The Art of Negotiating a Nuclear Program

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH-Boston. President Obama visits the United Nations General Assembly this week. He's scheduled to give a speech there tomorrow, but the big question about the President's UN visit is this. Will Obama meet his counterpart from Iran, President Hassan Rouhani? No meeting is planned but the two leaders have traded letters recently, and that seemed to open the door for possible talks on Iran's controversial nuclear program. Now previous attempts at nuclear negotiations between Western nations and Iran have yielded very little, which got us thinking, how do you even start to negotiate such a complex issue? I spoke to William Ury about that. He's the co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project and a co-author of 敵etting to Yes." William Ury, let's start with the basics. Two sides barely able to send letters to one another. They need to begin talking about this nuke business. A tough topic, so literally how do you start? Who picks up the phone first when the two sides really can't even talk?

William Ury: Well, right now they're exchanging letters so there's already a channel of communication. The big problem is distrust. There's so much deep distrust between both sides that in order to arrive at a good satisfactory solution that meets both sides' interests, they're going to have to find some ways to build some initial trust.

Werman: When we're talking about nations, is it worth thinking about other, more human concepts, like a marriage that's on the rocks and needs saving from a nasty divorce? Or is diplomacy kind of a thing unto itself?

Ury: Well, I like to think that actually negotiations pretty much mean the, obviously the contexts are very different, but the basic principles apply to marriages and apply to diplomacy. If you're asking, for example, who's winning this marriage, your marriage is in serious difficulty, so it would be the wrong question to ask who's winning this negotiation. The question to ask is how can we solve this problem in a way that meets your interests and ours.

Werman: So you've got some pretty practical steps about those questions to be asked that each side can take in very complex negotiations. Walk us through some of those steps.

Ury: Yeah, I think the first thing is to deal with the psychological dimension of the negotiation, the people aspect, the fact that there's been this deep distrust, on good grounds, over decades now. And so the model in negotiation is, if you want to be hard on the problem, in other words really find a rigorous solution, you've got to be soft on the people. In fact, the harder you want to be on the problem, paradoxically, the softer you need to be on the people. So in this case, it's really important to show proper respect to the Iranians who have felt very deeply disrespected by the United States and Americans in particular over the years. And so I think the symbolism of respect is going to be very important because it's going to be read very carefully over in Iran. Iran is a proud and ancient civilization. They deserve that respect. Respect in negotiation is maybe the cheapest concession you can make. It costs us nothing and it means everything to the other side.

Werman: So what do you think the protocol handlers for President Obama are kind of whispering in his ear right now about maybe a possible meeting with Hassan Rouhani, the new Iranian president, at the UN?

Ury: You know, this is a, there's a real window of opportunity. It's rare. Usually it's like there are these two windows, and when one window's open the other window's closed. And for now, right now, you have both windows that are open, so you actually have the possibility of a negotiation that could actually get somewhere. I mean, there's no guarantee, but it's definitely worth exploring. These kinds of windows of opportunity are rare and they deserve to be explored right away, because they don't last very long. In this case there's a window for the Iranians, maybe the first six months of the honeymoon period of Rouhani, and there's a window for Obama as well.

Werman: And William Ury, if you were in charge of setting up kind of the first round of negotiations with Iran, what would you be telling the White House right now as far as the UN General Assembly goes?

Ury: Well, one thing is to design it. It's a symbolic moment, it's an historic moment, to meet, so I would design the photo opportunity that's going to go out to the world, but I would also want to design it so that there could be some genuine conversation, some genuine getting to know each other between these two leaders, because there is a process in place, but it is a very complex process of negotiation with 5 + 1 powers and Iran, and essentially if a deal is to be struck in the limited window that we have, it's going to be a bi-lateral negotiation between the United States and Iran, and having a personal foundation to it that can diminish the level of distrust a little bit and create the right atmosphere will be critical for a quick and speedy realization of this opportunity.

Werman: William Ury, co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project. He's also co-author of 敵etting to Yes." William, thanks very much.

Ury: My pleasure, Marco. A real pleasure.