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Negotiating With Iran, 1979 and 2012

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
April 20, 2012
Weekly Standard


As the United States and other members of the P5+1 commence negotiations with Iran, it is worth recalling the classic analysis of Iran's negotiating style sent in from the U.S. embassy in Tehran on August 13, 1979. The author of the cable, political counselor Victor Tomseth, and the man who authorized it, charge d'affaires Bruce Laingen, became hostages when the embassy was seized on November 4, 1979.

The cable is an analysis of the "underlying cultural and psychological qualities" that explain the difficulties the embassy had been having in negotiations with the new regime. In one famous line, the cable claims that "Perhaps the single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism … that leaves little room for understanding points of view other than one's own." There is also a "pervasive unease about the nature of the world in which … nothing is permanent and … hostile forces abound." Persians therefore see themselves as "obviously justified in using almost any means available to exploit such opportunities" to protect themselves. Tomseth then adds that Persians have a poor understanding of causality, "an aversion to accepting responsibility for one's actions," and resist "the idea that Iranian behavior has consequences" on American policy.

From these analyses, explained at greater length, the cable draws lessons. First, "one should never assume that his side of the issue will be recognized, let alone that it will be conceded to have merits. … A negotiator must force recognition of his position upon his Persian opposite number." Second, the Iranian negotiator will not seek cooperation or a long-term relationship of trust; instead, he "will assume that his opposite number is his adversary" and will "seek to maximize the benefits to himself that are immediately available." Third, "linkages will be neither readily comprehended nor accepted." Fourth, and especially relevant now, "one should insist on performance as the sine qua non at each stage of the negotiations. Statements of intention count for almost nothing." Fifth, "cultivation of good will for good will's sake is a waste of effort." And finally, "one should be prepared for the threat of breakdown in negotiations at any given moment and not be cowed by this possibility."

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