From Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History by John Limbert. 

Limbert was appointed Distinguished Professor of International Affairs at the U.S. Naval Academy in August 2006 after a 33-year career in the United States Foreign Service. He was president of the American Foreign Service Association (2003-05) and ambassador to Mauritania (2000-03). Ambassador Limbert holds the Department of State’s highest award―the Distinguished Service Award―and the Award for Valor, which he received in 1981 after fourteen months as a hostage in Iran. 

Excerpt from Chapter 6

The Lessons

Fourteen Steps to Success

The encounters described in these case studies were not all brilliant successes even though many of those involved were intelligent, perceptive, and well-meaning people. All acted out of a very human mix of patriotism, idealism, ambition, opportunism, religious faith, humani-tarianism, and cynicism. Beyond the question of praiseworthy or selfish motives, the history re-lated in these accounts is, for the most part, an uninspiring one. It contains many more don’ts than dos. Too often there is a pattern of leaders acting on impulse, of setting aside their own and others’ better judgment, of believing the other side to be stupid, of ignoring long- and short-term consequences, and of not seeing how others will perceive an action or a statement.

On the Iranian side, there is distortion of history to suit ideology and the ambitions of those in power; on the American side there is ignorance of history and the belief that somehow Iranian perceptions of the past do not matter. There are lessons to be learned even from what is often a history of failure. In these cases, negotiators sometimes made judicious decisions that brought agreements beneficial to both sides; more often, however, they did the oppo-site and made decisions that led to breakdown and to terrible consequences in the long term. American negotiators who in the future are going to deal with Iranian counterparts should consider carefully the successes and fail-ures of their predecessors. They should ask themselves, for example, “Why did United Nations envoy Picco succeed in freeing the Lebanon hostages in 1991 when White House staffer Oliver North had failed in 1985–86?” Those future American negotiators may find themselves dealing with Iranians in many settings. They may be negotiating face-to-face, sitting at a table with other parties, or exchanging messages through intermediaries (as Warren Christopher did through the Germans and Algerians in 1980–81). Their ne-gotiations may be government-to-government, semi-official (track-two), or commercial. In all these contexts, the lessons of history remain valid.

From these events, from negotiators’ earlier successes and failures, I have distilled fourteen suggestions for steps that will raise the chances of success in negotiating with Iranians. Some of these steps require nothing more than applying the basic negotiation techniques taught in dozens of courses and workshops  and  will  work  in  dealings  with  representatives  of  any  state counterpart, not just the Islamic Republic. Iran, however, remains a special case, and the American negotiator needs both to apply the basics and then go well beyond them. The persistent, deep, and mutual mistrust that has existed between the two countries since 1979 has meant that negotiators, their  judgment  too  often  clouded  by  real  or  imagined  grievances,  have ignored the fundamentals of their craft and have failed to find objective criteria, calculate Best Alternatives to a Negotiated Agreement, and, most important, separate the person from the problem.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that, in the case of Iran, there are almost no recent positive experiences or store of goodwill that negotiators can use to overcome difficulties of process or substance. Relationships always matter in negotiations, and, in the Iranian-American case, they barely exist. Since the two countries formally broke diplomatic relations in 1980, there has been an almost complete lack of official, bilateral contact. That estrangement has left the field mostly to wheeler-dealers, professional pundits, and self-appointed intermediaries who are often pursuing personal or political agendas. Lacking firsthand knowledge and serious analysis, we are often left with distorted stereotypes about Iranians’ basic irrationalism and egoism and with sweep-ing, questionable assertions such as “Iranians hate negotiations.”

Given the burdens of the past, Iranians and Americans who enter negoti-a tions today have a difficult assignment. The setting for their negotiations is unpromising, and the chances of success are uncertain. Even negotiators with infinite patience, the best techniques, the most profound understanding of their craft, and the deepest knowledge of what motivates the other side have no guarantees of success. Yet if there are mutual interests, and if both sides see a benefit in coming to the table—as they did see in 2001–02 about Afghanistan and as they should see today about Iraq—then the suggestions listed below may just help future negotiators and raise their chances of a productive encounter from none to at least slim.

1. Establish objective criteria free of legalisms. 

Closely reasoned legal arguments may have their place in a negotiation, but for the most part they will not impress the Iranian side. This feature of Ira-nian negotiating style long predates the Islamic Republic. In February 1946, for example, Iranian Prime Minister Ahmad Qavam, meeting with Stalin on the sensitive issue of Soviet forces remaining on Iranian soil after World War II in violation of international agreements, deliberately avoided arguing the legalisms of the tripartite treaty of 1942 or the 1921 Soviet-Iranian friend-ship treaty, which gave the USSR the right to intervene in Iran under certain conditions. Instead, knowing he was holding a very weak hand, Qavam referred to Soviet withdrawal as a matter of equity and friendship between the two countries.

