The definition of a successful round of negotiations with Iran is the agreement of “a subsequent meeting.”
During a speaking engagement at Harvard University the week before the latest round of P5+1-Iran talks were scheduled to begin, former UK Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and former EU High Representative. Javier Solana, were asked for their respective opinions on the definition of success for the talks. They both agreed that a successful negotiation meeting with Iran amounted to having “a subsequent meeting.”
So, four months in, how are the talks going?
Under the leadership of EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, P5+1 delegates have met with Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief negotiator, several times since April 2012. Talks started that month in Istanbul followed by subsequent talks in Baghdad and Moscow. Low-level, technical talks were held in Istanbul again in July. While some media reports are positive, others cite rising tensions and point to U.S. military buildup in the region; some predict a higher likelihood of war without compromise at the negotiation table; others have even already labeled the talks a failure.
The media reports all have one major theme in common: the talks are happening and there is follow-up. As Solana and Miliband’s comments make clear, that means success.
Negotiations are never perfect, nor predictable. Negotiation, like life, involves tension, compromise, patience, effort, and the ability to handle failure. The key to success in negotiation, as in life, is persistence. The problems between Iran and the West did not start yesterday – so we cannot expect a resolution tomorrow.
Overall, the relationship between the West (particularly the United States) and Iran is less than ideal for parties attempting to address and resolve substantial issues. Iran and the United States have not had diplomatic relations or regular communication for 33 years. In the absence of direct communication, neither side is adequately aware of the other party’s real interests and priorities at the negotiation table.
Despite the weak foundation undergirding these talks, Jalili, Ashton, and their respective delegates have met three times in the past four months; lower-level delegates have also met and discussions have occurred in the interim period between official meetings.
With every meeting, the two sides have learned more about the interests, priorities, redlines and pressure points of the other side (see a 13-slide PowerPoint presentation made by the Iranian delegation in Moscow here). After the most recent round of talks concluded in Moscow, one Western diplomat described the meeting as making “some progress in bridging differences over various issues,” stating that “the meeting was intended to get more clarity about each other’s positions. I think that worked well.” More importantly, he noted: “In the late hours, a real discussion in a form of questions and answers developed. Our task was not to bring positions any closer, but to better understand it.”
This type of attitude is both refreshing and heartening; it signals both an understanding of what the negotiations process with Iran requires, and a commitment to the success of the current round of negotiations.
So, contrary to what some reports may suggest, the negotiations remain ongoing – and, therefore, they are going well. There are, however, five things that the P5+1 – or the United States unilaterally – can undertake to build trust and create more incentives for a negotiated outcome:
1. Designate an Intermediary
An intermediary is necessary to direct the smooth execution of each round of talks, facilitate further talks, manage the expectations of the parties involved, set and maintain the agenda and process, mediate at times of deadlock, and reduce tensions, among other things.
As former U.S. Ambassadors William Luers and Thomas Pickering argue, “Simply ‘keeping the door open to diplomacy’ will not be sufficient…the Iranian leader must be approached directly, but discreetly, by someone he trusts who conveys assurances from President Obama that covert operations and public pressure have been demonstrably reduced.” Luers and Pickering suggest “[t]he interlocutor might be a leader from a country in the region.” Whoever is chosen must manage both the Iranian leader’s trust and Western leaders’ trust – a difficult position, surely, but not an impossible position to fill.
2. Broaden the Scope of the Discussion
The interests that Iran and the United States/P5+1 bring to the negotiation table reach far beyond Iran’s nuclear program and current sanctions against Iran. Nevertheless, over the past 10 years, the United States has focused primarily on the nuclear issue. Iran, on the other hand, has proposed more comprehensive negotiations, suggesting that discussions on shared interests come first in order to build trust.
While it is understandable that the United States/P5+1 feels pressed for time – time is certainly on Iran’s side in this case – the Iranians actually have it right. The Iranian focus on process before substance is a convincing initial approach to creating a sustainable, value-generating negotiated agreement between two distrustful parties. Once the parties agree on the process, the intermediary’s leadership and role become critical. The intermediary should moderate the conversation and ensure compliance with the process so that the negotiators can focus on a broader scope of topics during the negotiations.
A narrow scope results in a narrow zone of possible agreement (ZOPA). When the scope of interests discussed at the negotiation table is broadened, the ZOPA grows. As the ZOPA grows, so does the value, potential, and likelihood of a negotiated agreement. Successful deal design requires imagination and creativity. Negotiating over a single issue, even if only at first, does not leave enough room for both.
