In this article Josh Baker discusses his research on empathy as a crucial factor in the making of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Josh received a BISA Early Career Small Research Grant for the project and also discusses how the grant has helped enable the research to take place. Existing literature and public commentary had focused primarily on the role of sanctions and coercive leverage, but Josh’s research develops a conceptualisation of empathy that highlights its centrality to processes of conflict de-escalation. He argues that the development of specific empathic capacities by key US officials towards Iran and their nuclear program, played a crucial and under-appreciated role in the de-escalation of tensions between the US and Iran and in the making of the nuclear deal.
In July 2015 Iran and their negotiating partners in the P5+1 (the name given to the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany in the context of the Iran nuclear negotiations), reached a historic agreement that would limit Iran’s nuclear program while providing Iran relief from the multitude of nuclear related sanctions placed upon them. Despite the turbulent path the deal has since taken, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal still stands as a significant example of where compromise and cooperation was reached between two states – principally the United States and Iran – who saw themselves as staunch adversaries.
Existing scholarship and policy analysis of the deal has focused overwhelmingly on the role of coercive leverage and sanctions in compelling Iran to come to the table and accept the deal. Without the pressure of a punitive multilateral sanctions regime, the argument goes, Iran would simply not have relented on key aspects of their nuclear program and the deal would not have been possible. This project argues that while the respective coercive leverage of key actors did play some role, these perspectives have missed that progress in the negotiations also rested heavily upon policy shifts that were underpinned by the development of specific types of empathy by key individuals involved. Drawing upon multidisciplinary research on empathy, the project develops a conceptualisation that highlights empathy in this context as a reflexive, effortful, and relational attempt to take the perspective of another.
A BISA Early-Career Small Research Grant has allowed me to continue and expand my existing research into this topic, and to conduct a final round of interviews with US officials involved in Iran policy during the Obama administration. These interviews were initially due to take place in person during a fieldwork trip in 2020, but Covid-19 meant that all these interviews took place virtually between 2020 and 2022. The interviews – eight on the basis of the BISA grant, in addition to approximately thirty already conducted – have yielded important insights into the dynamics of negotiations and policy deliberations within the Obama administration. Drawing on this interview material, the project highlights the development of specific empathic capacities by key US officials towards Iran during this period, and links them to US policy changes that unlocked the standoff with Iran over their nuclear program.
The interview material captured that while sanctions and leverage did form an important part of the picture, the administration also exhibited shifts in thinking that stemmed from an empathic engagement with Iran’s own nuclear narratives and understanding of itself vis-à-vis the United States. In particular, US officials came to appreciate the United States’ culpability in creating Iran’s sense of hostility, insecurity, and distrust towards them. This thinking was neatly summarised by Obama, who stated that “you [the United States] have to have the capacity to put yourself occasionally in their shoes… the fact that we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran. We have in the past supported Saddam Hussein when we know he had used chemical weapons [against Iran]… I think that when we are able to see their country… in specific terms, historical terms, as opposed to just applying a broad brush, that’s when you have the possibility of at least some movement”.
What proved transformative was not just the reflexive inference that oneself may have been complicit in causing the other’s insecurity, but that this inference was then effectively communicated through tangible changes in policy. One such example is the shifting attitudes towards Iran’s uranium enrichment program, which was both a key area of international concern from a non-proliferation perspective but also a crucial status-symbol for the Iranian government. US policy during the Bush administration, which was backed up by multiple UNSC resolutions, was that Iran must suspend all enrichment activities prior to substantive negotiations. Realising the political and symbolic importance Iran gave to its enrichment program, the Obama administration changed track and sought to communicate flexibility over this matter, concluding that “If we insisted on zero enrichment, we were not going to get a deal, period”. As one interviewee reflected, Obama and his key advisors saw “the value of having empathy” because “understanding their perception... and how they’ll respond to what we’re going to do is ultimately going to make you more successful.” Enrichment was but one area among many where officials exhibited flexibility and creativity borne out of an empathic appreciation of Iran’s perspective on key issues. As a result, negotiators were able to consistently find solutions to issues that had previously seemed intractable. One US official put it that “both sides were able to... adjust the details [of the agreement] around their objectives in such a way that allowed the other side to get what they needed.”
I am very grateful to BISA for their support with this project, and their patience while the fieldwork plans were delayed and altered due to Covid-19. In terms of the future of the project, I am currently in the process of writing a book on empathy and conflict de-escalation in international politics that draws heavily on the fieldwork discussed here and conducted previously.
You can find out more about Josh on his University of Leicester profile.