15th Apr 2019
The psychologist Carl Jung defined the term “persona” as the social face the individual presents to the world —"a kind of mask designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual". Iranian negotiators tend to approach a discussion with a combination of grandeur and grievance. They come to the bargaining table with a view that their nation’s history, despite the glories of the distant past, has too often featured defeat, tragedy, victimization and betrayal. This leads them to the perception that the West is not really negotiating, but using its superior economical and political muscle to compel Iran to accept an unequal agreement.
Iran is a highly educated, very sophisticated society. Yet the Iranian tendency towards pessimism and conspiracy, their ingrained mistrust of the “other”, and their perception of “us against the world as the only Shiite nation ”, creates an exaggerated view of the significance of any concessions they are asked to make. Iranian negotiators tend to be in a defensive mode of minimizing losses and not necessarily maximizing gains. Negotiations are not born of opportunity, but of necessity. As a result, Iranian risk propensity – willingness to hold out for better terms – tends to be higher than that of Western negotiators. The intrinsic Shiite belief in the virtue of patience also contributes to this tendency.
Western business negotiation techniques are based on dynamics in which anything can happen. The underlying premise is that as long as there is a common denominator, that both sides effectively want the talks to succeed, the step-by-step give and take process will produce the inherent compromise and a mutually acceptable solution. When Western companies bargain, they are not averse to creating tension or even a minor crises as part of the negotiation process. It’s a tactic to try and gain advantage over the other side. Bluffing and disinformation are legitimate tools, though they should be used with caution and not used in a manner that could break long-term trust and endanger the post-negotiation relationship. After all, all business relationships must be based on a degree of trust.
Iranian negotiation tactics go even further than the Western model in using potential trust-damaging tactics, which can make forging a business relationship far more challenging. The important thing here to recognize, is that such tactics are far more culturally driven in Iran than they are in the UK. I will identify these tactics for you with their Persian names, because these terms will often come up when Iranians are trying to explain their actions to you.
To start with, Iranian’s admire a clever argument. They call this cleverness, zerangi, which in the psyche of the Iranian negotiator gives him legitimacy to make dramatic departures from the course of the talks, as well as using threats, bluffing, and disinformation. A negotiator who is adept at discourse manipulation is highly esteemed in Iran. This is further reinforced by the Shia religious concept taqiya that provides social legitimization of deception in the service of necessity or a higher good. There is a Persian saying “a lie which brings benefit is preferable to a truth which causes damage.”
An interesting trait of this cleverness is the Iranian tendency to enter into detailed negotiations over issues that the Iranian side knows it cannot deliver even if its demands were to be met. Some see this as a negotiating ploy, meant to wear out the adversary with “virtual negotiations” and to learn his weaknesses before raising real issues.
Much of the literature on this subject attributes this tactic as a manifestation of the “bazaar instinct” and the pure “love of the bargaining game”. Often, a demonstration of rhetorical, emotional, and intellectual virtuosity while bargaining raises the status of the Iranian negotiator in the eyes of his colleagues and subordinates, which for him, is a way to score points in his society, and is separate from the real goal of the negotiations. Cleverness to the Iranians is a sign of strength and determination. When their foreign counterparts mirror such tactics, it will not offend them, it earns them grudging admiration.
Western negotiators should not convince themselves that the Iranians will never be so foolish as to do “X.” Such a statement can become a guarantee that they will do precisely that - driven not by foolishness, but by logic and necessities that the outside observer does not see or understand. In commercial dealings in the oil and gas sector, Iranian negotiators are known to have sabotaged an entire deal rather than make some minor concessions. The Iranians have a term for this: mard-e rendi, someone who outsmarts himself through pursuing short-term gain with a single-mindedness that blinds him to the larger and long-term issues at stake.
Western negotiators can be more effective if they try to understand and tap into the Iranian sense of pragmatism, which is embodied in the Islamic principle of “the predominance of public interest”. Once it is clear to the Iranians that only compromise can avert a serious threat, the compromise will become a legitimate choice. The Persian term for this principle of public interest is maslahat, and it became government policy in Iran in 1988.