1. Establish objective criteria free of legalisms.

For Iranian negotiators the test of an agreement is not whether it conforms to the experts’ notions of legality, but whether it can be presented as a victory for Islam and for Iran. Such criteria of course, are subjective and ambiguous, and, in a highly-charged political arena, what one group claims as victory another will call betrayal. The American negotiator, therefore, should look for unambiguous, mutually agreeable standards that avoid legal jargon and technicalities.

2. The past matters: Be aware of Iran’s historical greatness, its recent weakness, and its grievances from decades or centuries before.

Whoever negotiates with Iran should be prepared to deal with these contradictory feelings: the belief that others owe Iran deference for its cultural and political glories, and the simultaneous belief that powerful outsiders have betrayed, humiliated, and brutalized a weak Iran and will do so again if given the opportunity.

3. Choose intermediaries with great care.

The last thirty years of American-Iranian contact have featured self-appointed individuals and groups who have acted on their own initiative from more questionable motives.  Such persons/groups should be dealt with warily, if at all. They can and will drag their American contacts into the mud of Iranian political swamps and use their contacts to gain respectability and further their own political and financial fortunes.

4. Talk to the right people.

The unique and opaque structure of the Islamic Republic makes it very difficult to understand exactly who has authority and responsibility to make agreements. Negotiators must understand that there are parallel and sometimes competing governing structures within the Islamic Republic: the republican system with the constitution, president, and popular elections, and the revolutionary or theocratic system that operates outside and independent of the formal government structure and its legal limitations.

5. Understand that the Islamic Republic’s priority is survival and its leaders’ priority is to stay in power.

Iran’s leaders see themselves surrounded by enemies seeking their removal and the Islamic Republic’s overthrow. The leaders of Iran will do what they believe they must do to ensure their and their regime’s survival. Facing this wary view of the world, American negotiators have both a problem and opportunity. On the negative side, American negotiators will encounter an assumption of bad faith and a wall of suspicion and mistrust from Iranian counterparts. On the positive side, a discussion can progress if negotiators can reassure the Iranian side that agreement will not destabilize the Islamic Republic and may, in fact, allow it to survive.

6. Let the Iranians define what is in their national interest.

The Iranian negotiator knows very well what serves his national, partisan, family, and personal interests. Such interest may differ from—and may even contradict—what an outsider, largely unaware of the factional infighting in progress, believes is in Iran’s “national interest.”

7. Understand the Iranian BATNA: Expect actions that may appear (to you) self-destructive.

It is vital to be aware of the other side’s Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, or BATNA[1], as well as one’s own. The Iranian BATNA may be difficult to predict, and American negotiators should not convince themselves that “Iranians will never be so foolish as to do X.”

8. Give your Iranian counterparts credit for intelligence.

9. Expect a case based on vague and uncertain claims.

With a shortage of diplomatic expertise and lacking a well-trained cadre of support staff, Iranian negotiators will not always be equipped with facts, figures, maps, and precedents with which to make their case.

10. Expect grandstanding, political theater, and flamboyant gestures.

Much of what happens in Iran’s political life includes a large element of theater. American negotiators need to sort out grand gesture from substance.

11. Remember that power is respected, weakness despised.

A recurring theme in Iranian history is the respect accorded strong leaders—even blood thirsty ones—who are able to check the powerful centrifugal forces in the society. Leadership is always personal and always charismatic. Iranian respect for power does not, however, mean that American negotiations can rely on threats and intimidation to make a case.

12. Understand that justice, often in a harsh version, in the abstract is extremely important.

In a negotiation, Iranian representatives may frame their demands, not in specific or quantitative terms but in terms that claim, “All we are seeking is justice.”

13. Remember that conspiracy theories have great currency—and are sometimes true.

Although some conspiracy theories may appear absurd, behind them lies a deeper reality.

14. Expect hands to be overplayed.

Iranians can appear to discard calculation of advantage and disadvantage and become captives of unrealistic, rigid positions and extremist rhetoric.

[1] The term was coined by Roger Fisher and William Ury in Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981)