So why are you against election?" They had, of course - most of them did - their knowledge of Islam is either very, very old or mixed with tradition, or they don't have it, actually. [00:06:13][289.7]

Fawzia Koofi: [00:06:17] One year of negotiation was the most stressful and challenging times of my life because, you know, I was negotiating with a group that were outside Afghanistan, not connected to the daily reality of people in Afghanistan. And we were in this luxurious five star hotel, nothing to relate with the life of people in Afghanistan. And then on daily basis, there were attacks against civilians, against university students, against women, against targeted killings, against journalists, against human rights activists, and attack education institutions, etc., etc.. There were occasions that we actually went to see our family for a few days, and then using that time, you were also consulting with civil society, with women, with politicians, etc.. I could see that sense of optimism and urgency from the people on agreeing on something. I could see how much people were actually hoping for - for a political settlement that will end this war. But when I was going to the table, and I could see that nothing of that expectation is actually translated into that negotiation, at least on the Taliban side, it was very, very stressful and especially the the speed, the pace of the negotiation that were really not to the expectation of people. We were negotiating about how the future form of a government would look like. And that discussion actually took very, very long. And then the U.S. president announced withdrawal. So when the announcement happened, the Taliban were not very interested in meaningfully engaging. They were basically passing time and making us to be engaged and looking to the world that they are actually in negotiation, making us busy on issues that were not really important for Afghanistan. So, of course already the Taliban were thinking that they are the winner in any case, and maybe very soon they will enter Kabul and capture more provinces militarily. And that's what they did, actually. [00:08:37][139.7]

Fawzia Koofi: [00:08:41] I was in Kabul and I didn't want to leave, but you know that I was under house arrest, and it was - I became literally so ineffective. I'm here temporarily traveling across, you know, some of the countries advocating for the people, for women's rights, especially for women access to education, because that's fundamental. And Taliban cannot abandon Afghanistan from the rest of the world and especially the rest of the Muslim world. Because if you go to other Muslim countries also - I mean, I was in Qatar for a year during negotiation. The girls are more at school than boys. So what do what the Taliban represent? Honestly, I feel absolutely lost, and I cannot even imagine that girls will no more wear that black and white uniform to go to school. Now, my plan is that I want to go back, because I want to empower further and further that empowered generation already that you see them protesting on the streets of Kabul with all the risks that they face. However, that being said, I know that it's very dangerous, but I will continue to do that because here, yes, everything is perfect, but it's not my country. I like the warmth of people, I like the fact that I wake up in the morning, people called me the first thing asking for something. I miss that. I miss being connected with my people. I spend - dedicated all my life being connected with people, and now it's a totally different life. But I think I needed more in Afghanistan than Europe or the U.S. [00:10:14][93.4]

Jenn Williams: [00:10:19] That was Fawzia Koofi, a former member of the Afghan parliament and one of the Afghan delegation's negotiators with the Taliban. I also spoke with Ashley Jackson. She's an author and a researcher who just published a really fascinating book called Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan. Jackson served as an aid worker in Afghanistan about a decade ago. She returned to the country in 2017 and spent more than two years interviewing hundreds of people across the country, including members of the Taliban and ordinary civilians who are living in areas that the group had come to control. Her book is, in part, about how the Taliban managed to regain power after 20 years of American occupation. She says that the group used not just brutality, but also diplomacy with civilians across the country. [00:11:10][51.5]

Ashley Jackson: [00:11:11] When I moved back in 2017, I came back to investigate the Taliban's sort of takeover by stealth of much of the countryside. I started traveling far and wide to areas under Taliban influence and control. And I did that often with the help of Afghan journalists who, of course, were were covering these issues for the local media and were, you know, present right throughout the country. And they kind of helped me figure out and investigate what life was like back under the Taliban 2.0, if you will. [00:11:45][33.6]

Jenn Williams: [00:11:46] How did you travel safely, especially as a woman? I know you said that you were with Afghan journalists, but I'm just wondering, you know, what was it like for yo just kind of on a day to day basis traveling around? And how did you do that safely? [00:11:57][11.2]

Ashley Jackson: [00:11:58] Well, I think as a woman, in many ways it's easier to - to work in Afghanistan as a - as a foreign woman, anyway. You can talk to both sides. You better access certainly to women than a foreign guy would. And there's a culture of, I mean, part of the repression and the restrictions come out of this idea of protecting and respecting women rights. So for better or worse, I felt very protected and respected in lots of ways. Of course, you wear a burqa, you - you follow local customs, but this is at a point where the Taliban really wanted to talk to outsiders. They really wanted to show off what they were doing and kind of present themselves in a different light. [00:12:37][38.8]