There are never guarantees in negotiation, but a broader scope of negotiated interests significantly increases the likelihood of reaching an agreement.
Exhibit 1 lists twelve interests for discussion between Iran and the United States. While speculative, if the United States had broadened its willingness to negotiate beyond the nuclear issue seven years ago, or four years ago, or two years ago, the nuclear issue may have already been resolved. In general, initiating difficult negotiations by discussing shared interests is a positive way to build trust and generate momentum for agreement on larger opposing interests.
3. Put Time Into Building a Relationship
Iranians place a great deal of value and emphasis on relationships. Establishing rapport with Iranian negotiators is critical. Understanding Iranian culture, norms, communication style, and other nuances will go a long way toward facilitating agreement.
Moreover, negotiating with Iran requires a great deal of patience. Pressuring Iran toward action typically backfires; ultimatums do not work. The best way to deal with a hard-line Iranian approach is to maintain a softer approach (bear in mind, softness is not weakness). Most likely, if Iran is suddenly met with a softer approach, it may not believe it to be genuine. It will take some time to build trust and reciprocity, but the United States should hold steady.
4. Understand “Ghahr”
In general, U.S. foreign policymakers should make every attempt to incorporate an understanding of Iranian culture in their approach, particularly with regard to the concept of “ghahr”.
The Farsi word “ghahr” translates to “wrath, anger, force, and sulking” in English. In reality, it does not mean any one of those words, but rather, is a combination of all those concepts. It does not have an equivalent in English. Ghahr can only be described by example: an Iranian who disagrees with, or feels disrespected by, someone else will “ghahr” with that person. This entails cutting off all communication, giving the silent treatment, and possibly even lashing out at the offender to, or in front of, others.
Iran has been “ghahr” with the United States for 33 years. This will continue as long as the United States does not atone for the disrespect, injustice, and host of other past wrongs Iran perceives it has committed. While understandably the concept of “ghahr” is not within the scope of American culture or understanding, U.S. negotiation strategy toward Iran should account for this emotional element.
5. Engage Iran in Resolving the Syrian Crisis
This last item focuses less on good-faith negotiating behavior and takes advantage of a current political crisis that could be transformed to significantly benefit the West and Iran. Iran has repeatedly offered to play a role in the resolution of the political crisis in Syria, and recently offered to host talks in Tehran “in a bid to prepare and facilitate the ground for talks between the Syrian dissidents and government,” according to the semi-official Fars news agency. It would be a serious mistake for the United States to dismiss Iran’s ability to play an influential role in the resolution of the current crisis in Syria.
The last time the United States engaged constructively with Iran, during the 2001 Bonn talks, their cooperation led to the creation of a new Afghan government. Iran played a critical role in persuading the Afghans to accept the wishes of the Western governments at the table, creating an opportunity to breach the wide and deep schism between Iran and the United States. Within weeks, however, former President Bush’s 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech effectively closed that slightly-open door.
However, second chances do exist and history does tend to repeat itself. Learning from past successes and failures – the success of cooperation in Bonn, and the negative effects of antagonizing Iran rather than engaging it – could be key to resolving both the Syrian crisis and the nuclear standoff.
Recommendations and optimism aside, good negotiation strategy also involves weakening the other side’s best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA). Each side is certainly doing its best to undermine the other side’s BATNA by utilizing all allies, avenues, and means available. For instance, in what is clearly more than a coincidence, the United Arab Emirates just inaugurated an overland oil pipeline that bypasses the Strait of Hormuz, reducing the impact of Iran’s threat to the global oil market via closure of the Iranian-controlled strait. President Obama’s most recent sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran took hold on June 28, and the EU’s ban on importing Iranian oil came into effect on July 1. Iran, in turn, has conducted several missile tests capable of reaching Western and Israeli military, and the Supreme Leader recently professed that the West’s “sanctions imposed on Iran over the past 30 years have vaccinated [Iran] against new sanctions.” The Iranian Majles (Parliament) has also put forth a bill on nuclear submarine development, providing potential justification for uranium enrichment past the 20% threshold.
These BATNA-weakening moves are fine – but if left unchecked by compromise, the current situation could deteriorate and tensions could quickly spiral out of control. Policymakers on both sides should tread carefully. It took a long time to get to this point, and it would be a shame to let a false sense of pride destroy the progress that has been made thus far.
*Sherry Hakimi is a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School Master in Public Policy program. She has a special interest in negotiations and diplomacy, particularly with Iran. She currently lives and works in New York City.