In my own write: Supping with the devil

When you invite someone to sit at your table, you make him your equal.

Negotiators wait for photographers during a meeting at the hotel where the Iran nuclear talks are being held in Vienna, Austria July 6, 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Negotiators wait for photographers during a meeting at the hotel where the Iran nuclear talks are being held in Vienna, Austria July 6, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Given the fact that media consumers have the Iran deal coming out of their ears by now, I wasn’t too surprised when the letters IRAN suddenly took on for me the appearance of standing for “Irredeemable Regime’s Abuse of Naivete.”
On consideration, it felt like a pretty fair, not to mention concise, summary of my feelings about the negotiating process that led to the July 14 signing.
Photos of the two delegations – the Iranians and the six world powers known as the P5 +1 – facing each other across the table in Vienna’s plush Palais Coburg led me to reflect on the adage advising those who would sup with the devil to furnish themselves with a long spoon so that, according to one commentator, they can “stay out of pitchfork range.” Another posited that “the devil transfers his heat to the stew, and a long spoon helps it cool off before it reaches your mouth.”
Be that as it may, I wondered whether in this case there existed a spoon long enough.
Because once that “dinner invitation” is issued and accepted, once you sit down at a well-appointed table to sup, or negotiate, with someone (as opposed to having them eat on their own in the kitchen), you have by definition raised them to a status equal with yours, however unequal your relative positions up to that time. And this new status and legitimacy is one that a canny, manipulative and devious negotiator can be relied upon to exploit to the full.
The question, therefore, of whether six world powers, led by the US, ought ever to have sat down on equal terms with a pariah regime that had proved itself dangerous and untrustworthy beyond all doubt may still be asked for educational purposes, even though it lost all practical force after President Barack Obama conceded during secret talks with the Iranian regime in 2011-2012 that Iran possessed the right to a nuclear program (a right the administration denied in 2013).
Given, then, that negotiations with Iran were already on the menu, so to speak, did the P5 + 1 delegation, led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, understand what it was up against, and prepare accordingly? The weakness of the resulting agreement for the West and Israel – underlined by the fact that most Israelis, virtually all Republicans in the US Congress, a number of prominent Democrats, influential pro-Israel organizations in the US and much of the American public have come out against the deal – suggests that it did not.
IN THIS context, an opinion piece about Middle Eastern negotiating tactics that Moshe Sharon, professor emeritus of Islamic studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote more than a decade ago has lost none of its sharpness.
Middle Easterners have been practicing these tactics for more than 2,000 years, Sharon begins, calling these practitioners “masters of words and a mine of endless patience.” In contrast, Westerners favor quick results. Yet “in this part of the world, the hasty one always loses.”
Sharon likens the rules of Middle Eastern negotiations to those of the oriental bazaar, advising those who sit down with its denizens to first familiarize themselves with “bazaar diplomacy.”
To the Middle Eastern mind, power talks; compromise suggests feebleness. So never come to the negotiating table from a position of weakness.
“Your adversary should always know that you are strong and ready for war even more than you are ready for peace,” Sharon urges – calling to mind Osama bin Laden’s remark in 2001: “When people [in the Middle East] see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like [respect] the strong horse.”
Among Sharon’s rules for bargaining in the Middle Eastern “bazaar” are: Never be the first to suggest anything to the other side, or show eagerness to conclude a deal. Let the opponent present his suggestions first.
Don’t rush to come up with counter-offers.
There will always be time for that. Let the other side make amendments under the pressure of your “disappointment.”
Have your own detailed plan ready, with the red lines defined – but never show it or any other plan to a third party. “It will reach your opponent quicker than you think,” warns Sharon. Weigh the other side’s suggestions against this plan.
Avoid the vagueness of “creative ideas,” which are exactly what your opponent wants. Treat every detail as vitally important, and never postpone any problem for “later”; if you do, you will lose.
Be swayed by neither friendliness nor outbursts of anger; these do not represent policy. Likewise, beware of popular beliefs such as the concept of Middle Eastern “honor” influencing the issues under negotiation.
Resist changing your detailed plan to meet the other side “halfway.” It won’t earn your side any brownie points and will lose you ground.
Finally, be ready to walk away “even 100 times. A tough customer gets good prices in the bazaar.”
THIS LAST technique, termed “close the briefcase” by one Western commercial consultant, has been a key tool in concluding many business dealings because it shifts the balance of power.
“It’s really easy to get caught up in a process and try to win at all costs,” says the consultant. “But not all customers are good customers. Know your value, take pride in it. If a prospect doesn’t recognize that value, don’t try to convince. Be prepared to walk away.”
When the commander of the Basij militia of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards declared back in April, while nuclear talks were under way, that “erasing Israel from the map” was “nonnegotiable,” why didn’t the international side walk out of the talks in protest at a UN member being threatened in this way? When Iran held its “Death to America” rally on July 10, four days before the nuclear deal was signed – and the talks proceeded unhindered – what kind of message was sent to the mullahs back home about Western strength and Western honor? When I asked a lawyer friend about walking out as a tactic in negotiations, he vividly recalled an episode from his professional past: “I was the junior member of a negotiating team, the head of which was a wily old fox who understood and could manipulate the psychology of these situations better than anyone I’ve ever met before or since. It wasn’t my decision to walk out at a critical point in the negotiations – I wouldn’t have dared back then – but I do remember feeling remarkably, if vicariously, empowered.”
More importantly, it worked.
“One thing’s for sure,” my friend declared. “The Iranians wouldn’t have achieved anything like close to the deal they got if my old boss had been on the opposing side.”
What did he think were the necessary attributes for success in a difficult negotiation? I asked.
His answer: “The nerve of a professional poker player, coupled with a genuine belief that no deal is better than a bad deal.”
THE FATE of the nuclear deal is still up in the air.
But the agreement has been signed, and the P5 + 1 delegation members, now back in their countries, may be tempted to shrug off any miscalculations visa- vis their Iranian counterparts as “water under the bridge.” This would be a serious mistake.
Westerners and those who partner them in future negotiations need to make themselves at home in the “oriental bazaar.” For, as Moshe Sharon notes, “In the Middle East, there will always be another round.”