Sunday, July 15, 2012

Talk Outside the Negotiating Room

Claims and counterclaims on Iran’s nuclear program continue. Here’s a sampling from Iran this week.

An Iranian lawmaker this week said parliament planned to ask the government to equip Iran's naval and research fleet with "non-fossil" engines, Press TV state television reported in an apparent reference to nuclear fuel.

Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations Mohammad Khazaee, interviewed by Laura Rozen and Barbara Slavin:
“We will react if there is any provocative act from the other side,” Khazaee said. “We will not initiate any provocative steps.”

"For some reason whenever there is light at the end of the tunnel, somebody tries to cover up even that dim light," Salehi said. "The continuation of this (deadlock) ... is not in the interest of the international community, not in the interests of my country and not in the interest of the region."

A former Iranian interior minister, Abdollah Nouri, now acritic of Iranian leaders:
"The harms, disadvantages and pressures caused by the Iranian nuclear programme have got out of control and the establishment should make a reasonable and wise decision to find a way out of this deadlock in order to protect the country's national interests,"

The balance of threatening and pacific quotes from Iran varies from week to week. Which voices should we listen to?

The talks between Iran and the P5+1 seem to be settling into a routine. Rather than the greatly-hyped top-level talks, there are now monthly talks at lower levels. This is a good direction that will be improved by making the lower-level talks continue through the months, if that can be agreed.

Although both Khazaee and Salehi say some positive things, they also criticize the position of the P5+1, along with claims that Iran’s intentions are good. The Iranians have released their presentations from the talks, and the P5+1 has not, so there is no way to judge the criticisms. Releasing this kind of material is somewhat unusual, but perhaps a logical step in today’s Webbed world. It’s also a strategy to support Iran’s claim that they have nothing to hide.

From the P5+1
The US has sent warships to the Persian Gulf, some on normal rotations, some perhaps not. Sanctions against trade with Iran are increasing. But some of the verbal bluster has been toned down, too. Israel is making fewer threats of attack, and the negotiators are not speaking outside the meetings. But others are.

The Iranians are determinedly going down a path to master all aspects of nuclear weapons; all the technologies they need. It’s equally clear that Israel and the United States would face huge dangers if Iran were to become a nuclear weapon state.
At a breakfast forum on Capitol Hill, the Air Force four-star general noted “the presence of our strong conventional capabilities in the region [and] the positioning that we are doing for missile defense assets.

“And then ultimately, the president always has available the strategic nuclear deterrent to provide both a deterrent from an attack on the United States standpoint, but also an attack on our allies and friends.”

Dennis Ross, President Obama’s former adviser and special envoy to the Middle East and Iran, in an interview with Al-Hayat:
A diplomatic solution is still viable with Tehran because of “economic pressures” and “the changes in the regional balance of power.”

On the other hand, he acknowledged that the new Israeli government is “capable of making important decisions that can impact either national security or the peace process.”

There is mounting evidence to suggest that, whereas the sanctions regime has not prevented Tehran from operating an increased number of centrifuges for uranium-enrichment activities or adding to its stockpile of fissile material, it has stymied efforts to develop and produce the long-range ballistic missiles capable of striking potential targets in western Europe and beyond. If sanctions continue to disrupt Tehran's access to the key propellant ingredients and components needed to produce large solid-propellant rocket motors, Iranian attempts to develop and field long-range ballistic missiles could be significantly impeded, if not halted altogether.

A high-stakes negotiation like this generates side-talk. Some of it is aimed at influencing the other side, and some at influencing the folks at home. Some will be from independent actors. Not all are giving voice to official policy, and, given a variety of actors within the governments, it’s not always clear what official policy is or who is speaking officially.As the negotiation becomes more serious, however, the governments involved will, if they are serious, back off from the side-talk. That seems to be happening, although slowly in the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1.

Meaningful tidbits may be embedded in a great deal of noise. For example, both Khazaee and Salehi mention 20% enrichment.

Khazaee: The issue of the 20% enrichment is the first proposal of the 5+1 and the third proposal of Iran. So [this] is an issue that could be discussed and decided. It is not off the table…I’m sure that at the meeting in July [July 3] between the technicians that issue has been discussed.

Salehi added that his country "is ready to talk about" ending manufacturing of 20 percent-enriched uranium, "but of course it should be reciprocated properly."

