Understanding Iran’s Negotiating Style

by Dina Esfandiary

Iranians negotiate like they’re in the bazaar. Westerners negotiate like they’re shopping at Macy’s. These negotiating styles could not be more different, making it difficult to get an actual result. But the West needs to decide whether it’s naming the price or really negotiating because at present, there is a significant failure of communication and understanding. The burden is on the West to fix it.

A misunderstanding of how the Iranians conduct themselves in negotiations continues to hang over talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security council plus Germany). The Iranian bazaar mentality results in the Iranians aiming for the lowest price that they can hope for, expecting it to be rejected and receiving a counter-offer. The point of their first offer is to calibrate the subsequent discussion, not to generate an immediate result.

In contrast, the P5+1 and the US have recently been expecting to pay the price on the sticker. In other words, they regard Iranian offers as a sign of their unwillingness to talk rather than an opening to negotiations. This was what led to the unsubstantial outcome of the three rounds of negotiations that took place in 2012.

There is also a misunderstanding on the part of the West over public statements coming from Iran regarding its nuclear program. As is the case for many countries including the US, most official Iranian statements are for domestic consumption rather than an indication of their position vis-à-vis the P5+1. This is the context in which Ali Khamenei’s statement last week must be seen. The Supreme Leader’s words echoed those of the past twenty years. They are primarily directed at the Iranian public, reassuring them that they will not be ‘sold out’ to the ‘Great Satan’.

In fact, Khamenei will be the last person in the regime to change his stance on talks with the West. This is because of the high political cost of any appearance of weakness on the part of the Supreme Leader. Remember that Khamenei has constructed Iran’s nuclear program as a symbol of Iranian defiance of the West. He cannot be seen as giving in to anyone, especially not to America and on this issue.

As was the case recently for the US, the presidential election in Iran is looming and for this reason, short of a miraculous breakthrough, it’s unlikely that the next round of talks will be conclusive. (This is tied to Khamenei’s desire, once again, not to be viewed as weak.) The Supreme Leader does not want President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a political thorn in his side — to get credit for a resolution of this long-standing crisis. In addition, should talks resume and subsequently fail after the presidential elections, Khamenei will be able to deflect the blame on the new president. As is the case for President Barak Obama, the cost of failure is only second to appearing weak in the face of a long-time adversary.

Although there are misconceptions on both sides, the greater onus is on the West to break this deadlock. Why? Structurally, Iran has something the West wants and not the other way around. Iran is the player developing the nuclear program, and the P5+1 along with Israel want Iran to give it up.

If there is no resolution to the nuclear issue through negotiation, the US’ hope is that (barring successful military action — itself almost impossible) the Iranian regime will collapse and a new government will be willing to make a deal. But Iran’s position is that if talks collapse, they will continue to develop their nuclear program in spite of sanctions. Given these two scenarios, Iran appears more likely to succeed.

— Dina Esfandiary is a Research Associate and foreign affairs and security analyst focusing on Iran, the Middle East and nuclear issues at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

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  1. The author is correct to highlight the different negotiating styles, but wrong in assuming that it is P5+1 that has to change their approach. Likewise, Iran is wrong in assuming that they have something which the others want, meaning that P5+1 have to offer something that Iran wants in return. With the news today that Iran has accelerated their programme by using advanced centrifuges, coupled with the explosive tests, the countdown clock has been started on a strike which will blast Iran back into the Dark Ages. Israel can only be restrained for so long. They will only hold back whilst the United States has a realistic chance of persuading Iran to ditch their nuclear programme. If there is no hope of doing this, then preparations will be made. Iran will glow in the dark, before they achieve nuclear power status.

  2. Anomalous:

    What a load of nonsense. If anybody is going to go back to the Dark Ages it is the oil addicted Western countries. Iran has thousands of domestically made missiles that can take out every oil producing installation within 200 miles of it’s borders, meaning 40% of the world’s oil. Even a loss of 10% will cause near collapse of Western economies.

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