Looking at the increasing tensions over Iran, a game of brinkmanship seems to be playing out.

Iran and the West seem to be swapping moves calculated to put pressure on the other. Pressure tactics are fine in a negotiation as long as they are used constructively and selectively. When pressure tactics are the only tactic deployed then the negotiation becomes quite attritional, and getting an edge over the other side becomes more important than finding a solution that suits all parties. On any analysis the situation in Iran requires a negotiation in which the parties focus on the needs and interests of each other. The most effective negotiators “fuse” the interests of the parties to create currency for both parties. However exclusive use of pressure tactics by “users” tends to result in both parties ending up as “losers”.

Here are some of the pressures that have been applied over the last few months;

Sep 04 – Iran announces that their first nuclear power plant is ‘online’ , sparking increased UN concern.
Sep 28 – Iran claims they will be sending ships near U.S. waters.
Oct 11 – US says it has broken up a ‘terror plot’ by agents linked to Iran to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington using explosives.
Nov 21 – Iran is hit by fresh sanctions by the West (US, UK and Canada) over concerns about their nuclear programme, backed by a UN report. Hillary Clinton speaks of a “significant ratcheting-up of pressure” on Iran.
Nov 24 – Iran arrests 12 people for ‘CIA spying’.
Nov 29 – Iranian students storm the UK embassy, throwing around papers and replacing the British flag with an Iranian one.
Nov 30 – UK retaliates by warning Iran and expelling all Iranian diplomats.
Dec 04 – Iran shoots down a US drone in eastern Iran.
Dec 08 – Iranian TV airs image of alleged US drone.
Dec 27 – Iran threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz oil-trade route if the West impose more sanctions. Admiral Habibollah Sayyari says “it would be easier than drinking a glass of water”.
Dec 31 – New tighter sanctions against Iran are signed into US law by President Obama.
Jan 03 – General Ataollah Salehi, commander of Iran’s armed forces threatens to respond with “full force” if any US carrier ventures into Iranian waters. “We don’t have the intention of repeating our warning, and warn only once”. This is followed by Iranian military manoeuvres in the Strait.
Jan 22 – The US, France and Britain send 6 warships through the Strait of Hormuz.
Jan 23 – European Ministers agree an embargo on Iranian oil exports and are likely to partially freeze assets held by the Iranian Central bank in the EU. William Hague warns Iran that any attempt by them to block the Strait of Hormuz would be ‘illegal’ and ‘unsuccessful’.

It may not be palatable to consider Iran’s negotiating needs in all of this, but whichever negotiating theory you choose, the answer would seem to be to engage in dialogue rather than ceaseless pressure tactics. Iran’s negotiating needs would appear to be based on a desire for ‘respect’ and also for ‘belonging’ – that is belonging to that club of major nations with access to nuclear weapons. The West has a need for ‘reassurance’ that Iran’s ambitions are not going to destabilise the region militarily or interrupt oil supplies. Is it not possible to construct a dialogue in which Iran’s needs and the West’s concerns are met without Iran acquiring nuclear weapons capability? Currently the parties are stuck defending their interest-based positions, but it is normally possible to move people away from interest-based positions by finding other greater interests that they have in common, or by increasing the size of the negotiating pie, or by creating face-saving options enabling one party to step away from its stated position.

Some commentators say that it is not possible to negotiate with Iran on the basis that the religious fundamentalism which underpins its state apparatus hampers rational negotiation. Yet despite a perceived profound difference of cultural values between Islam and the West, and without minimalising those differences, there are also many commonalities. Islam remains one of the 3 great monotheistic faiths, and like Christianity and Judaism celebrates a holy book which prescribes important religious rituals and a way of leading a better life. Abraham features in all 3 religions – with the Prophet Muhammad described as descended from Abraham’s son, Ishmael. In any event it is crass to believe that all Iranians are the same – even in government. It is not plausible that there are no Iranians who would prefer dialogue as opposed to provoking or participating in a perceived holy conflict which could result in annihilation for many people. It would be like saying that it is not possible to have a constructive dialogue with the West just because there are some points of view which are hawkish and hostile to Iran (for example, in the US).

However, if pressure tactics continue to be relied on to the exclusion of constructive dialogue then a conflict edges ever closer – and that could only result in a losing outcome for all concerned.