Iran Nuclear Negotiation Project

(a Harvard Negotiation Project initiative)
Directors: Jim Sebenius and Graham Allison
Affiliate: Michael Singh

From 2013 through 2016, James Sebenius and Graham Allison co-directed this initiative between HNP and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs that was intended to analyze the negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran over a nuclear agreement. A working group of specialists in several areas–arms control, negotiation, Iranian studies, and foreign policy–frequently met to discuss and produce reports and articles on this subject; to sample some of the HNP faculty contributions to this project, see for example here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Varied diplomatic approaches by multiple negotiators over the past several years had failed to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran. Mutual hostility, misperception, and flawed diplomacy were among the causal factors. Yet, more fundamentally, the group explored whether a mutually acceptable deal potentially existed. To assess this possibility, a negotiation analytic framework conceptually disentangled two issues: (1) whether a feasible deal exists; and (2) how to design the most promising process to achieve one. Under a plausible, mainstream set of such assumptions, the Iranian regime’s no-deal options appeared superior to potential nuclear agreements. If so, purely tactical and process-oriented initiatives would fail and other approaches were necessary. Opening space for a mutually acceptable nuclear deal—one that avoids both military conflict and a nuclear-armed or nuclear-capable Iran—required relentlessly and creatively worsening Iran’s no-deal options while enhancing the value of a deal to the Iranian regime. Downplaying both coercive options and upside potential, as international negotiators have often done, works against this integrated strategy. As this approach took shape, the JCPOA was negotiated; a number of HNP-affiliated faculty analyzed the result and its sustainability.

Largely dormant since 2017, members of this initiative are alert to significant opportunities and dangers since President Trump gave notice to withdraw the United States from the agreement.