Jenn Williams: [00:12:38] Right? So like you said, by that point, the Taliban was making real progress in gaining control across the country. So you write in your book that a lot of that had to do with the way that the group itself interacted with civilians. So tell me a little bit about that. What were some of the ways that you saw the Taliban interacting with civilians and how you think that led to, you know, some of their ability to gain control? [00:13:01][23.6]

Ashley Jackson: [00:13:03] Well, the Taliban that I met was wildly different than the Taliban I heard about in 2009. I mean, I think in 2017 they had adopted this idea that they were a state in waiting. They were no longer this sort of ragtag insurgency that they had been a decade prior. And you know, when I first arrived in Afghanistan, they were attacking aid agencies, they were attacking schools, as you know, quote unquote "symbols" of the occupation. [00:13:28][25.8]

Jenn Williams: [00:13:29] Right. [00:13:29][0.0]

Ashley Jackson: [00:13:30] In 2017, it was a total 180. They were going into government schools and appointing education monitors and forcing ghost teachers, as they're called, to show up for work. They were forcing students, in some cases, to attend classes. And so they're even, in some cases, kind of winning over parents who are really dissatisfied with this terribly corrupt education system, who desperately wanted their kids to get an education. I talked to so many people who sort of had this attitude of resignation that, you know, they didn't like what the Taliban stood for, but they were a less bad option than the Afghan government, who couldn't deliver the kind of service. It couldn't compel people to actually do their jobs so that, you know, people could get access to health care and education. And so it was this really, really strange situation of the Taliban using government and, you know, things funded by the international community to their own advantage, to kind of further themselves in community after community, even if we have to sort of take credit for what the enemy is doing. And that's how I think they got a wedge in community after community. [00:14:40][70.4]

Jenn Williams: [00:14:41] Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. If you're thinking about, you know, an insurgency, there's only - you can only hold control with military, you know, power for so long. And at some point you need to actually start running a city. And one of the stories that you tell in your book in the introduction, you tell the story about Haji Aman and about, you know, this local kind of elder and how he managed to negotiate with the Taliban to reopen schools. So I thought, if you could tell us a bit about that story here. [00:15:07][25.8]

Ashley Jackson: [00:15:08] I think the war in Afghanistan has been presented as very black and white, good against evil Taliban, against the good guys. But actually, it is a civil war where it's brother against brother in some cases. And for civilians, what that meant was that they used those connections, the fact that they might have gone to school with the Taliban fighter, or they might be related to one, in order to survive, to sort of negotiate the Taliban's rules to try and get a relative released from jail or what have you. And the book opens with this story of this extraordinary elder. In some ways, he negotiates with the Taliban to reopen schools and on a range of other issues. But he's really the advocate for the community, with the Taliban trying to get the Taliban to loosen up, to be less cruel to the population, to allow them to at least have access to things like schools and clinics, and so on. But Haji Aman is not exceptional in a lot of other ways, because in village after village, this is exactly how people have sought to navigate and survive the war. It's how they're surviving now, by the way. I mean, they're still negotiating with the Taliban. The Taliban sort of said that girls effectively could not return to school at the secondary level. This attracted a lot of attention in the media. But it's elders like Aman who have renegotiated in province after province, village after village so that these girls can return to school. It's these kinds of very quiet, local negotiations, which are basically the only hope that I think Afghans have now in terms of lessening the harshness that they're going to face under a Taliban regime. [00:16:51][102.4]

Jenn Williams: [00:16:51] So tell me about how Haji Aman actually went about that kind of sensitive negotiation. [00:16:55][3.9]

Ashley Jackson: [00:16:56] So this is the culture of negotiation in Afghanistan. It's completely alien to me. As a New Yorker, we're very direct people. It's the opposite in Afghanistan. And when you're negotiating with the Taliban, definitely not overtly fighting them - you're not getting into a confrontation with them, you're not making demands. You're giving them a very subtle message. So what Haji Aman did was, you know, the Taliban had refused all of the community's demands. The community was increasingly dissatisfied. Haji Aman has to deliver something for the for the community. His standing as an elder depends on that. And so what he says to the Taliban commanders, he says, you know, "It may become unsafe for you here. I can't control what people will do. You know, you just have to show, you know, you have to show them something to show them a little kindness or something." That's effectively what he says. And I'm sitting there with with my translator and we were talking and he starts laughing, of course, because the meaning in Afghan culture is very clear. He's just leveled a really harsh threat. You know, that would have been lost sort of on an outsider's ears. Right? Afghans fully understand what it means to make these sort of indirect threats. It's it's drawing a line in the sand in a way where you allow the other side a little bit of leeway to to back up. You know, because if you confront someone, if you draw a red line or if you slapped down an ultimatum, it's hard to to find a way out of that. It's hard to find a compromise, right? So Afghan negotiating culture, and definitely in negotiating with the Taliban, you always want to give them a way out. You always want to give them an option to do the right thing and to take credit for doing the right thing and being magnanimous and all these kinds of things. So that was kind of how these deals played out. [00:18:40][103.7]

