Conflict Resolution

Advanced Problem-Solving Strategies

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Last night I had a chance to hear Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd discussing their new book A Sliver of Light, which recounts their two year ordeal of imprisonment in Iran. You might be more familiar with them the way they were usually characterized in the press as the “three American hikers.” They prefer to be thought of as hostages rather than hikers. In actuality, they were tourists visiting the Kurdish region of Iraq. Hiking was just the activity they happened to be engaged in on the day they accidentally crossed (or were lured across) the border into Iran.

Their story is compelling as a prison and survival narrative, and as a result of their experiences, they have become activists on issues of human rights and the treatment of prisoners in general. But it is also revealing as an example of how a conflict between two powerful parties can severely damage the lives of innocent bystanders. We are familiar with the tales of refugees and other war victims. Perhaps less familiar are the stories of those who become pawns in such larger struggles.

The United States and Iran have been locked in paralyzing conflict for more than three decades. Each views the other as the devil. Neither has been able to reach any agreements that involve trust or cooperation, until the recent preliminary agreement on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Under those circumstances, the situation of three trapped pawns in this struggle, who clearly were not spies and who had no business being detained in Iran for even one day, became for many months, impossible to resolve. At times the Iranians recognized their value as bargaining chips. As such, their release should have been relatively easy to achieve in exchange for some reciprocal gesture by the Americans. But because of the longstanding inability of the US and Iran to agree on anything, the two countries could not even commit to the kinds of prisoner exchanges that are often routine even among hostile nations.

It’s good to put a human face on the victims of conflict, and to be reminded that the costs of conflict often extend far beyond the costs incurred by the parties themselves.  Sometimes we remember to take into account the suffering of the children of divorcing couples. But collateral damage can extend to other family members, associates, employees, customers and many others, in all kinds of conflicts. Yet the interests of these victims are not always respected in resolving a dispute between the two main parties. They do not have a seat at the table. But their plight can perhaps serve to remind warring parties of the costs of continued conflict. Just as the three American hostages may have played a small part in the recent thawing of relations between the US and Iran, the suffering of other victims can perhaps be used in some cases to help parties recognize the value of resolving destructive conflict.