Negotiating with the Enemy: the case of Iran, Syria and the United States

After my friend Taylor published this post about the US-Syrian-Iranian negotiation he asked me how would I structure the talks and what would be the most significant obstacle.

Back in the 1970’s Roger Fisher used a method called the one-text that helped create the document that became the basis for the 1978 Sinai Agreement between Israel and Egypt. The one-text process is a variation of mediation that is simple, but powerful. Clinton also proposed using the process in 2000 with the Israeli’s and Palestinians.

The one-text process feels appropriate because it works best in multi-party negotiations where trust is low. Iranian-Syrian-American relations have deteriorated to such an extent that any conversation is unlikely to be open, honest, or even civil. In short, they are unlikely to be productive. The basis for an agreement, and even just communicating, will be hard to establish. Think that diplomacy is above that? Then why did Bush feel the need to confirm that if Condi ran into her Iranian counterpart, she would be civil?

Indeed, this is the main issue: can the parties trust each other? There are enormous opportunities for joint gain… but the domestic risks for each of the actors are also enormous. This is the tragedy of the situation. Each actor (Syria, Iran and the US) is now hostage to the negative perceptions their domestic populations have of one another, negative perceptions their respective elites helped create, foster and nurture. How can Iran, America or Syria cut a deal with a country that have for 20 years been labeled as a mortal enemy? This would be, at best, politically problematic in the US and potentially destabilizing for the Syrian and Iranian governments.

Consequently any functional solution cannot threaten (in the short and medium term) the legitimacy of any of the actors domestic standing. This probably means that any negotiated solution will have to be discrete. The parties may come to agreement, but they cannot be seen coming to an agreement.

A back channel one-text thus becomes the obvious choice. The starting point being that all the parties recognize the opportunity cooperating presents, but also recognizing they can’t be seen working together. Of course, the other challenge is that this means there are huge risks for cooperating, but the costs of defection (particularly if the interest calculus shifts) are low. The negotiators would have to find a way to make the costs of defection feel relatively high versus the costs of cooperation. A one-text process that explores their interests may reveal such an outcome, but if I had an answer to that quandary offhand I’d probably be in an air conditioned room in Turkey right now, working with State Department officials.

Ironically, the main obstacle to using the one-text process would likely be a reluctance on the part of the United States to submit itself to a mediated process.  I suspect that although the Americans feel it is a good enough process for everybody else, the world’s only superpower will never enter into mediation.

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