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Wednesday, February 20, 2013
The US and Iran: Pre-Negotiation Maneuvering, by Prof. Eytan Gilboa

The US and Iran: Pre-Negotiation Maneuvering
by Prof. Eytan Gilboa
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 198, February 19, 2013
http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/besa/docs/perspectives198.pdf

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The United States and Iran are trading diplomatic fire,
with each side demanding conditions for direct negotiations to discuss Iran’s
nuclear crisis. Neither side seems willing to budge on these demands, which
raises the possibility that Iran will continue its drive to the bomb,
leaving Obama with no other choice but to take military action.

The United States and Iran are exchanging tough messages on possible
negotiations towards a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear weapons
crisis. Both sides are presenting conditions for direct negotiations, which
would be the first of their kind. In international relations theory this
phenomenon is called “pre-negotiation.” During this phase the sides
calculate the benefits and drawbacks of the negotiating process itself and
of a possible agreement. They present tough opening positions which they
know the other side can’t accept, and they attempt to obtain concessions
from the other side just for agreeing to negotiate. This has been the
negotiating style of both the Palestinians and the Iranians. It seems that
the West in general and the United States in particular don’t know how to
effectively handle this style.

During a February 2013 international security conference in Munich, American
Vice President Joe Biden said that there “is still time…[and] space for
diplomacy backed by pressure to succeed. The ball is in the government of
Iran’s court.” He added that the discussions would be held on condition of a
“real and tangible” Iranian offer. Biden hinted that the atmosphere
surrounding previous negotiations was not serious, because Iran was not
ready to make a single compromise; its sole purpose was to buy time and
advance its drive to the nuclear bomb in the interim. His message was clear:
the United States will not agree to such negotiations, and will not remove
sanctions merely in exchange for Iran’s entrance into deliberations. In his
2013 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama called upon Iranian
leaders to “recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution,
because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their
obligations.” He concluded that the United States “will do what is necessary
to prevent [Iran] from getting a nuclear weapon.”

The Iranian reply was immediate. The two Iranian leaders – the spiritual and
more significant leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and the
political leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – responded negatively and
conditionally to Biden’s invitation. We are ready for negotiations, they
said, but only if the United Sates and the West announce support for Iran’s
right to a nuclear program, and on condition that the heavy sanctions
against Iran are removed. It is obvious that the United States can’t accept
these demands, because the sanctions’ removal would eliminate any chance,
remote as they are, to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program. The
sanctions and the heavy damage they have inflicted on the Iranian economy
pushed the Iranian leaders to seek negotiations, and suspending them now
will eliminate any incentive they may have to compromise.

It is very possible that the tough stance of the Iranian leadership stems
from its perception of the new senior appointments of the Obama
Administration in foreign and national security affairs: John Kerry as
Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel as the nominated Secretary of Defense.
Both men are veterans of the Vietnam War and are almost fundamentally
opposed to using any type of force to bring results. In the past, Hagel even
opposed sanctions and claimed that it is impossible to halt the Iranian
nuclear program. In his Senate testimony he also made an embarrassing
statement by characterizing the Iranian regime as “legitimate.” The Iranian
leaders interpreted these appointments, as well as Obama’s and Biden’s
invitation to open talks, as signs of weakness to be exploited for advancing
their nuclear weapons program and for setting tough conditions for
negotiations. The Iranian leaders have also closely observed the North
Korean defiance of the United States and the Western pressure to stop the
testing of nuclear weapons and long range missiles, and could have concluded
that the US warnings and intimidations are not credible and ineffective.

The current stalemate threatens to cripple Obama’s Iranian strategy. He
planned heavy sanctions that he hoped would soften the Iranian position and
bring them to negotiations and direct discussions with a good chance to stop
the bomb. It is apparent that the goals of the two sides contradict each
other: America wants Iran to stop enriching its uranium, while Iran wants to
end the sanctions. The Iranians know how to conduct negotiations much better
than the Americans; they have thousands of years of experience in
bazaar-like bargaining. Thus, if the United States and Iran reach an
agreement to begin direct negotiations, the ultimate results may be
favorable to the Iranians. The American desire to avoid the military option
almost at any cost may produce a vague agreement which will still enable
Iran to clandestinely continue developing nuclear weapons. If no direct
negotiations are held, or if they are held but fail to stop Iran from
continuing to develop nuclear weapons, and if Obama stands by his
commitments to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb – the
Administration may have no choice but to use military force.

The diplomatic fire that both sides have recently exchanged does not close
the door on talks. Pre-negotiations will continue in public channels, and
possibly even in secret ones. During Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel he
will have to clarify what he expects from direct negotiations with Iran, and
what he plans to do should the sanctions and diplomacy fail to stop the
Iranian bomb.

Prof. Eytan Gilboa is Director of the School of Communication and Director
of the Center for International Communication, both at Bar-Ilan University,
and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic
Studies.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the
Greg Rosshandler Family

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