In the public sector, top-secret talks often run parallel to more official dealmaking. When deciding whether to take your own negotiations underground, anticipate the risks.

By on / International Negotiation

This July, Iran and a group of six other nations led by the United States announced they had reached a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program for more than a decade in exchange for the removal of financial sanctions. The deal, 20 months in the making, received both praise and pans in the United States: Some predicted it would head off war and even prompt a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations, while others said that President Barack Obama had made dangerous capitulations on key issues and was naive to expect Iran to honor its commitments.

One interesting facet of the story was the news, reported by the Wall Street Journal on June 28, that the prolonged official talks were just the tip of a larger iceberg of negotiations. The new details about the so-called back-channel talks shed light on what motivates negotiators to meet in private, how such an approach might be useful, and when it might do more harm than good.

Beginning with a wish list

After taking office in January 2009, Obama wrote to request talks with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The response was lukewarm. Oman’s monarch, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, secretly offered to help the White House gain a foothold by establishing a back channel with Iran.

In late 2009, Iran tested Obama’s commitment to improving relations by passing him, via the sultan of Oman, a “wish list” of secret requests, including the release of certain Iranian prisoners, U.S. blacklisting of opposition groups hostile to the Iranian government, and an increase in the number of U.S. visas available to Iranian students.

Obama reportedly demonstrated goodwill by acceding to some of the requests over the next several years, U.S. officials told the Journal. For example, the United States expedited the deportation of several Iranians who had served sentences in the United States, blacklisted a Pakistan-based militant group that had conducted terrorist attacks in Iran, and helped double the number of Iranians studying at U.S. colleges. The sultan of Oman also mediated the return of three American hikers who had accidentally wandered into Iran.

Balanced by the punishing financial sanctions in place against Iran, the concessions amounted to a “pattern of inducements offered by Washington to coax Tehran to the table.” The carrot-and-stick approach led U.S. and Iranian officials to begin clandestine talks regarding Iran’s nuclear programs in late 2011, when then U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton assigned a low-level aide to carry out negotiations in Oman. “Oman played a key role in facilitating the back channel between the United States and Iran” that eventually led to more formal talks, U.S. State Department adviser Marie Harf told the Journal.

The background on back-channel talks

Whether you believe the Iran nuclear deal was a worthy one or not, the fact that the United States and Iran were able to negotiate it at all appears to attest to the power of back-channel negotiations to bring parties together. Yet history shows that back-channel negotiations are not universally effective.

The “black market” of negotiations, back-channel negotiations are official talks conducted in secret between parties to a dispute, writes Anthony Wanis-St. John of American University in a 2006 article in the Negotiation Journal. They can operate parallel to officially acknowledged “front-channel” talks, or they can replace them. In the case of Iran and the United States, back-channel negotiations were initiated first; when enough progress had been made, they were replaced by front-channel talks. (Back-channel negotiations may have continued behind the scenes, but to date none have been reported.) Because top decision makers tend to handpick those close to them to conduct back-channel negotiations, envoys typically have ample authority to explore a range of options and commit to tentative agreements.

Back-channel negotiations provide only temporary protection from deal spoilers and public scrutiny.

Back-channel negotiations have been used in numerous conflicts across the globe, including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from 1994 to 1996 and the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979–1980. In 1985, the imprisoned Nelson Mandela conducted back-channel negotiations with South Africa’s minister of justice, Hendrik Jacobus Coetsee, that laid the groundwork for the end of the apartheid era. Back-channel talks are most commonly used in diplomacy, but they occur in the private sector as well, as when businesses want to negotiate highly visible disputes out of the public eye. Back-channel negotiations helped to resolve the New York City transit strike negotiations of December 2005, for example.

Why go underground?

The primary benefit of back-channel negotiations is that they remove talks from the scrutiny of an audience, including constituents, the press, and even members of one’s own negotiating team. When negotiators feel pressured by observers to take a hard-line position, they may fall back on counterproductive aggressive tactics and avoid exploring possible concessions and tradeoffs. Negotiating through a back channel enables would-be dealmakers to test the waters—to determine whether the other party is capable of negotiating in good faith—before exploring real commitments. Thus, back-channel negotiations can be particularly appealing to high-level leaders who are fearful of a public failure if their efforts to reach a deal collapse.

Back-channel talks also help negotiators circumvent potential deal spoilers, writes Wanis-St. John. When particular stakeholders have an interest in undermining the parties’ ability to reach an agreement, taking talks “underground,” at least temporarily, can give negotiators much-needed cover to search for collaborative solutions. With any luck, they may be able to reach breakthrough agreements before spoilers have had a chance to mobilize in opposition.

Back channels also help parties circumvent the need to meet preconditions to negotiating. Front-channel talks between Palestinian and Israeli leaders have often been nonstarters because one or both sides have insisted that certain conditions be met before they will sit down at the negotiating table, such as the release of prisoners or a troop withdrawal. Throughout their long conflict, the two sides have turned to back-channel negotiations to keep lines of communication open even when they aren’t officially supposed to be talking to each other.

The risks of back-channel negotiations

The benefits of back-channel negotiations also highlight some of the potential risks.

First, parties may come to feel so protected by the secretive nature of back-channel negotiations that they choose to go undercover repeatedly and stay there for as long as possible. Because most negotiations must go public in order to be implemented, back-channel negotiating may foster costly delays and perpetuate the very sort of impasse they are designed to overcome. Israeli and Palestinian leaders’ reliance on back channels from 1994 to 1996 “only created the need for further back channels and failed to peacefully resolve the conflict,” writes Wanis-St. John.

Second, back-channel negotiations provide only temporary protection from deal spoilers and public scrutiny. Indeed, critics may react even more strongly against an agreement if they believe a process was unfair. High-level leaders who felt safe while engaging in private back-channel communications may find that their reputations take a hit when constituents and colleagues learn of their secrecy. Palestinians and Israelis alike have condemned their leaders for conceding too much in back-channel negotiations.

Weighing the pros and cons of back-channel negotiations in the context of international conflict, Wanis-St. John concludes that secret negotiations can facilitate early breakthrough agreements but yield diminishing returns when relied on too frequently.

Ultimately, the goal of leaders—both in business and government—should be to build consensus among their supporters and their detractors. Though back-channel negotiations can be a useful means of jump-starting stalled talks, negotiators should aim to bring their discussions out of the shadows and into the light of day.

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