Thursday, April 5, 2007

Diplomacy: Negotiation or Theater?

On the PBS news broadcast, The News Hour, Margaret Warner interviewed Trita Parsi, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins, about the recent release of 15 captured British sailors from Teheran ( middle_east/jan-june07/iran_04-04.html, April 4, 2007)

Parsi is an Iranian citizen and president of the National Iranian American Council, a nonprofit educational organization based in Washington, D.C.

Margaret asked Parsi for a synopsis of the event, to which he replied,

“[Britain] started making rather strong statements publicly, increased the pressure, went to the Security Council, but then didn't manage to get what it wanted from the Security Council or from Europe.

And that, I think, caused this issue to become much more complicated, because the Iranians are very, very eager to make sure that the outside world understands that they do not respond to pressure.”

“…the Brits eventually came and negotiated with Iran using a completely different language and turning the issue into a bilateral issue, rather than relying on the pressure that the Security Council potentially could put on Iran.

And that, I think, is the key signal that the Iranians wants to send out. There's two ways to deal with Iran. One is through pressure, and one is through diplomacy. The first one doesn't work; the second one did work this time.”

So according to Parsi, diplomacy and “pressure” are opposing techniques. With Iran, one works and one doesn’t. But is that really the lesson to be drawn?

Pressure is coercion, an attempt by one party to force compliance by behavioral imposition on the other, such as with military force or economic restrictions. Pressure can be successful. Japan surrendered after WWII and changed its behavior. But behavioral compliance does not necessarily involve changed beliefs, attitudes, and intentions. Germany surrendered after WWI but that didn’t put an end to things.

Diplomacy, on the other hand, is negotiation, that is, talk aimed at mutual agreement; some compromise or settlement. It is a meeting of the minds. It may entail behavioral change: I’ll do this if you do that. But it is above all, a mutual understanding based on each party’s acknowledgement of the other’s position.

A kidnapper calls and demands a million dollar ransom or he will kill your loved one. You agree to cooperate. The handoff is arranged, and you are reunited with your loved one. The kidnapper becomes rich. Was that a negotiation, a meeting of minds?

In a superficial sense it was a negotiation. The two parties spoke and each understood the other’s needs and intentions. It was agreed by both sides that “If you do this, I’ll do that.” A transaction followed and a deal was completed.

Yet that scenario is not discriminable from coercion. A mugger can hold a gun to your head and extend his other hand to receive your wallet. Without a word being spoken, you can sacrifice your wallet and live to tell about it. Is that a negotiation? Hardly.

Somebody famous once said, “War is diplomacy by other means.” In other words, coercion by physical or economic force is a type of communication. Both sides recognize each other’s intentions and desires.

Kidnapping is a kind of communication. It is a well-defined social act that “sends a message.” But if Iranian Revolutionary Guards kidnap British sailors from Iraqi waters, then lie about what they did, making it out to be an act of self-defense, then what is their message? They deny they are following the kidnap script. They insist that the British follow their contrived self-defense script, which would force the British to assume the role of aggressor (which historically it was, in Iran).

This is symbolic drama, performance art, not negotiation in good faith. Mutually understood scripts for social interaction are invoked, but there is no agreement on which script is appropriate. Teheran thus pretends to negotiate while stonewalling negotiation.

The British could respond by offering to bring tents, blankets and bottled water to Teheran. But that’s part of a disaster relief script, not appropriate here. An offer of disaster relief would be language; technically be a communication, but could not be part of this negotiation. It also would be a wrong script.

A genuine negotiation requires that each side acknowledge the actual needs and intentions of the other. Pulling out a pre-prepared dramatic script and reading from it does not constitute acknowledgment of the other side, so no negotiation is possible.

How was this situation resolved? We don’t know. Maybe we never will. The British and their allies might have exerted extraordinary threats of coercive pressure on Iran (in private) that caused it to change its public behavior. That seems most likely to me. Or, the British might have pulled out a compromise script (in private) that said, “Oh, was that your territorial water? Our mistake. No offense intended.” That might have satisfied the Iranians, although I doubt it.

Now getting back to Parsi’s insistence that pressure doesn’t work on Iran, but diplomacy does: It sounds like he is defending Teheran’s tactic of reading from an inappropriate script, and calling that diplomacy. If Parsi believes that the British should have acquiesced to reading from that script, he is either ignorant of what negotiation is about, or, more likely, he is an Iranian partisan.

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