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Negotiation with Iran

I have blogged before both on negotation and Iran. A fascinating book by John W Limbert (‘Negotiating with Iran’, 2009) brings the two aspects together. The author spent 33 years in the US Foreign Service, is a fluent Farsi speaker and has taught at the University of Shiraz. He was a captive at the siege of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979-80.

The last 30 years of the ‘relationship’ between Iran and the US is a catalogue of how not to negotiate. Lessons of general application can be drawn.

Two events have a critical influence on attitudes: the oil nationalization crisis of 1951-53 and US Embassy hostage crisis of 1979-1981. Each has always seen the other as the injured party and resultant victim.

The 1953 coup led to “25 years of royal dictatorship, more than 50 years of grievance, and conventional wisdom that America, which Iranians once regarded as their supporter against the historical colonial partners, had assumed Britain’s traditional role as the controller, the puppet master of Iran and Iranians.” (Limbert)

The natonalization crisis is history (not always known history) to more and more Americans, while it is indelibly part of the Iranian psyche. The memory of the hostage crisis is anathema to Americans.

“The events of 1951-53 have cast long shadows over Iran’s foreign and domestic policies. Today, more than fifty years after this crisis, these incidents – and Iranian perceptions of them – continue to bedevil both Iran’s internal politics and its relations with the rest of the world” (Limbert).

For many years, Iranian dissatisfaction had been growing over the terms of the agreement with the 50% British owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Matters came to ahead when Mosaddegh al-Saltaneh was democratically appointed prime minister in 1951. Settlement negotiations were fruitless as Mosaddegh and the British viewed each other as uncompromisingly hostile. Each saw the other as devious, crafty and ruthless and determined at any cost to impose its will and humiliate the other side: trust was non-existent.

The British decided that the problem could not be resolved without the removal of Mossadegh. The coup plotters were a coalition of army officers, pro-British politicians, royalists and American CIA operatives. The first action went badly wrong and by the 16 August the coup attempt appeared to have collapsed. The Shah fled the country. There were calls for him to abdicate. However, the British, Americans and their Iranian friends succeeded in removing the prime minister. The Shah returned on 22 August.

The effect on Iran-US relations was catastrophic, as the Iranians thought that the US had betrayed their country’s hopes. Britain and Russia were always viewed as semi-colonial masters, but the US had appeared otherwise.

The comparable event from an American standpoint is the hostage crisis of 1979-81, which illustrated how mutual misperceptions, lack of understanding of history, confusing rhetoric with reality, overplaying a hand and ignoring the best available solution, can both create and prolong and intensify a crisis.

The crisis was provoked by the US admitting the Shah to be medically treated in America. The Shah had concealed that he was being treated for cancer since 1974. Iranians interpreted the admission to the US as a plan to restore the Shah to the Peacock throne. The Shah arrived in New York on 23 October 1979 and 12 days later, a mob overran the US embassy where they were held captive until 20 January 1981, with the support of Supreme Ayatollah Khomeini and the authorities supported the siege.

14 steps to success

John Limbert suggests that there are 14 steps to successful negotiations:

1. Establish objective criteria free of legalisms. Closely reasoned legal arguments my have their place in a negotiation, but for the most part they will not impress the Iranians.

2. The past matters. Be aware of Iran’s historical greatness, ts recent weakness, and its grievances from decades or centuries before.

3. Choose intermediaries with great care. A trusted and skilled intermediary can be very useful. But US-Iranian contacts have been plagued with the wrong intermediaries.

4. Talk to the right people. The unique and opaque structure of the Islamic Republic – where duplicating and conflicting authorities inhabit a world of contentious and arcane internal politics – can make it very difficult to understand exactly who has authority and responsibility to make agreements. The conventional wisdom in dealing with the Islamic Republic is: ‘Everyone is in charge, no one is in charge.’

5. Understand that the Iranian priority is survival. The Islamic Republic’s priority is survival and its leaders’ priority is to stay in power. The leaders see themselves surrounded by enemies seeking their removal and the Islamic Republic’s overthrow.

6. Let the Iranians decide what is in their national interest. Iranians do not appreciate hearing lectures from others on what is logical and in their self-interest.

7. Understand best alternatives to a negotiated settlement. Expect actions that may appear self destructive.

8. Give your Iranian counterparts credit for intelligence. Iranians have a long history of being treated as simpletons incapable of drawing obvious conclusions from the available evidence.