Jenn Williams: [00:18:41] You're listening to The Negotiators. We'll be right back. Welcome back to The Negotiators, a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I'm Jenn Williams. So you just heard Ashley describing how a village elder dealt with the Taliban. Now you'll hear about a teacher who really changed his perspective on how we should think about how civilians are negotiating with the Taliban. [00:19:13][31.2]

Ashley Jackson: [00:19:14] So this teacher was - was a pretty incredible. I met a lot of teachers. I met dozens and dozens of teachers, because they were on the front lines of kind of negotiating with the Taliban over education. They're also sort of respected learned figures in the community and tried to play a role in moderating things. But this one teacher, when I met him, he really put me through my pieces and quizzed me about various things - all these kinds of things. And but then we were talking about the Taliban and the Taliban are slapping down all these rules on education, they were removing parts of the curriculum, and I keep pressing him to, you know, how do you feel about this? This is not a shrinking violet, right? You know, but he keeps insisting, it's all fine. Everything's fine, everything's fine. And there's this culture of non confrontation. And of course, him not wanting to say anything overtly against the Taliban for fear of the consequences. But I keep pressing and pressing because, you know, I know this guy has an opinion. I know he has an interesting something to say. And he says, "Look, we dance with whoever is there. We danced with Mujahideen in and 80s. We danced for the Karzai regime when they came to power after 2001. And we dance with the Taliban. That's how we survive." And it was this really powerful, really poetic kind of way of putting this really impossible, brutal, terrible situation he was in, that this was just, you know, how - how they get through life. It's - it's this these sort of dances with different actors who you don't have control over who your dance partner is, for lack of a better term, but you do have control over how you interact with them, how you react to them, the kind of calculations that you make. But had this also kind of tragic quality to it as well? It's just this never ending dance. The partners change, but the wars just continue and take new forms. [00:21:02][108.0]

Jenn Williams: [00:21:03] Right? Yeah, I thought that was really powerful when I when I read that in the book. There was a part of his quote too where he said, you know, it's not about who we can support; we do not have that luxury. And you know, that moment where you kind of realize like you're pushing him to say, I do or don't support this, you know, XYZ policy the Taliban is doing and he's trying to explain to you, like "Lady, it's not about whether I support them or not. That's not even an option here. Like, of course, I support them because I have to survive". [00:21:29][26.1]

Ashley Jackson: [00:21:30] Exactly. And I think this is, you know, even though intuitively, I knew that in dealing with all these civilians. But the war has been framed in this way of counterinsurgency, winning hearts and minds, the good guys and bad guys. The bottom line is survival. [00:21:46][16.3]

Jenn Williams: [00:21:47] Right? Absolutely. So as we've talked about negotiating, you know, with civilians, is definitely one piece of the strategy that helped the Taliban gain control. But you know, I want to be clear as well, at the same time, you know, the group has used violence to gain more territory, you know, violence both against government forces, you know, and U.S. troops, you know, at times NATO forces, but but also against ordinary Afghans right to maintain their control. So tell me about that piece of this about how the Taliban has used violence to control the population and what that looked like on the ground for you in terms of this kind of broader conversation that we're having about, you know, civilians navigating survival. [00:22:28][40.8]

Ashley Jackson: [00:22:29] Absolutely. When I talk about civilians negotiating with the Taliban, they're doing it effectively at the point of a gun. You know, they didn't ask the Taliban into their village. They didn't vote for them or endorse their control. They're dealing with the hand they were dealt effectively. And a lot of people have fled, and the Taliban has killed far more civilians than the international government forces - we'll never know actually how many. But it's the everyday coercion and everyday fear that I think is is much more insidious. And this uncompromising brutality was just -it was present in the most horrific ways that would come up almost incidentally in conversations. You know, it was just - it was just everywhere. [00:23:16][46.9]

Jenn Williams: [00:23:18] So just to kind of jump forward here a little bit. So you left Afghanistan in 2019, and did you imagine, then, at that time that the Taliban would be would be back in power within such a relatively short time? Did it feel like it was heading that way even then? [00:23:34][16.2]

Ashley Jackson: [00:23:35] Absolutely. I mean, throughout the course of my research, I would come back to Kabul and I would meet with diplomats in their heavily fortified compounds, and I would tell anyone who's listening what was going on. I mean, a lot of people knew, and I think as peace talks or the political talks in Doha between the U.S. and the Taliban progressed, it became a kind of inevitability that the Taliban would return to power in some form. But I think there is a lack of recognition that they already controlled most of the country, and that the government itself was completely hollowed out, fighting amongst itself, rotten, unable to come up with any sort of compelling counter argumets rhetorically to the Afghan people or a real military strategy to fight back the Taliban once international forces or American forces more precisely left. And I think anyone who is surprised just hasn't been paying attention for the past five years. [00:24:29][54.5]

