Iran Talks: Breaking the Mosaic of Mistrust
Image Credit: REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

Iran Talks: Breaking the Mosaic of Mistrust


On January 20, 2009, a freshly inaugurated President Barack Obama took to the stage to deliver a speech with one very critical hidden signal – one he hoped might publicly begin to thaw U.S. relations with Iran even as Washington privately escalated sustained cyber attacks against that nation’s nuclear program.

This openness against a backdrop of a show of strength was another brush stroke in the complex mosaic of mutual mistrust that has increasingly darkened Washington’s relations with Iran since the latter was counted among former President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” in 2002. The very real risk is that the mistrust is so great that premature adoption of the Additional Protocol, which no doubt after this week’s negotiations will be on the table in November, could have catastrophic consequences. Resolving this fog of mistrust must be our first step if the parties can expect to have a chance a real and lasting resolution.

Obama’s veiled signal came just over 12 minutes into his inaugural speech, when he turned to foreign policy and stuck his landing with a two-word phrase aimed directly at Iran. The phrase no doubt made chins drop in Jerusalem and heads turn in Tehran, and was a calculated reply to a message first delivered to the United States way back in 2003 by our only contact with Tehran – the Swiss embassy.

By all accounts, Swiss diplomat Tim Guldimann is straight out of central casting: highly educated, precise and well adept at not just delivering the text of a message, but the tone as well. Guldimann was the Swiss ambassador in Tehran from 2001 to 2003, and in May of 2003 he hand delivered to the U.S. Department of State a simple, two-page document that offered huge concessions by Iran on a range of topics, including its nuclear program and support for Hezbollah, albeit with some fairly large strings attached.

Setting aside the merits, or lack thereof, inherent in that long forgotten document, it is important to note that in it Iran repeatedly used the phrase “mutual respect.” Acknowledging this single phrase in his inaugural speech, Obama sent a clear reply from the new administration: “Message received, lets talk.” Meanwhile, the ongoing cyber attacks made public in 2009 was a subtle hint that, while negotiations were preferred, very little is outside the reach of the United States military and intelligence complex. Escalating economic sanctions was another twist of that screw aimed at getting Tehran to the table.

When Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, one of the key authors of that 2003 overture by Tehran, landed in Geneva this week, he began a conversation he has waited a full decade to have. Yet the conversation is marred by decades of mutual mistrust. The key stumbling block for the West at the next round of discussions to be held in November will most likely be Iran’s adoption of the IAEA Additional Protocol, while for Tehran it will be the recognition of their right to enrich uranium to at least the 5 percent concentration – the level required for nuclear reactors. An intractable problem if there ever was, but one that requires an understanding of exactly what is in the Additional Protocol and how it could very quickly go wrong – for both sides.

The Additional Protocol (AP) is so named because it affords an additional expansion of investigative powers to the IAEA beyond the ability to monitor a nation’s self identified nuclear facilities. The IAEA has these monitoring powers under the model Safeguards Agreement signed by all non-nuclear weapon states under the Non Proliferation Treaty.

The key aim of the AP is to degrade the capacity to covertly develop nuclear weapons beyond the presumably peaceful nuclear activities a state has self-identified. The AP does this in two ways: first, a massive increase in the number of component parts and activities a nation must identify and disclose that effectively encompass every element of the nuclear supply chain and, second, the addition of “complementary access” to verify the completeness of every declaration. Both of these present unique problems under the current state of mutual distrust.  

October 21, 2013 at 08:08

In my opinion, we should be cultivating stronger ties with Iran to counter Saudi Arabia.  Of all the terrorist groups we (and the rest of the world, for that matter) are having trouble with, most of them come from or are supplied by the Saudis.  This is not to say that Iranian proxies are not terrorists, only that they are likelier to talk than Al Qaeda is.

Iran's regional power play is based upon some very rational notions rather than ideological ones.  The Saudis export terrorists to counteract Shi'tes and cement their influence over not just the region, but the religion.  Iran, on the other hand, cultivates NGO's throughout the Middle East to counter the fact that almost every one of their neighbors' governments is hostile to them due to race or religion.  Therefore Iran's rational basis for expanding its power base gives us something we can deal with.  Rationality, no matter how contrary to our policies it may be, is still something that we can find common ground over, unlike religion which tends to operate on a purely "us versus them" system.

In the end, Iranians tend to be more rational, reasonable, and flexible than the Saudis and given Iran's demographic potential, they would make for a much better regional ally than Saudi Arabia.  Our ideological differences aside, from a business, geopolitical, and geostrategic standpoint, countering Iran is costlier and riskier than being friends with it.

October 21, 2013 at 07:34

They call us the Great Satan for a bunch of reasons.  We overthrew their government in 1953, we supplied Saddam Hussein with the means to use chemical weapons against them during the Iran-Iraq War, we shot down one of their civilian airliners for no good reason, and we impose sanctions on them for the flimsiest of reasons.  Even after they helped us during our initial invasion of Afghanistan, we turned right around and labeled them a part of the "Axis of Evil."

Your comment reflects that of a typical American – quick to forget our own shortcomings, but long on blaming others for past grievances. 

October 20, 2013 at 01:51

America is not like India and is not member of Non Alignment movement !

America is a part of a complicated network of friends and foes. Good part of the network was built since the cold war based on the ancient dictum that "the enemy of your enemy is your friend". This network will be ruffled if America starts making an enemy as its friend. What will happen to your friends who are your friends because they share a common enemy with you?

The model I look at is the relationship between America and India. It is not close enough to ruffle the feathers of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. But it is close enough to have a very good working relationship.



October 19, 2013 at 16:56

Iran Hates America for these THREE reasons.

(a) 1953 coup. Iran wants to take legal actions against CIA in the International Court of Justice

(b) Iran air 655

(c) Painting them as evel and the sactions regime

Pedro Guedes
October 19, 2013 at 11:47

Text well worthwhile,and mentions the main issues to solve this complicated situation of Iran's nuclear progam, indicating the possibles ways to solv them.

October 19, 2013 at 05:33

Why is Bush's "Axis Of Evil" comment always brought up as a reason Iran distrusts the United States??

Don't they call us the GREAT SATAN?? and chant "Death to America" at government sponsored Friday prayers???

Isn't Satan considered "evil"??

Wandering Ronin
October 19, 2013 at 02:41

In assessing the enemy’s castle there is a saying that goes “Smoke and mist are like looking at a spring mountain. After the rain is like viewing a clear day.” There is weakness in perfect clarity. ~Hagakure

October 19, 2013 at 00:03

They will not stop enrichment, so the goal for Israel in the current environment is to preserve the current sanction framework, the current climate is not suited to increased sanctions. So the middle ground is to allow the US to issue waviers via the President without removing the sanctions framework globally. An interim deal with limited concessions from Iran on inspections, level of enrichment etc in exchange for Presidential waivers still leaves Iran facing harsh sanctions. So we don’t get what we want, ceasing enrichment and Iran does not get what it wants removal for the sanctions and framework. But it is a start.

October 18, 2013 at 18:05

Neo cons, zionists and the Saudi won't allow a U.S.-Iran deal. They will oppose it till death.

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