The controversy over the Iranian nuclear issue continues unabated, and the risk of conflict appears greater than ever. Talks are due to start on 13 April in Geneva, engaging the Iranians, and the E3+3 – the UK, US, France, Germany, Russia and China. While several proposals have emerged in the course of negotiations between Iran and the member states of the E3+3, a settlement has proved elusive, mainly down to a lack of political will, demonisation, deep distrust and misunderstanding on all sides. If the talks fail, there is a growing prospect of a military attack on Iran, which will have extremely severe consequences as Oxford Research Group (ORG) has been warning in a series of reports since 2006. Israeli military planning is discussed in the Global Security Briefing ‘The Potential for Israeli Military Action against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities’ by Paul Rogers. The Political Context or the Iran Crisis is discussed in a previous Security Briefing of his.
The level of mistrust is such that it is difficult for all sides to take risks for fear of giving too much away, of failure and looking weak in their own constituencies. In this climate of mistrust the hope is that the other side will do something to change the circumstances. This is a recipe for paralysis.
30 years of estrangement between Iran and the US has led to 30 years of futility in the relationship. The absence of diplomatic relations has created a profound sense of misunderstanding about the motivations and intentions of each side. Political judgments have become increasingly based on distant observations of the other’s behaviour, as opposed to in-depth exchanges of ideas. Misconceptions, stereotypes and demonisation fill the vacuum. The worst fears and preconceptions shape the narrative. So even if an offer is put on the table, it will be treated with suspicion. Opportunities are missed and positions become more entrenched.
Because we see a regime as unfriendly, we assume the worst motives and intentions, essential for our perception of threat. If the Shah of Iran and his family had remained in power, as many as 20 nuclear power plants would be working in Iran for the past decade under the plans he had drawn up with US and European support. Political expediency allows our allies to do dangerous things whilst we chastise and punish our non-allies for doing the same. The real challenge is now to set the frame for a serious negotiation, which builds on the area of potential common agreement, addresses the politics and deals with the climate of mistrust.
In negotiations, there is always an attempt to search for a rational solution. But what seems rational to one side is not necessarily perceived so by the other. The different narratives, histories, and traumas challenge us to understand why the irrational component is a central piece of any resolution of conflict. Put another way, the deep emotions that shape the discourse have been built up over generations and are often so deeply lodged in the national narrative that they pose substantial obstacles to finding an agreement. The formalities of official negotiations often do not address the irrational and there is a need to establish mechanisms, built into structures of negotiations, to deal with this. Without exploring the emotions that lie beneath the surface, fears and anxieties will continue to destroy the process. To be effective, negotiations will therefore need to involve not only realpolitik, but also incorporate the understanding and integration of human motivation and behaviour.
Before President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, the ground was prepared between China and the United States by diplomats in a process of long-term trust building. These meetings took place in a confidential setting, without any public exposure of governments, looking as if they were making concessions and coming from a position of weakness.
For this reason, we have been proposing a parallel track of confidence-building measures to support the official negotiations, where trust-building could be a central component of any progress. ORG has a long engagement on the Iran issue. We have argued for a new kind of dialogue for a considerable time. To read more, see Talking to the Enemy: Creating New Structures for Negotiations, by Gabrielle Rifkind, originally published in April 2011 or visit our project webpage ‘Avoiding Military Confrontation with Iran’.