In 2002 the international community first discovered that Iran had covertly built nuclear facilities. That same year, George W. Bush, in the State of the Union address, labelled Iran a member of so-called “axis of evil”. Since then, perhaps unsurprisingly, there were numerous unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a deal between the West and Iran. Things stepped up a gear only in 2013, and two years later, on Tuesday 14th July 2015, Iran and six world powers finally announced a historic agreement.
Given the history and the atmosphere of deep mistrust between all parties, the mere fact that the parties involved managed to have a dialogue at all was quite remarkable – reaching an agreement can be described as phenomenal.
So, what can be learnt from this historic negotiation?
High level summary of the agreement – the accord will keep Iran from producing enough material for a nuclear weapon for at least 10 years and impose new provisions for inspections of Iranian facilities, including military sites. In return, Iran will gain $7bn in relief from sanctions that have increasingly crippled its economy.
From a negotiation perspective, these are some of the most useful insights from this negotiation:
Mind your language. Ultimately, only dialogue, as hard and disagreeable as it might be, will lead to a long term, sustainable solution. Dialogue takes trust, and trust is not built by calling your counterparty Evil! Be careful; words are powerful.
Create dependence. Economic sanctions created the necessary level of dependence on a resolution and ultimately served as the incentive for Iran to come to the negotiation table. If you want to change the status quo you may need to use the carrot or the stick to get the other party to want to negotiate.
Introduce new faces. The hard line positions taken by both Bush and Ahmadinejad during much of the nineties made a meaningful dialogue practically impossible. The advent of Obama in 2009 and of the moderate Hassan Rouhani in 2013 step changed the level of contact between the two powers from the start. A change in the main protagonists may be a useful way to break a deadlock in a prolonged negotiation.
Keep an open mind. In 2009 president Obama vowed to keep all options, (including military action), on the table in order to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. In such high delicate negotiations it pays to adopt a “What would it take” mind set, rather than a Yes/No, black & white attitude.
Build trust. We now know that the critical groundwork which led to the historic agreement was laid in several meetings held in secret at a secure location in the Omani capital of Muscat. This involved both sides, who had not had any substantive talks since 1979, to take risks. Sometimes we need to be prepared to take a risk to build trust. We need to be prepared to stick our proverbial neck out and do something which the other party would just not expect, such as share some confidential information or even make a unilateral concession. This also shows the usefulness of “off-line” meetings to facilitate a conversation away from the tension of the negotiation table.
Understand the interests. The key underlying issues were Iran’s desire to control its own destiny and its position within the Middle East region, and the West’s desire to minimise risk. The negotiator needs to look beyond the other party’s positions and gain a sense for their true concerns. This takes a combination of listening with an open mind and a high degree of empathy.
Manage risk. The final agreement involves provisions for Western inspections of Iranian facilities, and a gradual phasing out of sanctions (Iran had wanted the cessation of sanctions to be immediate), staged over time according to agreed parameters. The negotiator needs to consider all eventualities during the lifetime of the contract and seek to negotiate measures to mitigate risks. In this case, given Iran’s record and general volatility, the level of risk can be considered to be high, especially given the span of the agreement – 10 years.
Time will tell if this remarkable deal will stick and bring about the benefits hoped for by all the parties concerned, however these insights are worth remembering when you build your next negotiation strategy.