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Landmark Breakthrough or Historic Mistake? Q & A with TC's Peter T. Coleman on the Deal with Iran

Earlier this week, the United States and five other nations reached an agreement with Iran that, in exchange for the easing of international oil and economic sanctions, would curtail Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons for the next 10-15 years. Some have hailed the deal, which must still be approved by Congress in the United States, as an historic breakthrough, while others such as IsraeIi Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have termed it appeasement and “an historic mistake.”

Here Peter Coleman, Professor of Psychology & Education, and Director of Teachers College’s Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, provides his own analysis.

Q: What’s your take on this deal?
A: As the editorial board of The New York Times said, we won’t know the implications of this agreement for another 10 or 20 years. But I have great respect for the fact that the leaders and the people at the table had the tenacity to negotiate this, especially with all the rhetoric that goes on around the negotiations. The clergy’s rhetoric, the rhetoric of the presidents of all the participating countries, the rhetoric of the Republican Party here in this country – all of that shapes the negotiations at the table because it shows, for example, how much political will there is in the U.S. to do this.

This agreement required years of work by people at all levels, and it required a real determination to stay at the table. Kerry was in Vienna for 17 days, and he’s never stayed in one place that long before as Secretary of State.

It was a huge commitment of time and political capital that involved the use of negotiations in connection with sanctions and the threat of force. All of that was in place, and in the end, despite passing four deadlines, it did come to some kind of resolution, and that’s a real breakthrough. So I’m enthusiastic, and now let’s see what the real deal is, what the rhetoric is from Tehran now and how our GOP responds.

Q: The conflict resolution theories advanced by you and [Professor Emeritus] Morton Deutsch argue that cooperative negotiations, in which the parties work to find mutual interests, have better outcomes than competitive ones that undermine trust. This agreement really puts that idea to the test, doesn’t it? Because there’s so much risk involved?

A: The risks are very real. This is what, in our field, we call an intense mixed motive dilemma. In addition to shared goals and interests, there are real truly competitive concerns you need to remain mindful of. There have been deceptions practiced in the past by Iran, there’s been a lack of transparency, there has been gaming by the leadership to buy time and alleviate sanctions, even temporarily. We have lived through 35 years of enmity and suspicion with Iran.

But the United States does these things, too. Even with our own allies – the Wiki leaks papers showed that we were tapping [German Prime Minister] Angela Merkel’s phone and the National Security Administration was listening to her conversations. That’s the nature of the game of international relations, particularly when it comes to nations we consider hostile.

Q: There are concerns that the gaming by the leadership in Iran is also about finding ways around the agreement, to continue building nuclear weapons. And part of our strategy, as the Times put it, is that we’re counting on the Iranian people, especially the younger generation of Iranians, to take a different view. Isn’t that a pretty risky bet?

A:  First of all, President Obama has been clear that this is not about trust, it’s about verification. Can we verify what we need to verify? It’s calculus-based trust – not trust based on sentiment or a historical relationship, but on a cost-benefit analysis of what we agreed to get right now.

But having more diplomatic relations and more conversations with this group, and the fact that through all this they could reach an agreement, also has value. The negotiators are professionals who understand the rhetoric and the process. So their time together, resulting in an agreement, is constructive and professionally satisfying, and it’s a symbol of what could be. But also, as you say, there is a huge population in Iran that’s younger, that’s pro-West and not anti-American, and while it is not necessarily those people who are being empowered right now, they’re getting signals about future possibilities. Remember Obama’s Cairo speech to the Muslim world soon after he became president, saying, “We want to engage with you”? Well, this is another signal like that. And even the Ayatollah [Ali Hosseini Khamenei, Iran’s current Supreme Leader] has been tweeting about the value of mutual respect – of course, he’s tweeting both ends of the spectrum, so it’s hard to know what that means – but that can be a signal, too.

In these situations, there is often a lot going on that is not on the official negotiations track that constitutes a very powerful dynamic, too, that could eventually change what the professional politicians and negotiators do. These include citizen exchanges, media campaigns and the work of many humanitarian NGOs on the ground in the region.

Of course, we were in a place where we could not walk away from the negotiations. The Iranians were saying, “We’re going to stay here until the deal is made, and if anyone walks away, it’s going to be the U.S.” And at the same time, they were adding demands, not conceding them.

So it’s a game. But they did reach an agreement and they did stay at the table.

Q: To play devil’s advocate – what if we hadn’t negotiated a deal? What if we took the attitude that Iran is not to be trusted, and that the sanctions were keeping them weak, and that was an effective strategy in itself? Is there validity to that view?

A: In a new book, Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating is the Only Way to Peace, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, concludes that you never win over terrorists through military victories. I’m not saying that the Iranians are terrorists, but they do support terrorist groups. Powell’s point is that there’s always a political solution to such difficult conflicts, and if you realize that up front, then states would be more willing to negotiate with such groups, even if they don’t admit to doing so.

Fareed Zakaria [journalist and author] makes the same point. He says we often enter into dynamics with countries where we think the only option is to isolate and cripple them. And while that approach can serve certain purposes, it almost always backfires. So even with ISIS, the most brutal regime on the planet, ultimately what’s necessary is a political settlement.

There are risks, because you can never completely control another nation – and Iran, in the past, has worked covertly to undermine our agreements. But again, we do that, too.

And again, I think Obama was clear. There are a lot of issues about Iran’s practices and politics. This agreement attempts to cut a deal to stop or slow their nuclear program for 10-15 years. It’s not going to make the other issues go away.

But I also think that if this proves to be a successful and verifiable agreement and an effective way forward, then the gains will be much greater. It will be the beginning of a real change in how we work with Iran. So I think negotiation was the only way out of this dilemma, and that this is a landmark moment for diplomacy.

Q: Again, to take the darkest view: are there are opponents whose motives are so bad that negotiation is not feasible? Where trying to defeat them is the only way? Nazi Germany, for example?

A: In retrospect, knowing what we now know, World War II was a just war. There was a psychopathology that the leaders in Germany and elsewhere shared, and that was the way to solve it.

This is different. There are so many aspects of the situation in the MENA [Middle East/North Africa] region today that are different from Nazi Germany at that time. I see the concerns around appeasement, but this isn’t that. This is negotiation with verifiable terms.

Think of where the balance of power was headed when Neville Chamberlain proposed negotiations with Hitler. That was his attempt to mitigate a growing threat. The Sunni/Shiite conflicts in the Middle East today are so complex that they create a qualitatively different context. That’s a real area of concern for Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations. The role and impact of these nuclear negotiations today need to be understood in that context.

So it’s hopeful, it’s impressive that they did this. Again, people’s perceptions of each other really do change through the process of negotiation. I was recently in Northern Ireland, in Belfast, which was at the heart of the Irish Troubles. I mentioned to our taxi driver, who was providing a tour of the conflict zone, that I’d worked in the past with [former U.S. Senator and Senate Majority Leader] George Mitchell, who had been so instrumental in the negotiations that ended the violence there. The driver told me that when most diplomats came there, they were always surrounded by security, there was a hyper-vigilance about their safety. But that when Mitchell stayed there for two years, and when he went out every day, he was able to walk by himself, because that’s how respected he was. That’s how much respect there was for the integrity of the negotiation process. So I think this agreement has great symbolic value – and that there’s a lot of hard work ahead.

For more on Peter Coleman’s ideas, check out our recent story The Complex Ideas Required for Sustainable Peace: Video Series Launched by TC's Peter Coleman Features Experts in the Field

Published Friday, Jul. 17, 2015