The Islamic Republic has had a contentious relationship with the law and legal issues. In its earliest years, the new, revolutionary authorities took drastic steps to eradicate the European-based legal system it had inherited from the Pahlavi era (1925–79) and attempted to replace it with practices the new rulers believed were in accordance with Shia religious law. The new regime also undertook a wholesale purge of judges, lawyers, and prosecu-tors—especially women—and replaced them with clerics who were supposed to establish an Islamic and revolutionary legal system. The regime also sacked many members of Iran’s diplomatic service, who traditionally had brought strong legal credentials to their work.

In such a setting, it will be vital—although sometimes difficult—for nego-tiators to establish what experts call mutually acceptable objective criteria in an exchange. The Islamic Republic, particularly in its most revolutionary and ideological moments, has often regarded what others call international law as a pretext for foreigners to cheat Iranians out of their rights. One expert, writing of “the historical distrust Iranians had for Western legalism,” asks rhetorically, “Had treaty after treaty not proved that international law was simply a political device to ensure Western control?” For Iranian negotia-tors, the test of an agreement, therefore, is not whether it conforms to the experts’ notions of legality but whether it can be presented as a victory for Islam and for Iran. Such criteria, of course, are subjective and ambiguous, and in a highly charged political arena, what one group claims as victory another will call betrayal.

The American negotiator, therefore, should look for unambiguous, mu-tually agreeable standards that avoid legal jargon and technicalities. Legal arguments will often carry less weight with Iranians than with Americans. For the American side in a transaction, maintaining the integrity of the process—grounded on legal principles—is often crucial. For the Iranian side, that process is seen only as a means (or an obstacle) to achieving an all-important result. An Iranian visa applicant, for example, will probably have little interest in upholding the integrity of American immigration law. He or she will show genuine confusion if a visa officer protests indignantly (“You lied to me!”) on discovering that the applicant misrepresented certain facts in the belief he needed to do so to obtain the visa.

There is an important distinction here. A lack of interest in points of law may suggest that the Iranian side is taking an emotional, subjective view of an issue while ignoring logic and objective factors. The reality is not so simple. The emotional factors may be important, but the true motives of the Iranian side in a negotiation will sometimes be difficult to comprehend. Those motives may be a mixture of the political, personal, financial, and ideo-logical. The American negotiator, lacking clear insight into these motivations, should be wary of taking refuge in the oversimplified and time-honored view of Iranians as emotional and incomprehensible (as opposed to sup-posedly rational Westerners). In so doing, he risks assuming a self-righteous position and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Treated as irrational, the Iranian side in a negotiation is likely to become so.

2. The past matters: Be aware of Iran’s historical greatness, its recent weakness, and its grievances from decades or centuries before.

Iranians  know  well  that  in  pre-Islamic  times  their  country  was  a  world power,  ruled  a  vast  empire,  and  on  several  occasions  defeated  even  the mighty armies of Rome. The friezes of Persepolis show Iranian kings receiv-ing tribute from dozens of subject peoples. The Iranian plateau is covered with such reminders of Iran’s ancient glory, even if popular memory now associates those pre-Islamic monuments with mythological heroes such as Jamshid  and  Rostam  rather  than  long-forgotten  historical  kings  such  as Cyrus and Darius. In more recent times—until the eighteenth century—Iran rivaled the neighboring Ottoman and Moghul Empires and could deal with Western nations on equal terms.

Beginning in the 1700s, however, Iran lost its great power status. It pro-gressively surrendered territory and influence to outsiders, notably to Britain, Russia, and (later) the United States. The nineteenth century saw multiple humiliations for Iran: bankruptcy, military defeats, and losses of territory and authority in Afghanistan, central Asia, and Transcaucasia. By means of the notorious capitulations and concessions, foreigners, who enjoyed immu-nity from Iranian law, gained control of the country’s finances and natural resources, including oil, and even its security forces. Iranians escaped overt colonization only because the rival British and Russians checked each other and thus kept the country feeble but nominally independent.

In the twentieth century, the degradations continued. Foreign powers formally divided Iran into spheres of influence (by the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1907), occupied the country (during both world wars), backed provincial separatist movements (in 1945–46), and frustrated Iranians’ attempts to gain control of their own destiny by suppressing the Constitutional Movement (in 1906–11) and by overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh’s nationalist government (in 1953). 

History, or at least some version of it, will be very much alive for Iranian negotiators. Like all of us, Iranians are captives of their history. In their case, however, that history is a very long and tragic one. What Iranians remember is likely to be some disastrous event that in the retelling has grown and transformed itself into near mythology. With such memories, suggesting that an Iranian interlocutor forget the past or move on is unlikely to meet with much success or response beyond puzzlement or hostility. 

