I recently watched Errol Morris’ 2003 documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”. It reminds us that 160 million people were killed in the 20th century as a result of political violence. McNamara was one of the leading architects of the Vietnam War, which saw over 3 million Vietnamese and 85,000 U.S. soldiers killed. His most powerful message is that we did not understand empathy.
When the word empathy is used, this does not mean sympathy or agreeing with the enemy. We might not like their behaviour and we may feel extremely uncomfortable with their value system. What this means instead is getting into the mind of the other. Without being able to do this, our capacity to make strategic calculations will be flawed.
Here are some of the psychological factors that sit in the way of peacemaking: We like to win. We get satisfaction from humiliating the other side. We fear the enemy will destroy us. The enemy makes us feel weak and powerless. We want those we hate to suffer as much as us. We believe the enemy is responsible for our suffering. This is what stops us from being in a state of readiness for peacemaking.
The absence of diplomatic representation with neither the U.S. nor Iran having embassies on each other’s soil for 30 years has created a profound sense of misunderstanding about the motivations of the other. Political judgements became based on distant observation of each other’s behaviour as opposed to in-depth exchange of ideas. The isolation of Iran by the U.S. since the hostage crisis of 1979-81 has been counterproductive for mutual understanding.
Historical experiences bear strong influence on the current political discourse in Iran. To speak with Fariborz Mokhtari, “geopolitical realities together with national psychology define national security.” The US/UK perceived overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 is all part of the story. Iranians still see the British as the puppet masters, pulling the strings coming from a position to do them harm. On the other hand, the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979 is still a running sore in the US psyche, with memories of captured embassy staff being paraded blind-folded before angry crowds shouting ‘death to America’. Thus, there is a need to address and heal past wounds.
Both sides see themselves engaged in a Manichean struggle, a fight of good versus evil. It is in this context that they will use any tactics available to disrupt the other. In Iranian eyes, the U.S. has huge military power; it has technology in the form of worms and bugs, and suspects Israel of hunting its nuclear scientists. The Iranians do not have equal military assets and therefore see it as legitimate to use whatever means available, e.g. meddling in Afghanistan or giving support to groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Western governments tend to underestimate the significance of the Iran-Iraq War of the Iranian psychology. When Iraq used chemical weapons on Iran – as it later did against the Kurds in Halabja - this was at first was greeted with indifference by the world community. U.S. government officials will remember a chilling Iraqi communiqué, which at the time of the Second Battle of al-Faw stated that “for every insect, there is a proper insecticide”. Iranians, too, remember. Those people who survived massacres have now reached the levers of power.
Currently, there is no political motivation to discuss a new approach toward Iran. The current U.S. position seems to be risk-averse, with France even more cautious to defend Washington’s line. The revolutions in the Middle East are making it difficult for policy-makers to see Iran as priority, and there is a danger of only rethinking policy in a climate of crisis management. The intelligence picture also seems to offer nothing sufficiently worrying to prepare a rethink. According to the latest information on Iran’s nuclear programme, presented by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the Senate, “Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons [...]. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons”. And this is seen to be an open secret, as discussed in the Knesset by intelligence chief Meir Dagan’s, stating that Iran is unlikely to build a nuclear weapon before 2015.
The current political discourse in Iran is one of resistance politics, perhaps not least increased so because of all the internal tensions, political rivalries and power plays at work. It currently suits Iran to pursue a path of defiance and draw strength from this identity. Whilst sanctions may be hurting, the power elites are able to circumvent them, and many say they helped to strengthen the Revolutionary Guard. In contrast, the more powerless in Iranian society are the recipients of the pain of the financial sanctions. Given this reality, many analysts believe that the "dual-track" policy of punishment and negotiations is unlikely to succeed.
New thinking is further inhibited by Israel’s insistence that negotiations need to involve a policy of no-enrichment in Iran, and anything less is unacceptable. It would be negligent to dismiss Israeli worries about a nuclear-armed Iran. The challenge however is to reframe negotiations in a way that they offer a possibility for a breakthrough and address Israel’s concerns. The real danger in this conflict is the combustible combination of Iran’s defiance and Israel’s panic, which are fuses for a war that could destroy all of Obama’s other ambitions.
