Strategies for Western Negotiators dealing with Iran

4th May 2016

Samuel Passow
Samuel Passow

While maintaining the integrity of the process – grounded on legal principles - Western business negotiators should look for unambiguous, mutually agreeable standards that avoid legal jargon and technicalities. In a negotiation, Iranians may frame their demands, not in specific or quantitative terms, but in qualitative terms that claim, “All we are seeking is justice” or “We want our rights”. It is important to remember that the Iranian concept of justice, rights and sense of fairness is closely tied to their religions and political histories. Try to avoid agreements that are open to interpretation between the letter and the spirit of the law.

In a relationship of perceived inequality, the main goal of Iranian negotiators becomes to obtain “respect” or at least reaching an agreement that they can present as showing Iran to be any country’s equal. This sense of inequality can create its own vicious circle. Because the Iranian negotiator comes to suspect that any arrangement the Western side accepts must, by that very fact, be unfair to the Iranian side, they believe they will get more if they hold out – so they will refuse to close the deal. If the Iranian negotiators do get more, then their original suspicions are confirmed, they remain suspicious that even the new and better deal is unfair to Iran. If it weren’t, why would the other side have accepted it?

It is worthwhile going to Iran to explore the opportunities of working together, but if those talks stall, resist the temptation to immediately conclude that the Iranians are irrational, unpredictable or cannot recognize what may be in their own best interests – maintain a non- judgmental tone – separate the person from the problem.

I would suggest that if you seriously want to trade with Iran, whether you are an SME or a multinational, that you seek out the advice of cultural experts who can help you understand the conceptual points drawn from their history and religion which underlie the ingrained attitudes and actions of your Iranian counterparts.

Carefully identify not only your business interests and needs but also that of the people you are trying to do business with. Most importantly, you know you are dealing with an opaque society with a low base of trust, so to avoid compliance problems, have your negotiators start a process of mapping out the relationships and lines of authority of all the decision makers, stakeholders, external influencers, back-channel representatives of any Iranian company you attempt to do business with, as well as their supply-chains. It is a technique in negotiation planning called backwards mapping, and this should constantly be updated with each round of bargaining and completed before you conclude any deal.