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Getting to yes on Iran

Authors: Mark F. Brzezinski, Associate, Hogan & Hartson, LLP, and Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
February 6, 2007
The Boston Globe

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US Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently had this to say about America’s negotiating position vis-a-vis Iran: “Frankly, right at this moment there’s really nothing the Iranians want from us, and so in any negotiation right now we would be the supplicant.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also dismissed talking to Iran about Iraq: “The only reason to talk to us would be to extract a price, and that’s not diplomacy, that’s extortion.”

But haven’t US leaders in the past been in much less advantageous negotiating positions with adversaries, yet through tactical negotiations been able to advance national objectives? What about SALT I and II, and START, when Soviet adversaries had certain defensive and offensive capabilities equivalent or even greater than America’s? If carefully executed, why can’t discussions with Iran provide positive results?

Last April, President George W. Bush announced his willingness to reengage with Iran to discuss regional challenges. Since then action has stalled, even though the Baker-Hamilton Report recommends engagement with Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran, as a way of stabilizing Iraq. But for engagement to be constructive it must address mutual self-interest.

The book “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher and William Ury identifies simple but powerful ideas on the fundamentals of negotiation. How do some of the rules of the book apply to US challenges in Iran ?

The negotiating power of parties depends primarily on how attractive to each is the option of not reaching agreement. While there are people in the Bush administration who do not wish for any negotiated solution, our strategic goal is to prevent expanding the zone of conflict and ultimately to separate Iranian nationalism from religious fundamentalism. Despite its frequent revolutionary slogans, Iran’s foreign policy is largely predicated on nationalistic impulses. The traditional Persian drive to assert influence over the Gulf and the larger Middle East are problems familiar to the United States and can be dealt with in the context of dialogue and compromise. In assessing Iran’s international relations, it’s best to focus more on actual conduct then incendiary rhetoric.

Separate people from the problem. Fisher and Ury note that in negotiation, you deal not with abstract representatives of the other side, but with human beings with deeply held values and different backgrounds and viewpoints. A working relationship of trust, respect, and understanding can make a negotiation smooth and efficient. Figuratively if not literally, participants should come to see themselves as working side by side, attacking the problem not each other. In no set of negotiations are such sensitivities more relevant then in the case of Iran . For the last three decades, convoluted historical grievances, emotional barriers, and frequent and mutual misunderstandings have obstructed a rational relationship between two states that often share many interests in common. In one of the paradoxes of the Middle East, the theocratic states’ position today is closer to the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton report then is the Bush administration. If we are able to separate people from the problem, we will achieve a more stable relationship with a long-term adversary.

Focus on interests, not positions. Sometimes a stated negotiating position obscures what you really want. A basic problem in negotiation lies not in conflicting positions, but in the conflict between each side’s needs, desires, and fears. Today, the official US position that it is willing to negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue should it suspend its enrichment activities reflects a fundamental misconception, as such discussions would focus on exclusively American concerns. In contrast, the Islamic Republic prefers comprehensive talks instead of limiting them to a single issue. In its response to the US negotiating offer, Tehran has stressed that “to resolve the [nuclear] issue in sustainable manner, there would be no alternative except to recognize and remove the underlying roots and causes that have led the two sides to the current complicated position.”

Insist that the result be based on some objective standard. Because trying to settle differences on the basis of will has such high costs, the solution is to negotiate on some basis independent of the will of either side—that is, on the basis of objective criteria. A negotiating platform that encompasses American concerns over the nuclear issue, terrorism and Iraq, and Iran’s interest in sanctions relief and security assurances can best normalize a relationship long mired in acrimony and suspicion.

Today, the focus on the repugnant comments of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, conceals that a subtle power struggle is underway between pragmatists and hard-liners. In contrast to the militants, the more pragmatic elements led by the secretary of the Supreme Council of National Security, Ali Larijani, have been pressing for a less contentious relationship with the United States. A US offer of resumed diplomatic and economic relations would do much to help them marginalize the hard-liners and tip the balance of power in their favor.

Mark Brzezinski, a Washington lawyer, served on the National Security Council staff. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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