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Political Scientist Dominic Tierney on if the U.S. Should Help Iran Save Face on Its Nuclear Program

The Atlantic: Should the U.S. Help Iran Save Face on Its Nuclear Program?

By Dominic Tierney, associate professor of political science

In 1980, U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim visited Iran to negotiate the release of the American hostages. When Waldheim arrived in Tehran, he announced: "I have come as a mediator to work out a compromise." It turns out, however, that the Persian word for "compromise" has a negative meaning, referring to a sellout, as in "our principles were compromised." And the Persian word for "mediator" implies a "meddler" rather than a helpful envoy. Within an hour of Waldheim's broadcast, angry Iranians started throwing stones at his car.

The story is from Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton's classic book on negotiation, Getting to Yes, and illustrates the current challenges of reaching a deal over the Iranian nuclear crisis that allows all sides to save face. Let's say an agreement exists that the United States and Iran could live with, where Tehran is given fuel rods in exchange for exporting its existing stockpiles of enriched uranium. How can the United States and Iran accept this kind of deal without looking weak? ...

We require a creative solution that allows all sides to save face. Washington and Tehran both need a victory speech to show that the crisis ended in an honorable way. How can we avoid the appearance of a wrestling match, where one side forces the other to submit?

First, we can bring in the international community. It's easier for Iran to compromise with a group of countries than directly with the United States. And it's also less painful for Washington to make concessions if our allies sign on to a deal. Having friends on board gives political cover to Obama and doesn't trigger the same sense of loss.

Second, both sides can claim to be following principles rather than bowing to the will of the enemy. One of the main ideas in Getting to Yes is that it's far easier for negotiators to compromise in the pursuit of objective standards rather than under the opponent's pressure. For example, two people haggling over the price of a used car can bargain more effectively by appealing to a standard like the book value rather than just making demands: "Take it or leave it." ...

Third, the principle of reciprocity can make compromise more acceptable. Diplomats can engineer a step-by-step process where Iranian concessions are accompanied by an easing of sanctions, and the non-nuclear weapons path grants domestic and international legitimacy.

Diplomacy is as much about optics as reality. Both sides fear that making concessions will prove devastating on the international and home fronts. By looking tough but not too tough, Washington can make a deal with the devil, and Tehran can parley with the Great Satan.


Associate Professor of Political Science Dominic Tierney is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an official correspondent at The Atlantic. He is the author most recently of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (2010).

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