Smart Bargaining: the New Approach to Iran and Somalia

The United States has signaled a significant shift in its approach to relations with Muslim countries with which it has had hostile relations. After decades of shunning Iran, the government seems to have realized that the recent approach towards a potential Iranian nuclear weapons program has led nowhere positive. This has prompted the Bush administration to join with European allies to offer a concession. Under the diplomatic package recently delivered to Iran, the Islamic Republic is offered the prospect of enriching uranium on its own soil for its peaceful nuclear energy program. Any negotiations expert will tell you that the way to get what you want from a negotiating partner is to make it clear to your partner how cooperating with you will get them what they want. History is replete with examples of the superiority of this approach over bullying.

Nor is this development unique to relations with Iran. In the case of Somalia as well, there is a detectable shift in strategy. Hitherto the American administration had supported Somali warlords in the hope of thus preventing Islamists from coming into power. That embarrassing and dubious strategy was dealt a crushing defeat with the fall of Mogidishu. Someone in authority seems to have realized that reaching out to the opposition may be a more promising tactic than driving them into the arms of al-Qaida.

In principle these shifts are promising and long overdue. The big question is whether the administration can effectively implement the apparent new policy. The many obstacles include a poor understanding of the negotiating partners, a history that undermines credibility of commitment to the new approach and a susceptibility of American policymakers to the influence of powerful lobbyists who do not have the American national interest at heart. Nonetheless, this approach can be successful if we adopt a few simple ground rules: to be firm in our commitment to our national interest; to be uncompromising in our commitment to justice; to abandon hypocrisy in how we deal with foreign nations; to be respectful in our dealings with others; to seriously struggle to understand the grievances and sensitivities of those with whom we negotiate; and to openly state what our interests are.

With regard to the issue of weapons of mass destruction, it will be necessary sooner or later to accept the fact that we have more of them than anybody and that the facts that we (a) have used them before, and (b) refuse to state that we will not use them first against others, pose a serious problem to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. An announcement that we are beginning an initiative not simply to stop nuclear proliferation, but to cut it back, bringing nuclear powers who have refused to sign the non-proliferation treaty into the fold would help. Starting with a unilateral program to reduce our own weapons to the point where we have only enough to destroy the rest of the world once rather than many times over could bring about the necessary sea change.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad

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