Nuclear Negotiations

Whether you think the recently declared deal with Iran is ultimately good or bad depends upon one thing and one thing only. Do you trust the Mullahs of Iran to keep their word? The Obama administration obviously does. Secretary of State John Kerry, along with President Obama and their various spokespeople tout the deal as a major diplomatic accomplishment. They believe that American interests have been served. If we do not see outright violent Iranian aggression in the near future, his supporters will mark this day down as a highlight in Obama’s legacy.

If they’re right, it will be an exception to how these types of negotiations have historically gone. Tyrannical aggressors tend to string their naïve elected counterparts along, threatening, lying, and ultimately breaking promised terms at their earliest opportunities.

North Korea laughed the whole way to the bank as they did this to the Clinton administration, receiving billions of dollars in aid repeatedly by agreeing not to: 1) enrich plutonium, and 2) develop ballistic missile capability. By early in the George W. Bush administration, it was clear that in spite of their agreements they had done both all along. For his part, Bush took a hard line stance and failed to secure any meaningful further agreements. He fell short of escalating the issue – possibly because he had his hands full with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today North Korea has an estimated 10 launch-capable nuclear warheads. They’ve even provided, against international law, their missile technology to Tehran. These kinds of diplomatic failures do tend to annoyingly multiply.

But perhaps the most infamous example of diplomatic folly is British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of “Peace in our time” in September 1938. Just under a year later, in direct defiance of the negotiated agreement that ceded everything he had asked for, Adolf Hitler’s Blitzkrieg rolled into Poland, setting off WWII.

Chamberlain had heard Hitler’s impassioned nationalistic speeches to adoring crowds. He was aware of the manner of his ascension to power. He knew perfectly well who he was dealing with. Yet, I’m sure he believed his diplomatic triumph, as surely does President Obama his.

Iran’s leaders have made no secret of their intentions and goals. Among them are: “Death to Israel” and “Death to America.” Does the Obama administration not believe them? Did Chamberlain disbelieve the ascendant Hitler? In the examples of the past we have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. We’re left to wonder: “How do these otherwise intelligent leaders get it so 180-degrees wrong?”

The answer to this question is valuable to us in our personal and professional lives. Here are the components:

1)  We tend to believe what we want to believe,

2)  We tend to believe that others think like we do,

3)  Those of high accomplishment tend to overestimate their personal potency,

4)  When we are fearful, we tend to be vulnerable.

Diplomacy, and any negotiation, only functions well when both sides deal in good faith, when they are both committed to compatible long-term visions. In scenarios where one partner lacks this commitment, negotiations and diplomacy have an abysmal track record.

Iran’s leaders came to the negotiation table begrudgingly, desperate. The cost to their nation of the international sanctions (first put in place in 1979 in reaction to the Hostage Crisis, stiffened in 1995 and ultimately completely cut off in 2006 by Resolution 1696 to slow their progress on nuclear capability and in response to their continual sponsorship of terrorist organizations) has rocked them. They were almost pushed from power in the first year of Obama’s presidency, and would have been so if America had thrown in with their opposition. Instead, we sat idle and allowed their iron fist to tighten as they stole a national election. But their fortress walls are cracking. Without resources, their tenuous grip on power will be lost. That point is approaching rapidly. It is perhaps why they have been pushing so hard for nuclear capability, despite the tremendous cost in wealth and the risk among the international community of doing so. For them this is an “All In” Texas Hold ’em bet.

This is why they are dancing in the streets today. Today’s deal, in their estimation, means that their gamble has paid off. Not only will the sanctions be lifted, but they will receive billions of dollars in aid to boot. Oh, and it appears as if they don’t even have to cease their nuclear development program anyway. It’s safe to imagine that we’d be dancing too if we were them.

The Obama administration believes in peace – at nearly any cost. They believe that by giving the Iranians what they want, peace will be more, not less likely. Kerry likely pictures himself the other side of the table and assesses the future based upon what he, or any reasonable person, would do. He and his like appear unable to discern that there are people who truly desire war and all the evils that accompany it.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry are very impressed with themselves. Just listen to their rhetoric. Normal everyday people do not think and act like this. Maybe it’s a function of their high office, but I suspect it to be more a function of their ideology. Whichever, they both appear to be immune to criticism. They seem blind to their own mistakes. They seem to believe that if they apply enough personal pressure, people will always bend to their wills. In their experience, this is probably a common occurrence. It isn’t perhaps such a leap for them to expect the leaders of a smaller, less significant nation to hop to as well.

Deep down they know the truth. They know ruthlessness, viciousness, and strength of purpose and will when they see it. And they see these qualities in Iran’s leaders. It causes their spines to wilt. They tell themselves that they are in the driver’s seat, just as they find themselves needing a deal, the terms of which matter less and less as time clicks by. They become desperate themselves. They begin with terms a mile wide and happily settle for a fordable babbling brook.

If my read on this situation is incorrect, Iran will prosper and the Middle East will become less threatening to American interests in the months and years to come. I hope this is the case. If it is right, Iran will become more and more aggressive, Israel and Saudi Arabia will be forced to arm and escalate, and war, possibly even nuclear war, will follow. The Middle East will be the possible locus of World War III.

Time will tell.

In the meantime, we do well to focus on our own circles of influence. Specifically, we can apply the lessons of high profile negotiations to our own doings. We can inoculate ourselves against these kinds of traps. We can take active steps to make sure that we are not ourselves deceived.

First, try to cultivate the habit of questioning your personal view. You can look for the holes in the arguments that you make. Seek people who disagree, but whose perspective you value. Check your assumptions with them and look up the facts upon which both opinions are built.

You can also learn to recognize that there is a wide spectrum of world views. Some people see things so differently from you that you have no real basis for any meaningful negotiations. If you must occupy the same space, differences will be settled via force and/or capitulation. Sometimes it is best not to negotiate.

But above all else, check your fears. Fear is the great limiter of our lives. In negotiations, fear is what keeps you from what you really desire. You check your fear by developing a BATNA – the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (a term coined by the Harvard Negotiation Project.) It may take some legwork. But you should always do this prep, because it gives you a solid footing. Before you enter a negotiation, you simply explore and develop your best option should you be forced to walk away. Once you know that, you place yourself in a position to realistically evaluate the relative value of a negotiated outcome. You gain the strength to push for win-win deals and the confidence to walk away and avoid bad deals.

President Obama himself revealed this week that he did not have a BATNA. He asked, rhetorically, what could have been proposed or done short of this deal? He proclaimed that there was not a reasonable answer, as though this somehow solidified his position. Alas for him as for all of us, the opposite is the truth.

Categories: Communication Skills

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