Should the U.S. Help Iran Save Face on Its Nuclear Program?

The Mullahs retreating publicly would be like Lenin apologizing and reinstalling the Tsar.

A boy holds a picture of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a ceremony to mark the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran. (Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)

In 1980, U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim visited Iran to negotiate the release of the American hostages. When Waldheim arrived in Tehran, he announced: "I have come as a mediator to work out a compromise." It turns out, however, that the Persian word for "compromise" has a negative meaning, referring to a sellout, as in "our principles were compromised." And the Persian word for "mediator" implies a "meddler" rather than a helpful envoy. Within an hour of Waldheim's broadcast, angry Iranians started throwing stones at his car.

The story is from Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton's classic book on negotiation, Getting to Yes, and illustrates the current challenges of reaching a deal over the Iranian nuclear crisis that allows all sides to save face. Let's say an agreement exists that the United States and Iran could live with, where Tehran is given fuel rods in exchange for exporting its existing stockpiles of enriched uranium. How can the United States and Iran accept this kind of deal without looking weak?

After all, Washington seeks to protect its reputation for credibility and resolve, so that its promises and threats will be believed. And Obama needs to defend his personal image as a reliable guardian of national security in the face of Republican charges of "appeasement." Therefore, it's tempting for the United States to look tough by bluster, threats, and triumphalism -- making it seem like Iran is retreating before American might.

But if we try to humiliate Iran there won't be a deal at all. The centrifuges will keep spinning or the rockets will start flying. We're not the only ones concerned with our image. The Iranian regime has built its identity on opposition to Israel and the "Great Satan," the United States. In 2009, the 30-year anniversary of the hostage crisis was a government holiday in Iran. Tehran has turned the nuclear issue into a matter of national prestige by printing the atomic symbol on Iranian money. For the Mullahs to retreat publicly would undermine their entire narrative of the revolution -- like asking Lenin to apologize and reinstall the Tsar.

We require a creative solution that allows all sides to save face. Washington and Tehran both need a victory speech to show that the crisis ended in an honorable way. How can we avoid the appearance of a wrestling match, where one side forces the other to submit?

First, we can bring in the international community. It's easier for Iran to compromise with a group of countries than directly with the United States. And it's also less painful for Washington to make concessions if our allies sign on to a deal. Having friends on board gives political cover to Obama and doesn't trigger the same sense of loss.

Second, both sides can claim to be following principles rather than bowing to the will of the enemy. One of the main ideas in Getting to Yes is that it's far easier for negotiators to compromise in the pursuit of objective standards rather than under the opponent's pressure. For example, two people haggling over the price of a used car can bargain more effectively by appealing to a standard like the book value rather than just making demands: "Take it or leave it."

In the same vein, the United States and Iran can appear reasonable rather than weak by compromising on the basis of principles such as international law, precedent from previous crises, proposals from a third party mediator like the UN, or even notions of fairness and justice -- anything other than enemy coercion.

Iran, for instance, will need to provide a strong Islamic justification for a bargain, perhaps by referring to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's pledge back in February that building a nuclear weapon would be a "grave sin."

Third, the principle of reciprocity can make compromise more acceptable. Diplomats can engineer a step-by-step process where Iranian concessions are accompanied by an easing of sanctions, and the non-nuclear weapons path grants domestic and international legitimacy.

Diplomacy is as much about optics as reality. Both sides fear that making concessions will prove devastating on the international and home fronts. By looking tough but not too tough, Washington can make a deal with the devil, and Tehran can parley with the Great Satan.