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Trust crucial in high-stakes nuclear talks with Iran

Phone a friend: Barack Obama talking with Hassan Rouhani recently. White House

Talks begin in Geneva on Tuesday to discuss with Iran the thorny issue of its nuclear program, an area that has previously proved to be a stumbling block in normalising relations between the Islamic Republic and the West. But this time Iran has a new president - the moderate Hassan Rouhani - and hopes for progress towards a deal are high.

Since Rouhani’s election in June the signs have been positive. Speaking at the UN General Assembly on September 24, US president Barack Obama said he was “encouraged” that Rouhani was charting a course that could lead to a “meaningful agreement”. But Obama cautioned that “conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable”.

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, echoed this conviction when speaking in Tokyo on October 3:

Nothing we do [in relation to Iran] is going to be based on trust … It is not words that will make a difference, it’s actions, and the actions clearly are going to have to be sufficient that the world will understand that not only will they not be on the road to get a weapon but there is no ability to suddenly break out and achieve that.

Rouhani: wolf in sheep’s clothing? Wikimedia Commons

Kerry’s remarks about Washington not being played for a “sucker” by the new Iranian leader’s conciliatory rhetoric were specifically aimed at Israel whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had warned in an emotive address to the General Assembly that Rouhani was “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”. The Israeli prime minister backed his claim up by reminding his global audience that Rouhani had claimed in his 2011 book that:

While we were talking to the Europeans in Tehran [the so-called E3 negotiations between Britain, France, and Germany and Iran], we were installing equipment in Isfahan.

Netanyahu warned that to loosen the sanctions, and to take the military option off the table, would be to cave in at just the point that the coercive strategy is bearing fruit in terms of making Iran desperate for a deal.

Don’t be played for suckers

In contrast to President Ronald Reagan’s “trust, but verify” prescription, “distrust, dismantle and verify” was the Israeli prime minister’s advice when it came to Iran’s nuclear programme. He was explicit that the only reassurance for Israel would come if Iran ceased all uranium enrichment and removed from its territory its stockpile of enriched uranium. This would include Iran’s stock of near-20% which poses the greatest risk for bomb production.

He also stipulated that Iran must dismantle the existing Iranian nuclear infrastructure which could provide the basis for a nuclear weapons break-out capability, including Iran’s jewel in its nuclear crown – the underground facility at Fordo which is where the near-20% is being produced and stockpiled.

Hawkish: Bibi Netanyahu. Ian Nicholson/PA

The termination of activity at the Fordo facility has been the test of Iran’s sincerity as a negotiating partner that Western governments have applied in the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) in talks with Iran. The so-called “stop, ship, and shut” policy which would freeze the all-important production of 20% enriched uranium, ship the existing stockpile of 20% out of the country and close Fordo has been rejected by Iran on the grounds that Western governments are not offering an equivalent concession.

What the Iranian government is seeking is substantial relief from the crippling sanctions that have been imposed on it by the UN Security Council, the US and the EU for its failure to suspend uranium enrichment as required by UN Security Council resolutions.

Rouhani has made clear that cessation of Iran’s enrichment activity is non-negotiable, but he and the new Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif (himself a former nuclear negotiator in the team led by Rouhani) have been sending signals that Iran will come to Geneva with a more flexible negotiating position. The question is whether the P5+1 will be prepared to match any such flexibility with a lifting of sanctions that goes beyond the tokenistic offer that was made at the previous round of talks in April.

The sanctions that are hurting Iran are those that have been imposed on its banking system and oil exports. But these sanctions are seen in Western capitals as providing important negotiating leverage and Western governments will want to drive a high price in terms of Iranian concessions before relaxing these. The diplomatic test for both sides is to find a negotiating point that meets the Iranian need for major sanctions relief in return for concessions on the Iranian nuclear programme that puts in place a robust verification regime to provide greater assurances to the US and its key European allies in the P5+1 that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapons capability.

Lessons from Gorbachev

There may be important parallels between Rouhani’s outreach to the United States and Mikhail Gorbachev’s in the mid-1980s. Gorbachev was also dubbed a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Confounding such critics, the Soviet leader went on to make a series of game-changing moves that were decisive in the transformation of US-Soviet relations in the second half of the 1980s.

But the fundamental difference between the two leaders, and the one that could prove decisive in whether Rouhani is able to follow through on his expressed hope of achieving a “win-win” on the nuclear issue, is that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not Rouhani, is the key decision-maker on the nuclear issue. The implication of this for the Western powers is that they should be crafting signals that will bolster Ruwhani’s position by showing to those in Tehran who remain distrustful of US motives and intentions that olive branches can work. At the same time, those proposals should be aimed at living up to Obama’s pledge that “the diplomatic path must be tested”.

In all the recent rhetorical invocations of the language of trust and distrust by Western, Israeli, and Iranian leaders and policy-makers, one centrally important point has been lost in the noise of signals, namely, Gorbachev’s frame-breaking moves became possible because the Soviet leadership altered its perception of US trustworthiness. Reagan and Gorbachev’s face-to-face summitry was critical to this process of trust-building and without it, Gorbachev would not have made the key concessions on verification that made the signing in December 1987 of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty possible. This was the first major step out of the Cold War and it took the building of trust to make possible the US-Soviet verification regime that was necessary to reassure the US body politic that Moscow would not cheat on the agreement.

The historical lesson is instructive if we return to Kerry’s statement about not basing US and Western negotiating positions on trust. This belief is mirrored in Iran’s Supreme Leader stating that: “We do not at all trust them. We regard the government of the United States of America as an untrustworthy government.” Even if Rouhani is genuine, his room for manoeuvre is clearly limited if the chief Iranian decision maker believes that olive branches are likely to be interpreted in Washington as a sign of Iranian weakness.

Distrust runs deep

The face-to-face meeting in New York between the Kerry and Zarif and the historic phone conversation between presidents Obama and Rouhani are important gestures of conciliation on both sides. But the well of distrust and suspicion runs deep on both sides. Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for Political Affairs and chief US negotiator at the Geneva talks said in testifying before Congress in relation to the time when Rouhani was leading the Iranian negotiating team that: “We know that deception is part of [Iran’s] DNA.”

With these levels of mutual distrust, each side looks to the other to make a decisive move that shows their readiness to negotiate in good faith. At the same time, the worry is that each thinks the other is under greater pressure to compromise and so hanging tough to get the best deal becomes the dominant strategy. The path to any nuclear deal this week, and in the future, remains a rocky one.

The diplomatic test for Rouhani – and indeed Obama – is whether, like Gorbachev and Reagan in the 1980s, they can break through the zero-sum mindset and make a reality of the “win-win” policies that Rouhani espouses. It is worth recalling what the Iranian president said eight years ago when he reflected in an interview on his negotiations with the Europeans over the nuclear programme.

The foundation of this matter is trust. We don’t trust Europe, and Europe doesn’t trust us. In the process of negotiating and working with Europe, we are seeking to build a foundation of trust.

If the two sides can make progress on building that trust, particularly the US and Iran, we could see the decade-long stand-ff between Iran and the West enter its endgame, which would have positive ramifications for the Middle East - and the rest of the world.

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