The U.S.-Iran Negotiations: What’s the Value?

How should negotiations be perceived within American political discourse? As an instrument of self-interest? A metaphor of weakness? A process devoid of emotion?

It took two years of negotiations, capped by eight tumultuous days and nights of talks that appeared on the brink of breakdown several times. Such is the portrait of the framework reached between the U.S. and Iran on the way forward with nuclear negotiations. Writing on the U.S.-Iran nuclear talks, David Ignatius of the Washington Postsuggests that deal or no deal, the negotiations have been fruitful in that they have continued to bring the two sides together.

It could be argued that the value derived from simply sitting down face-to-face aligns with the U.S. citizenry as well. A survey published early in March 2015 by the University of Maryland Program for Public Consultation, found that 61% prefer making a deal with Iran that allows limited enrichment. Only 36% said sanctions should be increased in order to force Iran to give up nuclear material.

Low public support for ratcheting up sanctions may indicate an array of auxiliary views such as low confidence in the sanctions’ efficacy or preference for a military option. Pressure or coercion, however, does not seem to be embodied in the majority perspective. Prior to the agreed framework, Iran’s Foreign Minister and chief negotiator, Mohammed Javad Zarif, warned against such views by saying,

“I’ve always said that an agreement and pressure do not go together; they are mutually exclusive. So our friends [the U.S.] need to decide whether they want to be with Iran based on respect or whether they want to continue based on pressure. They have tested the other one and it is high time they test this one.”

Much of the rhetoric emanating from these talks over the past few years has not been overly personal in nature. However, the way in which one perceives the process of taking steps to agree on outcomes may determine how theperson is perceived. British diplomat Harold Nicholson said, “When you negotiate an agreement, you must also remember that you are negotiating a relationship.” One can only wonder what sorts of relationship have or have not been formed during these discussions that led to a framework.

However, two authoritative voices on negotiation, Roger Fisher and William Ury, suggest that conflict is a growth industry and negotiations should diminish the role of emotion and personality required by individuals and institutions to harvest a desired outcome. In their widely read work, Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving InFisher and Ury posit that in order to capitalize on this burgeoning market, negotiations must accomplish the following:

  • Separate the people from the problem
  • Focus on Interests, not positions
  • Invent options for mutual gain
  • Insist on using objective criteria

Statesman and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is noted for saying no foreign policy – no matter how ingenious – has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of few and carried in the hearts of none. Rober Mnookin, the author of Beyond Winningconsiders the heart a vital instrument for negotiations that cultivates empathy (not sympathy), leading parties towards mutual respect. Empathy is about demonstrating an understanding of the other side's needs, interests, and perspective without agreeing. To this end, Mnookin envisages ‘empathy loops’ as the most successful and just method for negotiations. The method is cyclical and consists of four phases:

1)      Inquire about a subject or issue

2)      Allow other side to respond

3)      Demonstrate understanding of the response

4)      If the understanding is confirmed, the loop is complete

The Christian Science Monitor recently commended such engagement with adversaries but cautioned that diplomatic negotiations should be conducted with “clear-eyed realism and moral clarity.” While we never know the negotiating tools utilized, details emerging on the timbre of the talks seem to indicate mutually respectful and empathetic exchanges. Foreign Minister Zarif even made it a point to thank Secretary Kerry for the “mutual respect” in which the negotiations were conducted.

How history judges this framework agreement and any subsequent deals remains to be seen. Six years into his term, President Obama is resembling candidate Obama who said, “It is ridiculous to think that not talking to countries is punishment to them.” And while the American reaction to the agreement will not come close to that of Iranians “dancing in the streets,” we should welcome the opportunity to jaw-jaw over the alternative of war-war as Winston Churchill said.

-Jeremy Taylor serves as a public sector strategist for the federal government. He is a Research Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), a Pacific Forum Young Leader with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and is currently pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership . You can follow him on Twitter @jerdavtay.