Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Interview 3: Gary Sick talks about negotiating with Iran

This is a long post, but I learned so much from my interview with Gary Sick, and I am certain my readers will also be interested.

Gary Sick served on the National Security Council under three U.S. presidents: Ford, Carter, and Reagan. He was the principal White House aide on Iran during the time of the Iranian Revolution.

I met Gary Sick for a couple of seconds when Kamran had an assignment to photograph him for an article about the “October Surprise.”(1)
We went to his New York apartment, photographed him outside, and left. He probably does not even remember, but I do.

Gary Sick was in the Carter administration during the taking of the American embassy by revolutionary Iranian students. His discussion of that time, the difficulty of the negotiations, and the analysis of steps, missteps, and surprises is compelling and concise. He was gracious enough to lend me some of his time for an interview. That interview is for the book I am writing about Iran.

With his permission, here are some excerpts from that interview. (All emphasis mine)

You were involved with Iran during a particularly confusing moment. Americans had been taken hostage in their embassy by revolutionary students, and no one was really sure who was in charge. How did this effect negotiations?

It was absolutely the centerpiece of our negotiation efforts. Iran was still in the revolutionary process. There was no real power center. Khomeini was certainly a power center, but he was in the shadows during the early days; his words were important, but he did not exert overt control. I think that was the way he wanted it at the time.

We had no one to negotiate with. We talked to various contacts we had, talked to various power centers, we just had to hope that we could get some word in. Eventually this worked, and we did make contact. We found Bani Sadr and Ghotbzadeh who were the president and the foreign minister at the time, but who turned out not to have any real power. We reached an agreement with them, but it was shut down by Khomeini who ultimately fired Bani Sadr.

Today it may be difficult to deal with Iran, but you know who the power centers are: negotiations have to start with Khamenei, of course, but take into account the majles [Parliament], the office of the presidency, Rafsanjani, and the bazaar, among others.

In Iran, most decisions are consensus decisions, made by a group of power centers.

Negotiating with dictatorships is easy.
In dictatorships, you know exactly who to talk with and where the power is. In Iran this is not true at all. There are many power centers, and those power centers can be opaque. Iranians often use this to their advantage in negotiations.


What about the personal style of a negotiation?

Iranians seem to think they have an extra negotiation gene, a bargaining gene, one that is peculiar to Iran and a source of great pride. The Iranians I dealt with seem to think they can outwit, out-bargain anyone,
and they take great pride in this. This is another way that Americans and Iranians really differ. Americans do not grow up thinking their success or personal identity is determined by how well they bargain or that they can out-bargain or outwit anyone. It's just not part of our culture or our upbringing. It certainly is not a source of national pride.

As a result, Americans put into negotiations with Iranians are often at a disadvantage.


Iranians report that they feel that the West would like to trick them into agreements that end up making them feel cheated. Where do you think this feeling comes from? Do you have any ideas about what is needed to gain the trust of Iranians when negotiating?

The West did try to take advantage of Iran, there are no two ways about that. Look at the British oil deal, which gave an unfair advantage to the British and unfair terms to the Iranians. Look at the great powers kicking out the shah's father. Iranians earned their right to suspicion and paranoia.

That overall sense of grievance, prevalent in Iran and throughout the Middle East in general, that sense that Muslims are discriminated against,humiliated, badly regarded, again repeatedly humiliated in political terms: that grievance runs through the Middle East very strongly. These grievances are important to understanding the rise of political Islam. And it is not totally wrong. It is true that many of these countries have been victimized, but many also acknowledge they have assisted in that victimization. Their own governments have been terrible in promoting and protecting the self-interest of their citizens. They have failed at creating governments that can compete in the global marketplace of ideas. I meet people from the region all the time who desperately want to see better governance. They want better governance.

At least one of the factors that led to these humiliations is that they have been victimized by the rest of the world who portray them as backwards and incompetent and dangerous. This is an idea that they sometimes play into as well: Arabs and Iranians. An example of this is the discussion that occurred in the Arab world after 9/11. Arabs -- and I am talking about educated sources: magazine editors, intellectuals, professors -- claimed that Arabs could not carry out this type of operation. They argued that Arabs are completely inadequate to the task: it was just too complicated. Arabs were too incompetent and that is why the Mossad or CIA or some other organization had to have been responsible for 9/11. This was a serious argument We could not carry out something that big, many Arabs said.

The dilemma, which includes Iran, is that they are aware of their own shortcomings and how these shortcomings make them vulnerable, but they do not know how to address them.


When I was in Iran, most of the processes (both private & public) seemed paralyzed by a general fear/inability to make decisions. Is this also the case at the diplomatic level? Overall, how do you view the Iranian government's decision-making process? What kind of influence do the IR's negotiators have?

