With a new round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program approaching and UN, US and European sanctions underway, the media is once again buzzing with talk about “fuel swaps”, “HEU”, “LEU” and centrifuges, centering around the question: “How can we make sure Iran’s nuclear program isn’t going to be used for military purposes?” Just like the times before, technical details of verification are being discussed and carefully detailed plans are being worked out. And, once again, the talks will fail. This is not because plans on verification and technical details are not important, quite the opposite. But they alone won’t do the trick.
These plans and offers do not fully get to the core of the problem between Iran and America (and Europe, too), which is trust. No verification plan will ultimately be acceptable for the US and Europe as long as they don’t trust that Iran does not have any intention to build a nuclear bomb. And Iran is never going to believe that Washington and its European allies are serious about their offers as long as America (and Israel, too) is still talking about military actions against Tehran. Thus, any policy aimed at resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis has to address these trust issues in one way or the other.
Political scientist Leonard Schoppa labels the problem of mistrust between negotiating partners “the social context in coercive bargaining.” In a nutshell, he suggests that you tend to yield more concessions in a coercive bargaining situation (i.e. a situation where you employ “carrots-and-sticks” tactics as the West is currently doing with Iran) when the negotiations take place in a social context. This occurs when “tactics fall within the range that are accepted as legitimate” by both parties and when “the coercion takes place within an institutionalized process that establishes mutually accepted rules of the game”. None of these conditions are fulfilled in the case of the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program.
Both the US and Iran accuse each other of not playing by the “rules” of international politics – and both have a point. Tehran is enraged by Washington’s meddling in Iran’s domestic affairs, especially by US financial support for Iran’s opposition movement. Also, Iran condemns US rhetoric about “Iranian regime change” (which has eased up a bit since Obama’s inauguration). Tehran views the formula “all options remain on the table” as a threat of the use military force, which it considers a clear violation of international law. The US is particularly angry about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, which seek to destroy Israel. What is more, Iran’s repeated violations of the IAEA’s safeguard regulations prove to the US, Europe, China, and Russia that Iran is not in compliance with its obligations under international law and might be secretly building up nuclear weapons capability.
Furthermore, the various rounds of negotiations and the UN Security Council are hardly places well suited to establishing mutually accepted “rules of the game” for Iran and the US. One reason for this is that negotiations are not being held on a regular basis. And when the parties do gather at one table, they have to deal with changing short-term interests from the other side of the table. On the other hand, Iran perceives the sanctions of the UN Security Council as illegitimate because, in Iran’s view, it is stripping Tehran off its inalienable right NPT to enrich uranium under the NPT.
Finally, a considerable trust deficit exists on all sides. This is partly due the reasons mentioned above, but mostly stems from the conflict-ridden history between Iran and the United States. The US-British led overthrow of Iran’s Shah in 1953, the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by the U.S. Navy in 1988 and Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad's repeated calls for the destruction of Israel are only a few examples of what created such mistrust between the US and Iran.
Within this poisonous context it is going to be almost impossible to find a solution that sufficiently accommodates both sides. It is this mutual mistrust that has been one of the main causes of the failure of talks so far. Consequently, any serious effort to negotiate has to be accompanied, or better, preceded by efforts on both sides to improve the general context of the talks in order to create a minimum amount of trust between the United States, Iran and Europe. In light of this analysis, here is what is to be done:
Stick to the Rules:
Iran has to accept a two-state solution in the Israeli-Arab conflict and has to cease support for Hamas and Hezbollah. In exchange, the US has to offer a mutually agreeable statement recognizing Iran’s legitimate security concerns in the region. The US has to stop direct financial support for the Iranian opposition movement in Iran. At the same time, both Brussels and Washington should point out that they are not going to stop publicly criticizing human rights violations in Iran just as Iran can keep criticizing America and Israel. However, a red line has to be drawn between criticizing each other and demanding the destruction of each others country or the others allies. In doing so, Washington could hopefully dissuade Tel Aviv from launching an attack on Iran.
Restore the Authority of the UN Security Council and Create a Regular Negotiation Forum:
The Security Council needs to show that it doesn’t intend to deny Iran the right of the peaceful use of nuclear energy as long as it proves to be a responsible member of the international community. Thus, the UNSC has to make clear that its demands to stop uranium enrichment does not mean it intends to proscribe enrichment forever, but only until Tehran proves it is not building atomic weapons.
Also, the permanent members of the Security Council (possibly accompanied by other states such as Brazil or Turkey) have to establish a permanent negotiation forum with Iran, open to any topic. There are many issues where Tehran’s, Washington’s and Europe’s interests touch, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. Establishing a lasting and working relationship on these and other issues could prove that both sides can work together and this, in turn, has the potential to create positive effects on talks on the nuclear issue as well.
In addition to the measures above, the following policies should also be pursued:
1. The US and Iran have to normalize their diplomatic relationship. The United States should open an embassy in Tehran and should relax flight restrictions between the two countries for everyday Iranian citizens. This does not include lifting travel bans currently set up by the UN Security Council. Also, the U.S. should complement these measures with an apology for the downing of Iran Air Flight 655. At the same time, Iran has to declare that the hostage-taking of U.S. embassy employees in Tehran in 1979 was wrong.
2. Encourage NGOs and civil society groups to engage with their counterparts on the other side and help existing ones with their work.
3. Foster academic exchange programs between Iran and the West, e.g. offer scholarships for Iranian students and scholars and organize academic conferences.
4. Each side should ask representatives of their main religious groups (i.e. Christians, Jews and Muslims, preferably both Shia and Sunni Muslims) to engage in religious dialogue. Building trust means showing respect for other religions.
5. Iran, the US and Europe have to give attention to how the other side is being depicted in their respective media. Although Western countries cannot (and should not) keep their media from expressing their opinion, administrations on all sides should always stress that extremist views expressed in the media are just that: Opinions and not an official policy.
Taken together these measures should open new communication channels and create a minimum amount of respect and trust between Washington and Tehran.
To be sure, a policy of creating trust is not going to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis by itself. Rather, it has to be complemented by tough sanctions and a carefully detailed incentive package for Iran – this is where technical solutions come into play. But they are not sufficient. Only by combining them with measures to relax the context of bargaining is the world going to be able to prove to Tehran that its opponents are not aiming to keep Iran a small and weak country, but only seeking to stop it from getting a nuclear weapon.
Ideally, steps to build up trust should have been taken before the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program were started. But the clock is ticking on finding a peaceful outcome to this crisis, so both strategies have to be pursued at the same time. Yes, it is going to be a ride on the razor’s edge. But it’s the only way to untangle the Gordian knot of the Iranian nuclear crisis.
Felix Haass is a student of Peace Research and International Politics at the University of Tübingen.
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