WHEN IRANIANS were holding American diplomats as hostages 10 years ago, I had the opportunity, at the request of the White House, to play a modest role in helping establish the framework for their negotiated release. The process that resulted in that release was not one of "haggling" through extreme positions -- despite the much higher national emotions that were then present. Instead each side attempted to persuade the other of what ought to be done according to such objective criteria as precedent and international law.
Through the sending of drafts and through telephone discussions with the Ayatollah Beheshti, each side understood that neither party would get more than it was entitled to -- and that determining such entitlement would be the subject of negotiation. Without committing either side, negotiators developed a framework for an agreement under which Iran would pay its "just" debts as arbitrated at The Hague, and the balance of Iran's frozen funds would be returned. The United States would "accept the revolution," would give assurances not to intervene in Iran's internal affairs and would close down the U.S. Embassy until Iran wanted to have diplomatic relations.
Thanks to the hard work of Algerian mediators and officials of both governments over a period of many weeks, this crude framework helped bring about a binding agreement. The United States paid no blackmail or ransom, Iran's debts were all paid, the hostages were released and the United States did no more for Iran than that required by international law. Iranian officials could make comparable statements.
The standard of international law provides each side with a legitimate sword with which to persuade the other and a legitimate shield to protect itself from yielding too much. It also gives leaders on both sides a basis by which to explain to their constituents why the outcome is fair. With such a criterion, the negotiations become far less a contest as to who can be more stubborn and far more a joint search as to which views of international law and equity are more persuasive.