How to Talk to the Iranians

A former Iran embassy hostage offers some free advice to U.S. negotiators.

In April 1980, while I and my American embassy colleagues were doing time in Tehran as “guests of the Ayatollah,” I met Ali Khamene’i, now the supreme leader of Iran, who then held a powerful position as the leader of Friday prayers in Tehran. As captive and captor, we were not about to have a free political discussion. Moreover, whatever Khamene’i’s real feelings about the hostage-taking, he and others in authority were caught in a tide of emotion and political opportunism that had swept away any Iranian who questioned the wisdom of holding us. It was pointless to argue with him about what was happening. Instead I attempted to shame him, pointing out that as an Iranian, his own traditions of hospitality and code of conduct would never accept what some of his compatriots were doing to us. Khamene’i got the point, and found himself, in effect, rationalizing and almost apologizing for what “others” had done.

When I consider the this week’s meetings in Geneva between Iranian negotiators and representatives of the United States and the other permanent members of the Security Council, that exchange stays fresh in my mind. Thirty years ago, Ali Khamene’i and I both came to our encounter with grievances – I against our captors and those who supported them and he against decades of American support for an oppressive Iranian monarchy.  By now, our two countries should have dealt with those feelings. We haven’t. Instead, American-Iranian relations have been trapped in a downward spiral of threats, insults, accusations, and sterile rhetoric.

Is Iran dissembling about its nuclear program? Probably. Is Iran aiming to be­come at least a virtual or “threshold” nuclear power – i.e., one that adheres to the letter of its international obligations but is able to build nuclear weapons – des­pite its statements about its peaceful aims?  Probably. Changing that unsettling reality will demand some very skilled diplomacy of a kind rarely demonstrated by either side.

But if we make the nuclear issue the sole focus of our discus­sions with Iran, the discussions that began this week in Geneva will fail. For the Iranian side, the nuclear issue has taken on deep symbolic importance that taps into Iranian feelings about national pride, identity, and respect.  In that context, no Iranian leader – whether reformist, pragmatic, or hard-liner – can afford to be seen making many “concessions.”

As a result, we and the Iranians risk becoming involved in unproductive “asymmetric negotiations.” In such an exchange, each side will be negotiating about different sets of issues and with different goals. Unaware of this asym­metry, neither side can address the concerns of the other. The result is that each side believes the other is obstinate, irrational, domineering, and unwilling to nego­tiate in good faith. “How,” the Iranian side asks, “can we negotiate with those whose goal is to humi­liate us?” As Ayatollah Khomeini famously said, “What does the wolf have to negotiate with the sheep”? For its part, the American side asks, “How can we – who are reason­able and rational – negotiate with those who are so inflexible, evasive, and unreasonable?”

History provides a warning. In the early 1950s, the British and the Iranian nationalist government of Prime Minister Mossadegh fell into the same asymmetric negotiating trap over the exploitation of the country’s oil. When negotiators reached a stalemate, the British wrote off the Iranians as hopelessly unrealistic and xenophobic. Some British oil company officials were indignant at Iranian “ingratitude” for all the company had done to develop the country. The Iranians for their part believed the British looked on them with contempt and were reluctant to accept them as full members of the human race. Under such conditions the chances of reaching any agreement were zero.   Eventually the British turned over the table and persuaded the Americans to join them in staging a coup to replace the “unstable” Mossadegh in the infamous coup of August 1953. Today, centrifuges and enrichment have become the new equivalent of Iranian oil resources. The Iranian position on the nuclear issue has become about Iranians’ being treated as equal and respected members of the international community. “Why” the Iranians ask, “do you treat us differently from the Swiss or the Japanese, with their peaceful nuclear programs? Is it because we are Iranians and refuse to remain subservient?   We are seeking only to exercise our rights and you are seeking to keep us from doing so.”

American negotiators face a difficult task when faced with such reasoning, which remains concealed behind legalisms and seemingly inconsistent arguments. The negotiators, at a minimum, must be aware of the larger mindset behind the Iranian bargaining position. If they remain focused on one (nuclear) issue, the Iranian side will most likely dig itself into more inflexible positions believing that the other side’s goal is not to reach an agreement between equals but to re-impose its will on a newly-assertive Iran.

How should our Geneva representatives deal with abstractions such as “respect” and with the residue of suspicion and hostility they will encounter? Here are some suggestions:

Avoid scolding, hectoring, and sermonizing. When American negotiators talk about “our efforts to change Iran’s behavior” (to use a phrase favored by some senior American diplomats), they are using the language of master to servant, with predictable results.

Avoid gratuitous insults and formulations such as “cheat”, “deceive”, etc. When I taught English at Shiraz University in the early 1970s, I was head proctor for exams for some of our large, required courses, where cheating was rampant, and threats and warnings had little effect. But when I told my students to not do anything that would create a misunderstanding and might cause difficulties for them and for me, it had the desired effect. As one of them put it to me, "Thank you for the way you addressed us. You put us under an obligation not to create a situation that would shame us all."

Maintain the current professional tone of statements about Iran.   President Obama and his administration have made a significant shift in discourse, even while calling out the Iranians on the nuclear issue and the ongoing thuggery in Tehran. In doing so, the administration has shown Iranian rhetoric about American hostility to be recycled hot air.

And lastly, as experts on negotiations tell us, separate the person from the problem.  We may find the current leaders of the Islamic Republic unsavory in their brutality and outrageous in their rhetoric, but we need to stay focused on the goal – to make progress on the nuclear and other issues in dispute with the Iranians.  Writing off the other side because of the misdeeds of the current authorities in Tehran will not get us there.