Iran Deal Reveals Negotiation Basics

Harmesh Bhambra '16

Harmesh Bhambra '16

By Harmesh Bhambra '16

Negotiation over divisive issues has never seemed such an important source of news. In the US, not a week goes by without news of impasse between Democrats and Republicans in Congress. At a global level, high stakes negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program reached an agreement, continuing the extraordinary rapprochement between Iran and western powers over the past few years. Your correspondent seeks to understand the deal through the frameworks applied in Negotiations classes taught at Booth.

The multifaceted nature of the negotiation reduced the likelihood of conclusion — with issues including enrichment, inspections, reprocessing, sanctions and timing — by widening the range of disagreement. However, the “framework” agreement confounded expectations with its scope and detail. That is an interim step, with important details still to be determined. Final negotiations are set against the backdrop that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

The stakes are high and complex for all parties. For Iran, sanctions have crippled the economy, threatening the established political order. For America, security of its allies and peace in the Middle East is a priority. These stakes are important because what parties to a negotiation will accept is principally determined by the perceptions of outcomes if they fail to reach an agreement. The stark alternative for both sides is the possibility of longer term conflict, with the view that Iran has more to lose if it walked away from the deal due to continued economic sanctions, putting the western powers in a stronger negotiation position.

The softening political environment helped to kick start the negotiation. Barack Obama, who will never face voters again, is concerned about his legacy and so, his foreign policy philosophy emphasizes engagement. Hassan Rouhani was brought to power promising that sanctions would be reduced and he adopted a much more conciliatory tone with the West than his predecessor. A cooperative rather than competitive approach from both parties is more likely to lead to a successful agreement (Richard Shell, 1999).

The negotiation involved many parties: The P5+1, European Union and Iran (The P5+1 being America, France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany). The more parties there are the harder it is to achieve an agreement, because each player wants an outcome that is better than their perceived alternative. France, for example, rejected an earlier version, by taking the toughest stance of the negotiators. Attitudes in Congress and views from the Israel administration were also important in shaping interests. Differing interests among parties pose a formidable hurdle to a final agreement.

In all negotiations there is a difference between the desired versus the acceptable — there are red lines and there are softer lines. America originally wanted sanctions to be removed in stages, depending on strict compliance by Iran. However that stance was softened, where American and European sanctions will likely be suspended at the same time (mainly due to legal constraints).

A significant inspection regime was always going to be a principal priority for the western powers. In 2002 Iranian dissident groups revealed the existence of facilities that had not been declared to the UN’s nuclear watchdog. The backdrop of uncertainty since then has made credible commitments crucial for the conclusion of the talks; a common source of breakdown in negotiation is the difference in  perception. Allowing regular inspections to monitor progress has the effect of making Iran’s commitments credible. It is likely that western powers will require flexibility to visit sites deemed “suspicious”, important for heading off critics in the Congress, which threatens to pass new sanctions laws.

The deadline for final agreement has been set for June 30th. Much has been agreed, but there is still a long way to go.