Jenn Williams: [00:24:30] And I guess that brings me to my last kind of general question here is, you know, the fact is the Taliban is the government in power there, whether anyone likes it or not, so what are the lessons that you draw - that you take from this experience and your understanding of how the Taliban actually kind of operates and negotiates? And how can you kind of - what do you take from that in terms of going forward and how maybe the U.S. and the international community, NGOs, the U.N., et cetera, can maybe work with the Taliban in practical ways to try to alleviate this the sanctions crisis, this economic freefall you know that we're seeing? [00:25:08][38.0]

Ashley Jackson: [00:25:11] Right. You know, I'm asked a lot, you know, how should the international community engage with the Taliban about questions of recognition. And I also hate it, because it's the wrong question. The question is: How can you alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people at this point of which, you know, the international community is absolutely partially responsible for? The problem is, right now a lot of the the U.S. and a lot of the Western states, its allies are in this defensive grandstanding kind of public relations spin mode, and that is the worst way to deal with the Taliban. If you condemn them, if you tell them not to do something, if you call them out, they're guaranteed to sort of dig in their heels, especially as they're now kind of fighting for control, fighting for the image of competence and authority now that they've sort of been thrust into power, thrust themselves, actually, into power. And so these quiet negotiations at the local level, the way that the communities were doing it, the way we're seeing Afghans in some areas able to do it now with the Taliban that they've taken over, just keep pushing, keep finding ways to get - give them the space to do the right thing and cut off all the other options and give them - give them credit for doing the right thing, as unpalatable as that might be, that would actually be the most effective. And I've been talking to aid agencies, you know, who are now negotiating with the Taliban over girls' education, all sorts of things, and they're using the same tactics. They're saying, "Oh, you know, if you - if you cut off our girls education program, my donors back in, you know, this western country, they're going to become very upset. And I can't, you know, they'll probably shut everything down. The donors will put all the money and then what are we going to do?" And so like, you always want to blame someone els,but make the threat very, very clear. And it wouldn't be lost, I mean the Taliban would it would absolutely understand what you were saying, but it gives them, OK, gives them a little bit of OK, we can back up, we can reframe this kind of thing. And I think that is when you're dealing with an insurgency as fearsome as the Taliban, that's incredibly important. The real issue is that there is a fate far worse than the Taliban. If the Taliban is not able to solve the liquidity crisis, is not able to keep people from starving, is not able to consolidate among its internal political ranks, it could split apart. There could be other factions that neighboring countries. There could be a far worse civil war ahead. And, you know, in the medium term, not not too off in the distant future. So I think for the international community the question is: How do you avert something worse? Because it can always, always get worse. [00:27:36][145.1]

Jenn Williams: [00:27:38] That was Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute and author of Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan. These days, the Taliban is allowing some small number of girls to study in schools in certain parts of the country. In other areas, though, education has gone underground in defiance of the group. [00:28:00][22.5]

Jenn Williams: [00:28:08] The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today's show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Megan Cattel, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Metha, Amjad Atallah, and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show's senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Gavinda Clayton, and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. If you like the show, please follow us on your favorite platform and leave a review. It really helps. And if you appreciate Foreign Policy and are sick of reaching your article limit, we have a special deal just for you. Head over to to become an FP subscriber and use the code "negotiate" to get a 10% discount. Next week on the show, you'll hear about the current peace process in Libya and the presidential elections that are scheduled there for December 24th. That episode next week on The Negotiators. I'm Jenn Williams. [00:28:08][0.0]

The Afghan government spent nearly a year trying to reach a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban—until the group’s fighters swept into Kabul this past August. Those negotiations failed to produce a deal, but, in retrospect, they tell us a lot about the Taliban, about why the country fell so quickly, and about what the future holds for Afghanistan.  For an insider’s perspective, we hear this week from Fawzia Koofi, a former Afghan government official, who sat across from Taliban negotiators throughout the talks in Doha, Qatar. Later in the episode, host Jenn Williams speaks with Ashley Jackson, a researcher and author who documented a different kind of negotiation with the Taliban—one that Afghan civilians were having across the country in the past few years with members of the group. Jackson wrote about the phenomenon in her book Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan  

Episode 8

The Long Road to Libya’s Election

Libya will hold its first-ever presidential elections on Dec. 24, after decades of dictatorship and years of civil war. The vote marks an important turning point for the country and is due in part to the creative diplomacy conducted there in recent years by the United Nations. On The Negotiators podcast this week, we hear from Stephanie Turco Williams, the former head of the U.N. Support Mission in Libya, who oversaw much of that process.  Host Jenn Williams also speaks with Hajer Sharief, a prominent peace activist in Libya and a co-founder of the organization Together We Build It. Sharief worries that the fragile peace in the country could yet unravel.