Iranian negotiators may never mention history explicitly (unlike Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, whose one-hour meetings famously began with thirty minutes of Old Testament and twenty minutes of Holocaust, or Yasir Arafat, who loved to dwell on past injustices to the Palestinians to the exclusion of anything else). Depending on the Iranian negotiator’s cultural orientation, however, one or more of the following events will have shaped his approach to the issue under discussion:

• the Arab invasion and defeat of Iran’s pre-Islamic Sassanian Empire in the seventh century ce;

• the civil wars of early Islamic history, climaxing in the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson, Imam Hussein b. Ali, at Karbala in 680 ce;the constitutional revolution and its failure, 1906–11;

• the tripartite Allied (British, Soviet, and American) occupation of Iran, 1941–45;

• the foreign-backed separatist movements in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, 1945–46;

• the overthrow of Prime Minister Mosaddegh and the restoration of the shah, 1953;

• the  exile  of Ayatollah  Khomeini,  1964,  partly  because  of  his  public opposition to the law granting immunity to American military advisers and their family members in Iran;

• the Islamic Revolution of 1978–79 and its bloody aftermath, including the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–88; and

• the United States and others’ siding with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War and the downing of an Iranian civilian airliner by the USS Vincennes in July 1988.

Most of these events ended badly for Iranians (or at least for some Irani-ans) and have created a profound sense of national victimization and griev-ance that still pollutes the country’s political atmosphere. Even where the events, in the view of some, did not end badly, the lesson that Iranians often draw from their history is one of “us alone against a hostile world.” As a result, Iranian counterparts may come to a negotiation with a view that their nation’s history, despite the glories of the distant past, has too often featured defeat, tragedy, victimization, and betrayal. 

Because of this history, negotiators for the Islamic Republic will see them-selves as holding the weaker position. With that view, and with their reading of Iran’s historical experience, they may maintain that the other (stronger) party is not negotiating but attempting to use its superior economic, political, and military muscle to compel Iran to accept an unequal agreement. Official Iranian propaganda, for example, always referred to the Iran-Iraq War as the imposed war. Such language connoted Iranian weakness, suggesting that the country was not acting as an independent and sovereign state but was fight-ing because larger and stronger foreign powers were forcing her to do so. In such a relationship of perceived inequality, the goal of Iranian negotiators becomes obtaining that ill-defined objective “respect” or at least reaching an agreement that they can present as showing Iran to be any country’s equal. Such was the case during the 1951–53 oil nationalization crisis, when Prime Minister Mosaddegh was more concerned with redressing past humiliations than with reaching an economic agreement concerning Iran’s oil industry.

Many analysts have noted that Iran’s central foreign-policy goal is at-taining the respect worthy of its size, population, resources, and historical greatness. At the very beginning of its July 2003 proposal for a dialogue with the United States, the Iranian message mentioned the issue of “mu-tual respect.” As a result, Iranian negotiators may approach a discussion with a combination of grandeur and grievance. Whoever negotiates with Iran should be prepared to deal with these contradictory feelings: the belief that others owe Iran deference for its cultural and political glories and the simultaneous belief that powerful outsiders have betrayed, humiliated, and brutalized a weak Iran and will do so again if given the opportunity. In such a setting, phrases like axis of evil and regime change emerging from Washington have confirmed Iranian suspicions that the American govern-ment is determined to rid itself of an assertive Islamic Republic—or at least deprive it of its rights.

American negotiators should be aware that their Iranian counterparts’ pessimistic view of the past can create its own vicious circle, in which the Iranian negotiators come to suspect that any arrangement the other side ac-cepts must ipso facto be unfair to the Iranian side. In that case, the Iranian negotiators—convinced that the foreigners are (again) cheating Iran and that the Iranian side could have gotten more if it had held out—will refuse to close the deal. If the Iranian negotiators do get more, then their original suspicions are confirmed, and they remain suspicious that even the new and better deal is unfair to Iran. If it was not, why would the other side have accepted it? 

Can Iranian negotiators escape the burdens of their country’s past? Of course they can, if doing so serves some larger interest. As one Iranian-American observer noted, the Iranians, in an effort to mend fences with their Arab neighbors, now appear willing to overlook the fact that Saudi Ara-bia and most of the Persian Gulf states were strong financial and logistical backers of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq throughout the bloody 1980–88 war. The Iranian side could always bring up that history again, but for the moment the need for normal relations with those Arab states dictates putting aside (if not forgetting) historical grievances. 

Read all 14 steps in Limbert's book.