Why We Should Negotiate With Iran

Jim Camp
Issue CLV - May 20, 2008
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National elections are actually debates over an American vision of itself and the rest of the world. We select presidents on the basis of whether we think they have a good or bad vision of the future, but we rarely ask ourselves what other nation’s expect of us.


The recent political squabble over President Bush’s speech to the Israeli Knesset is a perfect example. If anyone had actually read the text of the speech, one would find his vision expressed as it has been many times. He said, “We believe that democracy is the only way to ensure human rights”, adding that, “The fight against terror and extremism is the defining challenge of our time.”


I am the author of two books and the inventor of The Camp System of Negotiation. What caught my attention and Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign staff was Bush’s view that “some people seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them that they have been wrong all along.” Then Bush tied this to the failed negotiations with Hitler’s Nazis before World War II. Bush called such efforts a “foolish delusion” but at the time was it foolish to try to avoid war? In the 1930s America was in a distinctly isolationist mood.


Just as we do not truly know what the true intentions of Iran’s leaders are, anyone familiar with the science of negotiation knows that such intentions can be changed, that even a nation led by men issuing all manner of bombast and belligerence is vulnerable. A recent example is the fact that in mid-May the United States announced it would resume providing North Korea 500,000 metric tons of food over the next year in exchange for “substantial improvement in monitoring” the food’s distribution. The decision was the result of weeks of intense negotiations. Keep in mind that North Korea already has nuclear weapons!


Why, then, is the United States essentially telling Iran it faces military action if it acquires them? Why do we assume that Iran is any more stable than Pakistan, its neighbor, which also has nuclear weapons? Iran lives in a dangerous neighborhood. It fought an eight-year war with Iraq when Saddam was in charge. How fearful is it? How fearful should it be?  What do they see in us?  What could they see?  


This is why the debate over the American vision of itself and others takes on critical importance and why Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain are striving to lay out their vision for Americans to choose.


What the candidates aren’t discussing, however, are Iran’s many vulnerabilities, each of which would provide any American negotiating team with considerable opportunity to change Iran’s vision of what could be.  Any good negotiator could have a very positive impact and influence on Iran’s intensions and the future of the Middle East.


Consider that Iran is a very unpopular nation among Arabs. In a region where Persian Iran is regarded with great suspicion by many Middle East Arab nations, it can ill afford to unify them in opposition. Its support for the radical Palestinian groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, is seen by many Arabs as manipulative and a plan to gain control of the region by proxy.


From the political to the economic front, Iran is seriously vulnerable in the very area most people would consider a strength in these times of high oil prices. Its oil and natural gas industries, as Business Week noted in December 2006, face a “looming crisis” as “the result of years of neglect and underinvestment.” Iran is pumping less oil daily than it did five years before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. It is in great need of foreign investment. Ironically, Iran must import gasoline!


Consider then, the opportunity if the United States was to enter into negotiations with Iran to reduce the tensions between our two nations. This option can be ignored only at the peril of a military conflict. Does anyone, including the Iranian leadership—essentially the supreme council of ayatollahs—believe that Iran could survive an American attack on its nuclear facilities and national infrastructure?


Despite the opposition to the invasion of Iraq to rid it of three decades of a vicious dictatorship by Saddam Hussein and despite the many errors that followed in its wake, the invasion demonstrated the tremendous unmatched technology and military power of the United States. This surely has not been lost on Iran’s leaders, nor on any other nation in the region.


The complete failure of Syria to respond militarily to Israel’s recent destruction of its clandestine nuclear facilities demonstrates a real technical weakness of many nations military capability.


This is why all Americans must rethink its view of the world, must learn from the mistakes of its own past, must make a careful evaluation of its enemies’ strengths and weaknesses. We need to remember we negotiated with the former Soviet Union all the way through the Cold War from 1945 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 which was followed by its collapse. That collapse was the result of its inability to secure hard currency because of its own failed oil and gas industry. That collapse was hastened by an ill-conceived military intervention in Afghanistan.


Negotiating with Iran would not be easy, but the United States has much to bring to the table beyond the bluster of military action. For all the scary rhetoric of its leaders, Iran would benefit greatly from trade with the United States, but one recent response to a gesture of good will, a visit by its president to ground zero was rebuffed. It was not Iran that caused 9/11. It was planes filled with Saudis terrorists.


Both the United States and Iran must begin to see and think outside the box. Both candidates for president have to begin to see the opportunities and spell out the framework for negotiations, an undoubtedly long process that would continue beyond their term in office.


Americans need to rethink the lessons of a Vietnam War that left us feeling weak and the lessons of an Iraq war that is killing Iraqis and building hatred while consuming our own precious resources.


In his book, “In the Shadows of History: 50 Years Behind the Scenes of Cold War Diplomacy, Chester L. Cooper, a former diplomat, reflected on the war with Vietnam saying, “What is known is, as in the case of all wars, that the length, intensity, and perhaps even the decision to wage war hung to a fearful extent on snap judgments, zealous ideologies, misinformation, ignorance, and individual and national arrogance.”


We do not need to make those same mistakes again.


Jim Camp is an author of two books on negotiation and an internationally recognized negotiations coach providing counsel to nations, corporations, and individuals. He is the CEO of The Jim Camp Group.

Contact: Jim Camp @ (614) 764-0213
Cell: (614) 296-4901
The Jim Camp Group
Disseminated by The Caruba Organization
Alan Caruba @ (973) 763-6392

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