How to Negotiate With Iran: Nothing Tangible Is Given for Free

With the P5+1 talks starting this week, President Obama should recognize the major cultural differences between the Iranian and Western approaches to the art of negotiation.

Moty Cristal
Moty Cristal
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Moty Cristal
Moty Cristal

With the international arena being overcome by a new “world peace” dynamic, it would be wise to remember the distinction between a policy and an instrument aimed at reaching that policy.

We should not forget that, in relation to Iran, negotiations and “peace talks” are not a policy per se, but rather an instrument - one of many - to pursue one’s core interests. The core interest of the West, including Russia, is still to prevent Iran from gaining military nuclear capabilities.

In his book "The Art of War," Sun Tzu writes, “The skillful strategist defeats the enemy without doing battle, captures the city without laying siege, and overthrows the enemy state without protracted war." Indeed, in our current complex reality, the only way to defeat an enemy is to combine the language of power with the power of language – meaning negotiations.

But does the West, under the leadership of U.S. President Barack Obama, have the capability to design an effective negotiation process with Iran?

Two important elements overshadow the upcoming negotiations: power and culture. Currently, Iran clearly has a better bargaining position, since it has more valid alternatives. The West's alternatives to an agreement are limited to either strengthening sanctions or military action. Iran’s alternative to an agreement - to continue the enrichment process - seems today more realistic, achievable and "less costly" than the alternatives of the other side.

The two sides come from very different negotiating cultures. Iranian President Hassan Rohani was right to mention this in his UN speech. However, he has carefully chosen which aspects to emphasize. The Persian culture sees negotiation as a game that does not necessarily aim to achieve tangible objectives. The West sees negotiation as a platform for achieving major changes in Iran's policy.

Incidentally, many people attribute mythical power to the Persian bargaining culture. Actually, the bazaar rule is simple - you have quality merchandise, so you should receive as much as possible for it (and in return give as little as possible).

In Western cultures, the negotiation process is not the main point; it is neither seen as a game nor amusement. Time is money - therefore negotiations should end as soon as possible and yield gains, especially material ones.

When a Western negotiator - who believes that negotiation is only a means to an end - meets an Iranian negotiator - who sees bargaining as a way to pass the time, or just to weaken the other side (especially in a political context) - there is a gap that always benefits the Iranian. In overcoming these disadvantages, the United States has to adopt the dual strategy of aggressive process control coupled with a strict quid-pro-quo tactic: Nothing tangible is given for free.

What does “aggressive process control” mean here? Initiate talks, reach out to Iran, engage, monitor and verify, while being aware of the ticking clock.

To achieve this, Obama should first reassemble the negotiating bloc of the P5+1 countries and update their division of roles - not least to take account of the growing Russian influence on the world stage, and the continuing EU (specifically U.K.) foreign-policy weakness. Is he capable of doing this?

Second, he has to jointly define the goals and objectives of these negotiations. Stopping uranium enrichment is a significantly different goal than dismantling Iran’s operating reactors. And allowing full access to international inspectors is different than the cessation of Iran’s proven involvement in global terrorism.

Since this is unlikely to happen, progress can only be achieved through reciprocal incrementalism. Not a comprehensive agreement, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded in his recent UN speech, but rather a strict quid pro quo. So, one sanction is lifted for the permanent presence of inspectors in Parchin and Qom. The next sanctions will be lifted for the shutdown of the Arak facility, and so on.

Is Obama likely to adopt such a process? I doubt it. The unfortunate part is that the Iranians know this, and they will speak to Obama in the language he likes: trust building. First, they will say, you must show goodwill and lift some sanctions, and then we will sit down to discuss your needs seriously.

In the current political environment, Netanyahu must remember the words of U.S. President John F. Kennedy: “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” At the same time, Obama should know the famous Persian folktale about a man who was walking by a river and saw a drowning man. He reached out to him, saying, “Give me your hand and I will save you.” The man in the river refused, since he preferred drowning rather than giving with nothing in return. Almost dead, he heard a voice, “Take my hand and I will save you.” The drowning man accepted the offer and was saved.

Moty Cristal, MPA, LLB is a Harvard Kennedy School graduate and negotiator who served in various official positions in Israeli negotiation teams (1994-2001). He is the founder and CEO of Negotiation Strategy Ltd. (NEST), teaches international negotiations and crisis management internationally and is a regular commentator on complex negotiation and crisis management.

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