On tactful and tactical negotiations

Opinion by Mina Shah
April 28, 2015, 8:57 p.m.

There have been conversations surrounding the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program for quite some time now. Reading and listening to the news on the ups and downs of the deal has felt like hearing from a friend about a tumultuous relationship with a significant other: they’re on, they’re off, they’re in this weird space of uncertainty, they’re on the verge of breaking up, they’re off, they’re on. We care about our friend, so the ups and downs also put us on an emotional roller coaster.

In the case of nuclear negotiations, though, the stakes are a little higher than in having to coax a friend back to a normal emotional state. Or, at least, the implications of a “breakup” could be much greater and have a much wider-spread impact. The very future of the world is held in the balance. And when Iran’s supreme leader is making comments like “[T]he whole problem comes now that the details should be discussed, because the other side is stubborn, difficult to deal with, and is a backstabber,” we certainly have cause for concern about the stability of the thing.

In order to continue trying to improve relations and promote safety for all parties involved, we need to figure out where we stand and  come not only to a point of consensus, but also to a point where both sides are actively willing to uphold and maintain the agreement that they reach.

The question is: How do we go about doing this? How do we come to a point of mutual understanding and a desire to move forward with two countries that have, to put it mildly, such a turbulent history?

President Obama has come up with one answer: more creative negotiations. He advocates being very clear about our needs and wants, such that we can maintain a feeling of safety in America with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time, he discusses making allowances for the other side to save face with its constituents, such that they can explain the deal to their benefactors in a way that demonstrates mutual benefit. It makes sense that we should stick to our ideas, and we should do it in a way that doesn’t compromise the values of the other party.

In spirit, he’s got it right. Negotiations should come from a place of security in one’s values so that all decisions can come from a place of integrity. The world would be a much better place if politicians and government officials kept their word with regard to the promises they make.

On the other hand, his ideas did not come across entirely effectively. The negotiations were phrased to make it seem as though the only goal was manipulation. From the statement that Obama gave to The New York Times, the President says we need to “find formulas that get to our main concerns while allowing the other side to make a presentation to their body politic that is more acceptable.”

This is problematic on several levels. The phrasing makes the President sound manipulative and conniving. The negotiation process cannot be a mere “formula,” because that implies that Iran is completely predictable. Objectifying the opposing party in negotiations doesn’t solve the problem. Additionally, the idea of “allowing the other side” to do something carries with it the implication that we are in complete control of the situation — that it is only a matter of courtesy that we let Iran get anything out of this deal at all. Such an unequal power dynamic is not at all the case. If it were, negotiations wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. The conversations that are currently taking place are doing so because each side has power and each side has the potential to make gains after coming to an upheld accord.

To strike a sustainable deal, negotiations must be more than simple business. They have to be honest and well thought out. With statements like the aforementioned coming from both sides, it makes it hard to trust that each is pursuing a deal that is actually willing to accommodate the interests of both sides. If negotiations come from a place of trying to trick the other side, we can’t expect outcomes to be any different. If the two parties aren’t open, honest, and genuinely willing to come to some sort of consensus in the deal-forming process, why should we expect openness, honesty, and a willingness to uphold the deal after the ink has dried?

We need creative negotiation, but with more effective language in discussion of the deal. And we need to do so in a way that demonstrates a balance of power.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at ‘stanford.edu. 

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