At a superficial level, one could be excused for assuming that Iran’s position in the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 should not be that strong. After all, Iran violated its commitment to the international community not to work on a military nuclear program, leading to the imposition of a long list of UN and unilateral (mainly U.S. and EU) economic and financial sanctions. Moreover, when facing the P5+1 at the negotiating table, Iran faces the combined political, military and economic strength of these six powers that far outweighs its own.
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But as is quite well known, for a number of reasons that go to the structure of these talks, Iran’s bargaining position has actually proven to be quite robust.
One of the less appreciated, but probably more effective bargaining tactics that Iran has employed in dealing with the international community – in the hope of further strengthening its hand – is what might be called the “frame game." This refers to Iran’s attempts to rhetorically frame issues relating to the negotiation in a manner that is in line with its own interests and positions, and with the hope of ultimately basing them as the widely accepted interpretation.
Several rhetorical tactics employed by Iran in order to turn its own messages and interpretations into the generally accepted ones can be identified. One commonly used tactic is quite straight-forward: The incessant repetition of certain messages, in every context, and at every turn, until they begin to sound like accepted common knowledge. This tactic has been employed regarding statements that Iran has an “inalienable right” to enrich uranium; that the international community accuses Iran of working on a military program but has never come up with evidence to support this; that Iran has answered all outstanding questions to the satisfaction of the IAEA; and that Iran has no intention of developing nuclear weapons. These statements are either untrue or only partially true, but by incessantly repeating them, Iran intends to make them sound absolutely true.
One of Iran’s major problems at the negotiations table is that the crisis is inherently non-symmetric. Iran made a commitment by joining the NPT and is now in violation of that commitment. The negotiation is thus fundamentally about compelling Iran to return to its commitments – it is not a give and take between two parties. But, this is where another “frame game” tactic comes into play: Namely, Iran’s attempts to reframe the negotiation as more symmetrical than it is, so that it can demand a give and take. Creating an image of symmetry between the two sides can go a long way in the negotiating room; if both sides seem equally at fault, they then have an equal responsibility to improve the situation. So by framing the negotiation as a give and take, Iran increases its leverage at the table.
A specific tactic that Iran employs in this regard is to rhetorically “turn the tables” on the other side. When demands are directed at Iran, Iran simply turns them around and fires them right back at the international community. So, if the international community says it needs to have confidence in Iran, Iran says it needs to have confidence in the international community! And if Iran needs to show its seriousness in the negotiation, clearly the international community must show its sincerity to Iran – indeed, it must change certain policies to demonstrate that it is serious. And the latest example regards talk of President Rohani’s (possibly insincere) “smile campaign." Supreme Leader Khamenei has just noted that it is Iran that must be wary of the “enemy who smiles," while at the same time threatens that all options are still on the table.
The success of this particular tactic can be discerned in the fact that nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 today indeed appear to be about both sides having to make concessions: Iran in the nuclear realm, but many accept that the international community is equally required to lift sanctions in a gradual tit for tat. In order to further base this interpretation, Iran has also followed the "incessant repetition" tactic: saying over and over that these sanctions are illegal, immoral, and unjust.
Iran is also minded to broader issues of negotiations framing as an expression of “who has the upper hand:" Who needs to respond to whose proposal; who determines where meetings take place, etc. Iran has even recently taken steps to alter the overall frame of the negotiation – from solely nuclear, to U.S.-Iran bilateral relations – with an eye to influencing the framing of the larger picture, and likely in the hope of establishing a context that will make the international community even more receptive to a more lenient approach on the specific nuclear front.
At the end of the day, Iran’s frame game can also come back to haunt it. The new and more positive atmosphere that has been displayed by the Iranian team in the Geneva negotiations has created very strong expectations in many quarters for a substantively different approach –and results. If this proves not to be the case, disappointment could lead to much harsher measures.
But there is also the hope that Iran’s latest move in the frame game – a smiling rather than scowling approach – could also tie its own hands this time, and in a positive manner as far as the international community is concerned. Having conditioned the world to a newly positive atmosphere, an Iranian return to a hardline approach of rejection and defiance would be far more difficult to pull off.
Dr. Emily B. Landau is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). She is the author of "Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation" (2012).