Learning About the Iran Deal

The co-op program gives Northeastern students an appreciation of the challenges and requirements of life in the professional world.  After completing two co-ops, I have come to understand the importance of communication and active listening skills.  In hopes of improving these interpersonal skills, I signed up for Ed Wertheim’s Negotiations class this fall semester.  The format of most classes is an interactive role play negotiation and a subsequent reflection. In addition to these mock negotiations, we watched an interview with Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator for the United States in the Iran nuclear negotiations. The interviewer was renowned New York Times foreign policy journalist David Sanger. Sherman’s candid and in-depth answers in the interview reveal many kernels of negotiation and communication wisdom that anyone could benefit from.

Early in the interview, Sherman told Sanger that President Obama gave her very clear objectives before the negotiation began: prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, ensure Iran’s nuclear program was exclusively peaceful, and prevent any pathways to a nuclear weapon.  All subsequent actions in the negotiation were driven by these objectives.  From there, as she said, the “devil was in the details.”  It was up to her and others at the negotiating table to negotiate deal terms that accomplished these objectives.

Yet while trying to accomplish her objectives, Sherman had to be cognizant of the interests of various stakeholders in a potential deal. These stakeholders went far beyond those present at the negotiation table. The US team had to discuss the deal terms with their partners in the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany). They had to coordinate with other regional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Since the deal captured the attention of US citizens, they had to handle the US press. They had to answer to a divided US Congress, who had competing viewpoints on the negotiation. Sherman sarcastically remarks, “…and occasionally we negotiated with Iran.”  While the deal was being hammered out at negotiation table, Sherman was constantly doing a mental calculus of how the terms would affect and be perceived by these various stakeholders.

Sherman’s negotiation skills are shaped by her background as a social worker and as a clinician. These experiences and training allowed her to empathize with her Iranian counterparts, make them feel heard, and ultimately determine their underlying interests. Her empathy and communication skills were also key in selling the deal to other stakeholders and responding to their concerns and criticisms.

In addition to these invaluable interpersonal skills, persistence and patience were also essential. Sherman told Sanger that negotiations with Iran had been going on for 11 years. Over the course of time, negotiations broke down time and time again. But the two parties would always come back to the table because each believed that getting a deal done was better than no deal at all. Sherman readily acknowledges that the deal is not perfect and its implementation is fraught with uncertainty and risk. Sherman and the Obama Administration believed that getting a deal done was essential because it is a rock on which both parties can gradually build a relationship and re-establish trust.

Although she claims to have no formal training, Wendy Sherman could teach a negotiation class. Her strategies in the Iran Nuclear Deal are useful for anyone looking to improve their negotiation and interpersonal skills. People are in negotiations every day; it could be as trivial as trying to talk your way out of a speeding ticket or as significant as convincing executives in your company to make a strategic change. Regardless of a negotiation’s latitude, Wendy Sherman’s discussion of the Iran Nuclear Deal yields five simple but essential lessons: negotiate with clear objectives, identify all stakeholders, empathize with counterparts and stakeholders, be patient, and think long-term.

Allen Meringolo, meringolo.a@husky.neu.edu