July 2013
Raphael Lapin



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Dear Clients and Friends




In  this July '13 edition of  NEGOTIATION STRATEGIES please find a one-minute case study in which we analyze the Iran nuclear negotiations; learn from our mistakes; and extract applications for the kinds of negotiations that we are typically involved in. We also distill the column into a brief lessons learned at the end for your convenience.


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With very best wishes! 



Raphael Lapin




With a seemingly more moderate Hasan Rouhani replacing a demonstrably intransigent  and defiant Mahmoud  Ahmadinejad  as president of Iran,  a new window of opportunity may present itself with regards to nuclear negotiations. Rouhani's  robust support is indicative of the Iranian people's discontent with the 'no compromise" foreign policy of the previous administration  and the economic suffering that it has wrought in its wake.  This  sentiment in fact,  was explicitly stated by Ali Akbar Veleyati, Iran's former foreign minister and supreme leader's foreign policy advisor when he said: "Our nuclear negotiations definitely have problems; otherwise we would not be in our current situation". (To be sure however, Rouhani's hands could  still be somewhat tied if not tightly handcuffed,  by an unyielding  Supreme Leader Khamenei  who may still insist on the old-time hard line  positions).


Even though Iran has unquestionably  been a difficult negotiating partner in the past, the negotiation strategy of the P5+1 (the United States, China, France, Russia, the UK, plus Germany) has also left a lot to be desired.  As we embark on a potentially new era of nuclear negotiations with Iran, it is time we carefully examined our missteps along the way and devised a new strategy in order to exploit this time of possible opportunity. 


In this edition of  "Negotiation Strategies" I will offer three areas in which I believe US negotiation strategy failed and how  we might correct it for future negotiations.  I will also apply the lessons to the kinds of negotiations that we as people, professionals and businesses are involved in on a more regular basis.



In every negotiation there are the presenting positions of the parties and then there are the true underlying interests that are not  always handed to us on a silver platter but rather requires hard and rigorous work to uncover and understand. 


Iran's presenting position has been freedom for her nuclear development programs without outside interference and the West's position is to prevent nuclear proliferation (particularly in what it perceives to be unstable regimes).  Although Iran has repeatedly claimed that her nuclear ambition is for commercial use only, the West is highly suspicious due to Iran's rejection of any monitoring plan to ensure that weapon grade enriched uranium is not being developed - a relatively simple solution, if indeed Iran was only interested in commercial use.  The West reasonably concludes then, that Iran has designs on nuclear weapons, which is where the impasse currently is at.


The question that needs to be asked now is why does Iran want a nuclear weapons capability?  Is it to be a recognized global power with whom the world reckons? Is it to use offensively and aggressively against any country she perceives to oppose or disagree with her beliefs, religious ideology or politics? Is it to be used defensively to protect herself against aggressors and  deter enemy attacks?   


Very rigorous  dialogue needs to happen around these kinds of issues long before proposals or counter proposals can be offered, and it is on such a level that discussions with Rouhani need to take place. (How to engage your counterpart in talks about issues of a very sensitive nature such as this, is a topic unto itself, but suffice it to say that a highly skilled negotiator will have techniques and tools at his disposal as did Reagan in his early talks with Gorbachev in Iceland).


In any negotiation, if a stated position is not making sense or a solution that appears to address that position is being rejected, it usually means that there is a deeper underlying interest that is not being exposed. Offering proposals will not work until those interests have been uncovered through skillful questioning and surgical probing.



Once you have successfully uncovered the underlying hidden interests, you may find that there are some that you are just not prepared to discuss. You need to be clear which items you are prepared to  discuss, explore and negotiate and which are unacceptable.


For example, should it become clear or there be reasonable suspicion that one of Iran's interests is to develop nuclear weapons for offensive attack, we need to be very clear that the negotiations will not facilitate that in any way whatsoever.


What we need to say to Mr. Rouhani is something like: "We can understand Iran's interest in becoming a powerful and influential state  and one which has a place on the world stage. We can appreciate Iran's right and need to defend her borders, protect her people and preserve her national sovereignty with decisive strength. We admire Iran's commitment to develop more efficient energy internally. In all these areas we are prepared to engage in dialogue, negotiate and hopefully reach a mutually acceptable agreement which meets all of our concerns and interests while benefiting us all. What we  are definitely not prepared to discuss, allow or in any way facilitate is Iran's need for an offensive nuclear program, because this would undermine and threaten the stability, safety and security of the region and the world. We would be very pleased to continue our discussions on this basis and we hope that you will at least give this a chance ".  By expressing it in this way, you have not only said what you are not prepared to discuss which will generate defensiveness, but you were also clear an what you are willing to talk about which balances your position with reason.


