Article | | March 24, 2014

Like a Boss: How Corporate Negotiators Would Handle Nuclear Talks With Iran

by James K. Sebenius


While the Obama team deserves high marks for launching the interim talks, its approach doesn't sell the upside of a comprehensive deal persuasively enough to transform more Iranian skeptics into active supporters—a necessary condition for success if there is an acceptable deal at the next stage. To sway skeptics, I recommend a specific "campaign" to dramatize the value of a deal. Beyond wooing skeptics, a strategy to build a "winning coalition" behind a deal must thwart determined Iranian blockers who will act to prevent meaningful concessions. After six months of talks, there could easily be positive atmospherics but little real progress (as with the round that just ended on March 19, 2014). To avoid escalation, diplomats will likely plead for more time. Granting a six-month extension, an option already built into the current process, could easily become a pattern, turning some version of the interim deal into a de facto stopping point. Meanwhile, as Ali Salehi, head of Iran's nuclear agency, recently asserted, "The iceberg of sanctions is melting while our centrifuges are still working." To mitigate the risk of such "deal drift," the United States and its allies should set a realistic, hard deadline for reaching an acceptable but fairly narrow agreement (one denying Iran what Graham Allison calls an "exercisable nuclear option"). Credibility will be difficult since Iran has often ignored U.S. and allied "red lines." To boost its credibility—and to help win over its own domestic and allied skeptics—the administration should pre-negotiate a harsh new "contingent" sanctions package with Congress and work to ensure buy-in from U.S. allies. The contingent sanctions should avoid the many deal-killing provisions of the recently defeated Menendez-Kirk bill. But instead of signing the sanctions bill immediately, Obama should publicly and forcefully commit to signing it if there is no acceptable agreement by the end of a single six-month extension of the interim deal. While many worry that such contingent sanctions would sour the atmosphere and damage the prospects for the talks, much experience suggests that skillful negotiators can effectively manage both incentives and penalties.

Keywords: negotiations; nuclear; conflict resolution; winning coalition; blocking coalition; strategy; negotiation; international relations; France; Germany; Iran; China; Great Britain; United States; Russia; Negotiation; International Relations; Conflict and Resolution; Public Administration Industry; France; Germany; Iran; China; Great Britain; United States; Russia;