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Greece, Iran And The Formula For Successful Negotiation

With the recent Iran and Greece agreements, diplomacy has regained its prior glory. Three former diplomats say negotiation is all about balancing tenacity and flexibility.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after a meeting on Iran's nuclear program
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after a meeting on Iran's nuclear program
Simon Petite

GENEVA — It's been an auspicious summer for diplomacy. First, after a marathon, all-night negotiation, there was a last-minute settlement between the EU and Athens on a new aid plan for cash-strapped Greece. Then, just a couple days later, the world's major powers reached a landmark agreement with Iran over Tehran's nuclear program. The nuclear negotiations that began in Geneva in October 2013 broke a record for duration, and the more than 16 hours of talks meant to avoid a so-called "Grexit" also set a record for EU summits.

How these kinds of discussions unfold and the preparation involved for negotiators is a mystery to most of us, so we spoke with three former diplomats and asked them to shed some light on the process.

Above all, the negotiators who sought a deal with Tehran were prepared. "Americans have analyzed for years the parameters of Tehran's nuclear program," says Carl Ungerer, a professor at the Geneva Center for Security Policy (GCSP). "They also calculated how much time Iranians would need to build an atomic bomb." In general, he warns, diplomacy is doomed "if the issues at stake are not clearly stated and if there might be misunderstanding."

Preparation also includes knowing the personalities on the other side of the negotiation table, says Michael Ambühl, a professor at ETH Zürich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) and former secretary of state for financial and diplomatic affairs. "What interests do they need to defend, and do they really have leeway?"

In that regard, says Marc Finaud, another GCSP professor, the Iranians "were one step ahead" of the Americans. "Their negotiators knew the United States perfectly well, starting with their Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who had studied there," he says. In the case of Greece, Ambülh says, the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was probably far less prepared. "The Greeks underestimated Europeans' exasperation," he says. "But they still managed to get a new aid plan and to remain in the Eurozone. In terms of negotiation, it's not too bad."

Greek, German and French leaders and President of the European Council Donald Tusk at the Euro summit on Greece, on July 12 — Photo: EU Council Eurozone

Like the fragile peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, there are many examples of negotiations that stalled because political will was lacking.

For example, to engage in meaningful dialogue with Cuba, President Barack Obama had to stop demanding a change in Havana's political regime. "The art of diplomacy can be defined as a judicious balance between tenacity, flexibility and creativity," Ambühl says. "If you're stubborn, unless you're powerful enough to impose your viewpoint, you might ruin everything. With greater flexibility, you'll reach an agreement more quickly."

The former diplomat says listening is a crucial skill. "Imagine two people who share the same office," he says. "One of them wants to open the window; the other one doesn't want to. After some discussion, they realize one needs air and the other one is afraid of drafts. The solution involves opening the window of the next-door office." The interest-based negotiation model is one of many tools used in adversarial situations.

Casual exchanges

To reconcile disparate positions, there's nothing like a hallway conversation. In Geneva last February, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif decided to take a walk in the city center.

"In July 2008, Iranians and Americans met for the first time since 1980," Ambühl recalls. "We had to proceed in small steps, with measures to build trust. We suggested Iranians freeze their development of uranium enrichment to avoid new sanctions. If we had started to discuss the final numbers of allowed centrifuges, everyone would have left."

Meanwhile, timing is the most delicate aspect of any negotiation, Finaud asserts. "Everything is about knowing when to play your cards and when to make concessions. A deal is elaborated on a give-and-take principle." He argues that being vague can sometimes be important, especially in writing, so that the various parties can interpret meaning to their own advantage.

In the modern world, secret negotiations can't remain secret for long. "Even diplomatic cables find their way to being published on WikiLeaks," Finaud says. "We need to train diplomats to communicate. That's what I teach to officials of countries that aren't really good at transparency." Of course, revealing the details of a negotiation isn't an option. The goal of communication is first and foremost to reassure public opinion.

After handshakes, heads of state need to sell the deal to the country, which can be a Herculean task. "By definition, an agreement results from compromise," Finaud says. "It will seldom trigger enthusiasm. What matters is being able to live with it."

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