The current Western analysis of Iran’s position is that those in power are stonewalling and being deceptive. The negotiations seem to be trapped in a mindset where it is difficult for both sides to think outside the box. They have seemed to be conducted in a climate of positional bargaining, where the E3+3 have made very clear they have preconditions. This is the traditional model of negotiation, where the side with the most power tries to impose its agenda. Iran however has resisted this mode of negotiation for a long time, as it is very sensitive to its level of influence. Hence there might now be a case to explore negotiating in a climate of principal bargaining, without a pre-defined agenda, in a search for common interest.
One aspect essential to understanding the negotiations is to identify how different cultural experiences can lead to profound levels to misunderstanding. The Western style of negotiation is very time-limited, with a heavy emphasis on content. Culturally, the Iranians are more process-orientated and some Iranian analysts believe that the style of negotiation is antithetical to building trust. Scope for increased informality and building personal relationships might be part of helping to shift perceptions.
The success of negotiations however does not depend solely on international dynamics. They are as much influenced by the domestic divisions Iran has experienced over the last six years. Until 2005, Iran’s political elites were united by a general consensus on the right to, and need of, nuclear technology for Iran. Since the early years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency however, discussions emerged on whether the nuclear programme’s costs, increased by sanctions, were still justifiable. The prospects of a future deal has increasingly turned into an instrument of domestic power bargaining.
Ahmadinejad’s blocking of talks between Ali Larijani and the Bush administration in 2007 illustrate these tensions. The roles were reversed when in 2009 Ahmadinejad was in favour of a deal with the West, with the intention of increasing his leadership status and popular support after the 2009 crackdown on protestors. This time, Larijani and a coalition of conservatives and reformists thwarted prospects of a deal. These domestic rivalries are a key component to the state of readiness of the Iranian regime as a dealmaker.
There is a basic paradox embedded in these negotiations: We demand higher criteria of accountability of Iran, because we do not trust them. We expect the other to be the first to take a risk. However, Iran does not trust us more than we trust her. Hence, without confidence-building on both sides, neither will take the necessary risks. To move out of this deadlock, a new frame needs to be established, to create a different climate for the negotiations, based more on a collaborative model. There are several options to do so:
A continuous process would need to be established, in which the official negotiators can delegate to working groups. These groups would focus on the details of the nuclear issue and beyond, to eventually come up with new ideas to break the deadlock. Working groups could be set up e.g. on Iraq, Afghanistan and the narcotics issue. They would meet on a regular basis, irrespective of tensions between the different parties. It would be essential that any ideas developed in the working groups are reported back to the senior negotiators. Such a process would supplement the high-level talks, which happen on a regular but less frequent basis.
At the official negotiatons, a smaller group would sit around the table to create a more symmetrical relationship. Currently, the structure of the E3+3 negotiations with Iran creates an imbalance in the power dynamic. It would be necessary for the E3+3 countries to find a mechanism for smaller representation; this is likely to create a number of trust issues, but once resolved can be conducive to finding new solutions.
A regional table could be set up. In the first instance, its focus could be a sustainable peace process for the Afghan conflict. While the dialogue does not relate to the nuclear issue, senior Iranian representation would sit around the table and work closely together with other parties on a conflict that directly affects Iran. The table would also include Pakistan, India, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and may be complemented by a larger group which would include the US, NATO, the EU, Russia and China.
As an alternative to the government working groups, a small group of very experienced diplomats could sit together outside the official negotiating process. The purpose would be to create a less formal environment where relationships of trust could be built and new openings could be explored. Key to the effectiveness of such an initiative would be that these diplomats had very clear lines of communication to the official negotiators.
If the Shah of Iran and his family had remained in power, nuclear power plants would already be working in Iran. Politics allow our allies to do dangerous things whilst we chastise our non-allies for doing the same. The real challenge however is how to make our enemies our friends. Ultimately, without the capacity to develop empathy, all sides will lack the resources to make wise strategic calculations and therefore increase the likelihood of repeating the terrible violence of the conflicts of the 20th century.
Gabrielle Rifkind is Director, Human Security in the Middle East Programme. She is a group analyst and specialist in conflict resolution and is convener and founder of the Middle East Policy Initiative Forum (MEPIF). She has initiated and facilitated a number of Track II roundtables and hosts the media 'Liddite' Conversations with ORG. She is also working on developing dialogue between Iran, the US and Israel. She makes regular contributions to press and media and is author, with Scilla Elworthy, of Making Terrorism History (Random House, 2005).