This may be an attempt to highlight something that Iran may be willing to negotiate on. However, Iran has made statements like this before, only to repudiate them later. Salehi’s statement is carefully hedged.

Is There a Cultural Difference?
At times in the negotiations, an argument is presented regarding different cultural negotiating styles: the West are the poker-players and the Iranians are the bazaar merchants. Much of this discussion has seemed to me to condescend to the Iranians: of course poor rug merchants can’t understand what the cowboy westerners were offering. Often implied is that the West should communicate in Iran’s terms.

There are reasonably well-defined steps in international negotiations: both sides put forth their positions, and then negotiations establish what the sides are willing to trade off from the initial positions. Iran’s diplomats should be aware of these conventions and willing to work with them. Negotiations have their own motivations toward secrecy and bluff, two of the characteristics that are associated with both the poker-player and rug merchant stereotypes.

If two sides in a negotiation do have different styles, each may feel that it’s to their advantage to skew toward their style. There may be some of that on both sides, but it’s a mistake to believe that either is stuck in cultural ignorance.

In a personal aside, I must say that I have no gut feel for either style. Both seem to me to be over-infused with testosterone and not conducive to good outcomes. Both poker or haggling seem to me to be stylized ways to humiliate an adversary, never a good thing in negotiating, where all sides need to retain “face.” The type of negotiation I’ve practiced, I think largely successfully, has been the win-win approach put forth in “Getting to Yes,” by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury. The basic diplomatic style is similar to this.

Steve Hynd has summarized the haggling style with a scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” The participants make opening bids, much as in the diplomatic style, and then browbeat and insult each other to an agreement somewhere between the two, with much drama in the process.

I don’t think that the poker style, as Steve describes it in that post, is what the P5+1 are doing. Their proposal and negotiating style seem to adhere more to the diplomatic style. That doesn’t stop a number of voices, official or unoffical, from putting forth boasts of strength or possibilities of olive branches outside the negotiating room.

The noisier style of the Iranians does seem to contain elements of haggling. “Here’s our perfectly reasonable proposal, where’s yours?” “We are perfectly willing to negotiate, but only if you are willing to come up with [what we think of as] a fair counterproposal, which you haven’t done yet.” Both of those can be extrapolated from Khazaee’s and Salehi’s comments.

It’s possible that the Iranians would like to bend the style to one they are more comfortable with and feel could disconcert the P5+1; the corresponding silence from the P5+1 could be their version of the same. It’s also possible that Iran has been isolated from the international community for long enough that Iranian officials genuinely don’t understand diplomatic negotiations; there are indications that they have irritated other countries with inept diplomacy. That doesn’t mean that the conventions of diplomacy, which have been developed to facilitate difficult situations, should be broken for them.

It’s entirely possible that Iran’s claim to be considering building nuclear submarines, with the implication that they will up their enrichment to 95%, bomb grade, is intended as the sort of extreme haggling claim that Steve describes. That doesn’t mean that an equally inflammatory response from the P5+1 is a good idea, although it is the next logical haggling step.

There’s another possibility for the statement on developing nuclear submarines, and it would apply also to Iran’s refusal to allow the IAEA to inspect the Parchin facility that is suspected of being used for nuclear-weapons-related tests and its suggestion that it needs more 20% enriched uranium for four research reactors yet to be built. Iran may be trying to develop negotiating “chips.” The P5+1 have a great many chips in the sanctions; it would be possible to remove particular sanctions in response to Iran’s acceeding to P5+1 requests. Iran may be trying to develop additional bargaining chips beyond their enrichment program and their past weapons program. So Iran could offer not to enrich any more 20% uranium for the reactors that don’t exist yet for easing of the banking sanctions. Will the P5+1 find that a fair trade?

The danger in Iran’s trying to acquire these negotiating chips or making outrageous haggling claims, if that is what it is doing, is that these statements and actions have another interpretation: that there is no bluff here, but a real desire to acquire a nuclear weapon. Western intelligence estimates and Iranian officials say otherwise. But 95% enrichment? Refusal to come clean on the old weapons program? Stockpiling more 20% enriched uranium? It’s possible to interpret these actions as part of a nuclear weapons program. I don’t see it this way, but others might.

Bluffing, whether poker or haggling style, is dangerous. The overall trend seems to be to move toward the negotiating table instead, and we can hope that continues.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner and The Agonist.

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