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Negotiating Tomorrow: An Interview with Prof. James Sebenius


James K. Sebenius

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Last Thursday, JewishPress.com had the opportunity to interview Harvard Business School professor James Sebenius at the 2012 President’s Conference. Professor Sebenius is both an expert on the theory of negotiations and a professional negotiator to boot. He also heads up the Harvard Negotiations Project.

If you’re interested in how we got this interview, please read about that here.

Professor Sebenius was warm and engaging, and asked that I call him Jim.

It turns out that beyond his conventional credentials, Jim is also involved – in some undisclosed capacity – in the US-Iranian negotiations and the Israel-PA negotiations. And so I took his request that we avoid getting into specifics about these negotiations seriously.

Jim began by telling me how much he enjoys Israel, that he spent part of his leave here last year in Neve Tzedek instead of in Boston, and lectured at Tel Aviv University; and he tried to make it out here a few times a year.

For the next half hour Jim and I discussed competitive vs. cooperative negotiating partners, whether or not Iran is a rational or honest negotiating partner, and how one can foster a situation where there is actually something to negotiate about (ie. identifying what the other side really needs and simultaneously what they really don’t).

Throughout, I found myself completely enthralled by this intellectually stimulating discussion.

The discussion began with him posing a question about what he brings to the table in a country full of natural negotiators, and answers it himself by saying that he brings us an outsider’s perspective.

We discussed the threshold issue in negotiations, one relevant to both theater’s Jim advises on: how one can determine whether a negotiating partner actually has an interest in achieving a mutually acceptable goal. I offered my view that Iran’s goal is Armageddon, and the PA’s goal is to destroy and replace Israel, thus creating a situation of mutual exclusion, a zero-sum game whereby achievement of these parties’ goals precludes achievement of those of their negotiation partners.

Jim explains, that ironically, sometimes you have to enter negotiations to find out if the other side is serious about negotiations, but conceded that at some point in the process you do need to make an ultimate determination of whether the party sitting across the table is seeking a resolution or just looking to buy time.

In negotiations, it is critical that one determine the goals and the alternatives. Both a strike on Iran and a nuclear Iran would be very costly and risky, but America (and Israel) may have to choose between the two. Negotiation seeks to find a third, better alternative, and push for it by utilizing the right incentives and/or deterrents.

But much of this calculus depends on the internal decision-making of the Iranian regime – do they want weapons at all costs, and why?

Thus, the goal of negotiations is to create a “zone of agreement,” that is, a situation that is better than, say, war or a nuclear Iran. Part of reaching that “zone of agreement” is creating a situation where not reaching agreement is worse than the agreement that could be reached. Essentially, this means imposing costs that open up a “zone of possibilities.”

Another crucial aspect of negotiating with an intransigent partner is finding a “currency” that is valuable to the other side.

We talked about whether Iran is a rational actor. I raised Meir Dagan’s point that in Western terms, the regime doesn’t appear rational, but that within their own calculus, they actually are. As an example, some suggest that membership in World Trade Organization is one type of “currency” to entice. And though this is something a western-oriented country would jump at, it is actually of little value to Iran, as they are isolationists by nature.

On the other hand, Iran needs help increasing and improving its oil output, and this is an extremely valuable “currency” to the regime, and to the West as well.

So a sophisticated negotiator will try to identify a “zone of agreement” and determine if there is an avenue worth pursuing, or not. And if the Western powers operate on the proposition that Iran is Messianic, then negotiations are of no value, and they’re left with the two original and frightening choices.

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