9. Expect a case based on vague and uncertain claims. With a shortage of diplomatic expertise and lacking a well-trained cadre of support staff, Iranian negotiators will not always be equipped with facts and figures and precedents with which to make their case. Instead they may rely on ill-defined historical claims or on appeals to justice.

10. Expect grandstanding, political theatre, and flamboyant gestures. Much of what happens in Iran’s political life includes a large element of theatre.

11. Remember that power is respected, weakness despised. A recurring theme of Iranian history is the respect accorded strong leaders – even bloodthirsty ones – who are able to check the powerful centrifugal forces in society. Iranians see disorder as their worst calamity, far worse than than a despot’s arbitrary or harsh rule.

12. Understand that justice in the abstract is extremely important, even if the justice may be harsh. From ancient times, Iranian history has abounded in references to justice. In a negotiation, Iranian representatives my frame their demands, not in specific or quantitative terms but in terms that claim, ‘All we are seeking is justice’ or ‘We want our rights.’

13. Remember that conspiracy theories have great currency. But they are sometimes true. Iranians may seem reluctant to accept simple and straightforward explanation of events. They often prefer more complex accounts, if only because those are more interesting and creative. Behind the surface of events, Iranians often see hidden hands pulling strings and manipulating the world to some subtle and malevolent purpose.

14. Expect hands to be overplayed. The Iranian side may push a small or momentary advantage to a point beyond calculations of gain and loss. At times of political stress, Iranians can appear to discard calculation of advantage and disadvantage and become captives of unrealistic, rigid positions and extremist rhetoric.

Defining success

Negotiators who apply the above principles can reach an agreement but the guidelines are no guarantee of productive results. Both Americans and Iranians too often arrive at the negotiating table burdened with assumptions, grievances, ignorance, resentment, and the opinion – based on their special reqdings of history –that the other side is deceptive, infinitely crafty, overbearing, and will, in the end, reveal its true hostility, treachery and lies. Americans may be full of ideas about Iranian duplicity and irrationality; and Iranians too full of ideas about American arrogance and America’s desire to humiliate Iran in the guise of negotiations.

Two seminal events

Americans and Iranians have constructed their reciprocally negative views based on distorted versions of two recent events: the American-backed coup d’état in 1953 toppling the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and restoring Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi; and the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran and holding the occupants hostage for 14 months.

Americans saw on TV the mass hysteria, which seemed to confirm that Iranians were crazies, impervious to reason, obsessed with real or imagined past grievances, and determined to follow their leader’s most extreme logic even if it led their nation to destruction.

Since 1953, subsequent American actions (real or perceived) have confirmed an Iranian image of Americans determined to bend Iranians to their will and prepared to crush their aspirations for dignity and independence. Examples are lavish public support for the Shah; pressing the Iranian government to grant immunity for American advisers and their families in the 1964 Stauts of Foreces Act debate; appointing former CIA head Richard Helms ambassador to Iran in 1973; Support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Irq war; the ‘axis of evil’ rhetoric in President George W Bush’s 2002 State of the Union message; increased US military presence in neighbouring countries; and public talk about military action and regime change.

Some personal observations

I lived in Tehran during the final three years of the Shah. Times were, of course, very different but my experience still validates ‘Negotiating with Iran’. Having negotiated on behalf of Iranian public sector and private companies, and for foreign public sector and private companies, I had a special experience.

My lasting impression was that Iranians, when negotiating, seek to confuse, believing that in a state of confusion, they are better equipped to find their way through. I frequently had to persuade foreigners not to analyse the negotiations western-style as the Iranians do not negotiated western-style.

I have often been exasperated in listening to the two sides – whether Iranian/American, Indian/Pakistani, Arab/Israeli, Greek and Turkish Cypriots and others, spending maybe the majority of the ‘negotiations’ arguing about the past. Why not have a rule that only the present and future tenses can be used?!

Finally, drawing on Jean Monnet methodology, there are four important guidelines. First, seek to understand how the other side sees the problem and its context. Second, identify the common interest and seek a common solution to a common problem. Don’t sit on opposite sides of the table. Third, do not wait for some mutual trust before negotiating. Trust comes from working together; mutual understanding facilitates working together.

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