Iran is not a decisive culture. This is another contrast between Americans and Iranians. Americans, because of their move West and taking all these big decisions, well this has made it a decisive culture. Americans take big decisions and the responsibility for these decisions. Iranians do not have this same culture. And part of this is because the US history has been that we are rich and growing. Even if we make a mistake we can recover form it. You know what Churchill said, "The Americans always do the right thing...after trying all the other alternatives." Well, once we've tried everything else, we eventually find the right way.

We can make mistakes and get,away with it. In the US we believe that ultimately our strength will get us to a point where we can recover from anything, whether this is really still the case or not is unclear.

In Iran they have a sense that they are living a lot closer to the breaking point. Mistakes made can destroy their lives and even their country.

That does not mean that they do not make decisions. They do make decisions. For example, I believe that Iran has an actual nuclear policy. It's a real policy and they are pursuing it.

When the US decided that preemption was the new policy, the Bush administration immediately published a policy paper announcing preemption as a permanent addition to US national strategy. Iranians on the contrary do not announce their policies. They do not wave a banner and say "This is our policy, come and read it." They are more subtle and indirect.

One of the best descriptions I heard to describe this is that America is a football culture: it's all about confrontation and open head-to-head competition. Iran is more of a chess culture that proceeds with a subtlety of moves. They are always thinking three steps ahead, trying to make the opponent look foolish, trapping somebody so that they think you are doing one thing when you are really doing another.

This is a great source of misunderstanding between us.
Iranians think that we do not mean what we say, that there must be something else behind our words. For out part, Ahmadinejad makes a statement and we think that statement is the policy.


Many people talk about taarof (The Iranian system of manners) and taqieh (a doctrine which permits Shia to lie in order to survive persecution) when they talk about dealing with Iranians. How important do you see these aspects of Iranian culture?

Elements. I don't think that Iran or even Muslims or Middle Easterners are the only people who lie or dissemble or pretend to do one thing when they want to do another. From what I understand about our current dealings with Iran: a lot of what we are doing is pretending to be bigger, stronger and more dangerous than we really are. That kind of dissembling is something we do as well. It's just something we don't do very well. Iran is also trying to make us believe that they are bigger and stronger than they actually are.

Iranians just have more experience and skill
at dissembling than we do.

I do have this worry: because of their bargaining gene, Iranians always feel that they can get another 2 or 3 percent, so they always go for more. When they get an offer that meets 90% of their terms, they think that maybe they can get 93%. In the end this kind of negotiation means that they may lose the whole thing. Squeezing everything out of your opponent may backfire.

And it is not just Iran that does this. I've watched the US negotiate or not negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue for the past 15 years. The kind of deal we could have gotten in 1990 or 91 would look so good to us now, but we wanted more.

We lost 50% of the game, yet we are still maintaining an all or nothing approach to the negotiations.

With regard to Iran...look at what they've done with foreign investment from oil companies. They need the foreign investment, but they squeezed so hard and drove such a hard bargain, that many companies said that it just is not worth it. Why should we do this? We've lost all of our profit margin in negotiations, we'll make ourselves unpopular with the US, who needs it? They walked away. Oil executives told me that the Iranians would negotiate vigorously and endlessly. Negotiate and negotiate and negotiate. When they thought that an agreement had been reached, it would start all over again. Finally Western companies said forget about it; it's just not worth it. They want to be there, but it is not possible. Iran is paying a very high price for this.

Iran has done great damage to its own interests by over negotiating.

There is some worry that the same is true with their nuclear policy with the whole inalienable right rhetoric. Insisting on the right to do something stupid, might not be best policy in the end. It seems that there are some in Iran who care more about the principle at stake than having a functioning nuclear program.


October Surprise refers to a controversial book that Gary Sick wrote after serving on the National Security Council under Ford, Carter, and Reagan. The book documents evidence of secret negotiations between the Reagan campaign and the revolutionary clerics in Iran that ultimately led to a nefarious arms deal involving the Nicaraguan contras, Israelis, and revolutionary clerics in Iran. It is not the only book or article that Sick has written about Iran, he is also the author of the influential All Fall Down: America’s Fateful Encounter with Iran and many articles.

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1 comment:

EdoRiver said...

So, I gather from this, in trying to read between the lines. That the Iranians will, somehow, someway continue their nuclear development NO MATTER WHAT. I don't think there is any question about it.

The latest US rumor cited at Juancole.com is that the Vice PResident is going to orchestrate a campaign, beginning in September, to position the American public for some military action on Iran at some favorable time "in the future".

This, I think, is the US response to the covert but real Iranian policy of continued nuclear development. IF countries like Pakistan and N. Korea have nuclear missiles, and their character is worse and more unstable than Iran's, in my opinion. Why not set up a procedure for Iran to go peacefully to reach their goals?

I know the counter arguement of encouraging an arms race in the ME. However, it is already happening, there is an arms race. Make it more open and procedural, where international pressure is more effective from even the small countries like Bahrain, the Western leaning countries like Turkey. We wouldn't supply anything, but there would be an open procedure for them to pass through, peacefully.

I don't know why this kind of idea is treated as the equivalent to legalizing prostitution or marijuana in the US.