In any negotiation, a good place to start, is to reach agreement on the agenda. Which issues do you both agree to put on the table and which ones do either party feel uncomfortable with. Even once a party has expressed resistance in discussing an issue, it is helpful to explore with them what their concerns might be, and then attempt to  design the negotiation in a way that might address those concerns where possible.



Often negotiators are reluctant to be the first to offer a  proposal  out of a perceived concern that they may be conceding something too early. At the best of times, the Iranians only responded to proposals rather than initiate them.  Mr. Rouhani will  probably be reluctant  to initiate any  proposals until he feels very secure and has the strong and loyal support of his constituents (which may never happen). He will also need to present any proposal that he offers to the Supreme Leader Khamenei and may fear being compromised should the leader ridicule or belittle it in any way. We would be of great help to him if we were  to offer a framework proposal that would make  sense to him and serve the interests of the Iranian people.


For example we might say to him: "We would like to present a  proposal outline containing three elements that we think might meet your interests and those of the Iranian people:  First, partnering, collaboration and trade agreements designed towards building Iran's economy and trade to become an economic player on the world stage;  Second, a collaborative and reciprocal defense treaty similar to the NATO treaty that would help assure your defense in the event of an offensive attack by third party aggressors;  Third, a robust nuclear energy program that conforms to the standards of the IAEA, is regulated by limitations and restrictions on uranium enrichment to preclude weapons grade enrichment, and monitored by international neutral monitoring personnel. This would be in tandem with a schedule for lifting sanctions and on a platform of mutually acceptable trust-building measures".  (This of course is only a broad-brush outline to serve as a point of departure for further refinement, development and detailing).


In the light of Veleyati's statement above, a discontented Iranian people and a new president, it could be the perfect calm for  renewed negotiations and fresh ideas to which Iran may be a little more receptive.


In any negotiation, work to make their decision easier for them. Once you have demonstrated a cogent understanding of their interests and concerns, and they are assured that you are making an effort to not just address your needs, but theirs as well, build them a golden bridge to walk across by suggesting some possible solutions that would meet their interests and which they could say "Yes" to.

  • When negotiations are stalled, a change of  negotiators on either or both sides may present new opportunities
  • If a stated position is not making sense or a solution that appears to address that position is being rejected, it usually means that there is a deeper underlying interest that is not being exposed.
  • Proposals will not work until all interests, including underlying hidden ones, have been uncovered through skillful questioning and surgical probing
  • At the beginning of any negotiation, be prepared to negotiate the agenda and which issues all parties agree to discuss
  • Make their decision easier for them by building them a golden bridge to walk across by suggesting some possible solutions that would meet their interests and to which they could say "Yes".

About1About Lapin Negotiation Strategies 


Lapin Negotiation Strategies offers training, consulting, advising and executive coaching in negotiation, business diplomacy and dispute resolution services.


Our proprietary and aggressively results oriented services are designed to help your leadership, teams and individuals master the essential negotiation, relationship-building and conflict management skills that increase revenues, decrease the high cost of conflict and build strong working relationships.

Our skilled specialists will:
  • Help your organization build a highly effective negotiation competency and culture which translates into increased revenue and strong business relationships.
  • Develop high impact, customized learning systems to develop advanced skills and powerful techniques in negotiation, dispute resolution and relationship management.
  • Provide advice, strategy, guidance and representation in live negotiation challenges
  • Facilitate, mediate and advise in dispute resolution
  • Create a culture of collaboration by guiding and training teams and divisions to engage in dialogue, to negotiate and to partner
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Raphael Lapin

Raphael Lapin, a Harvard trained negotiation, mediation, dispute resolution and communication specialist. He is adjunct professor of law at Whittier School of Law in Southern California and visiting professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. Raphael trains and advises Fortune 500 companies and governments around the world and is the author of "Working with Difficult People" (DK Penguin Essential Managers Series)
Working with Difficult People
 Learn more about Raphael Lapin's book, "Working with Difficult People" by clicking on the image above