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Trust and the Table: A Series on the Iran Deal. Part 1: Trust Beyond the Negotiating Table

Posted by Jessica Weaver on September 09, 2015

Leading up to Negotiations: Trust Beyond The Negotiation Table 

If you’ve tuned into the news about the recently issued plan to contain Iran’s nuclear arms program, you may have noticed the broad spectrum of strong opinions surrounding the deal struck by the Iran and the U.S., Russia, China and three members of the EU – also known as the P5+1. Take a minute to let that soak in.

In today’s world, looking simply at the lineup of participants, an agreement seems unlikely. But Iran and the P5+1 did agree on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action last month, a plan that reflects 20 months of negotiations after 35 years of formal diplomatic silence. And yet, even after the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) endorsed the plan with a resounding 15-0 confirmation vote in July, the ratification and implementation of the agreement still have a long way to go.

As the U.S. Congress debates approval of the agreement, the role of trust – before, during, and after negotiations – becomes crystal clear. The debate around the deal cannot simply focus on the details of the agreement, but also what that agreement means for relationships with the international community. The Plan of Action reveals the power of diplomacy to build trust, and the centrality of trust in international relations.

A Void of Trust: How to Start from Nothing

Ambassador William Burns first reached out to Iranian diplomats secretly in 2008, working tirelessly until 2014 to jumpstart clandestine negotiations. Speaking with NPR after the deal was announced in 2015, Burns reflected on starting to reach out to Iran: “There was an awful lot of political baggage on both sides and a great deal of mistrust, much of which continues to this day.”

This mistrust is well founded. Even during negotiations, none of the involved governments actually believed that the Iranian program had ever been exclusively peaceful (as Iran has long claimed). In the midst of such deep and inherent distrust, it is easy to argue that this “makes any nuclear agreement with the country suspect on its face.” So why negotiate at all? And where do you begin to engage, especially in a way you haven’t spoken in decades?

It turns out, engagement didn’t begin through formal negotiations. It didn’t even begin with discussions about the issues at stake. It began with wrestling. While American and Iranian diplomats struggled to build relationships across the table in 2015, that table was built on a foundation for negotiation made possible by athletes, engineers and musicians.

After failing to mend diplomatic ties in 1999, the Clinton Administration and their counterparts tried another route: sports diplomacy through wrestling. And ever since Americans first marched into an Iranian arena with an American flag in 1998, American and Iranian wrestlers have competed in both countries more than a dozen times.

US President Bill Clinton congratulates John Marks and the American wrestling team upon their return from Iran in 1998. Image via

In addition to sports diplomacy, Iranians and Americans have collaborated in environmental protection, astronomy, health care, and even music. So-called cultural diplomacy, according to retired Ambassador Richard LeBaron, holds profound power in negotiations: “As the [Iranian] conservatives argue against the [nuclear] accord, the buildup of civil society in Iran through exchanges creates a constituency that can push back against them.”

A few months after a visit to Kentucky for a music exchange, an Iranian musician wrote a letter to a member of an American bluegrass band. She wrote in English: “Dear friend…This is Sara Ahmadi, the player of an Iranian percussion daf who had a chance of being in the U.S. about two months ago. I hope you still remember me. I think when I was there, I had the best time of my life.”

These relationships move in both directions, and are found even in surprising places: officials in Mississippi adopted an Iranian system for providing health care in rural areas. Relationships humanize the other, and build bridges even in the absence of formal diplomatic relationships.

Despite personal relationships on the ground, though, exploring diplomatic possibilities amidst overwhelmingly acknowledged distrust proved an uphill battle. Even as hostilities eased, diplomats had to travel in unmarked government planes, use back entrances, and keep all travel off of State Department public schedules. After 35 years of diplomatic silence, secret talks lasted years before going public. In order for talks to even begin, individuals had to build relationships outside the public eye.

Lessons Learned: Relationships Open Doors

Prior to 2009, the last time American and Iranian diplomats formally engaged took place with American hostages in the Embassy in Tehran. After 35 years of trade embargoes, an Axis of evil, suspect nuclear inspections, and denial of September 11, a unique opportunity opened doors to engagement. So what happened?

First, politicians had a foundation in personal relationships, risking non-political interactions that humanized both Iranians and Americans.

Second, leadership shifted to individuals willing to work toward a peaceful agreement. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and chief negotiator, echoed this sentiment, stating, “We are not going to have another time in history when there is an Obama and a Biden and a Kerry and a Moniz again…And there may be no Rouhani, Zarif and Salehi.” With specific leaders open to a different kind of diplomatic relationship, representatives built personal relationships in private before revealing the possibility of negotiations.

Image via

As leadership in Iran and the United States met with leaders from Russia, China, the U.K., France and Germany, distrust surfaced repeatedly throughout the 20 months of negotiations. But those negotiations were built on decades of relationship building and off-record talks that laid a foundation strong enough for negotiations to at the very least continue. While negotiations revolved around issues of nuclear capability and security, negotiations only began due to foundations of personal relationships. In the absence of trust, begin with personal relationships, out of the spotlight. 

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To Be An Agitator

Posted by Andy Smith on August 30, 2015

Right now in America a broad movement exists calling for change. It cannot be defined by any single label. Independent, Common Sense, Moderate, Centrist, they have all been used to characterize aspects of something much larger. 

It is a movement driven by a deep disillusionment with politics. Its members are the crazy voters, the ones who view the low standards of leadership, the lack of government responsiveness, and the failure of Congress to do anything meaningful, and say "Enough is enough."

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Bridging the Divide

Posted by David Nevins on August 16, 2015

More Americans then ever are frustrated with the unbridled lack of civility, crippling partisanship and dysfunctional gridlock that is preventing our country from solving the serious problems we face on a daily basis.

After more than 225 years, the Constitution of the United States still prescribes the fundamental laws and basic freedoms of our country and continues to delineate the framework of our government. Despite its magnificence, however, the Constitution does not fully address the particulars in which the “We the People” are to utilize its marvelous blueprint for self-governance. Our Founding Fathers’ own words reflect the vision they shared for this country of many differences. They called ours, a government: “Of the people, by the people and for the people.” 

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Stepping Away From the Fight

Posted by Joan Blades on August 10, 2015

As a founder of I have seen partisan fight rage back and forth for better than 15 years. I don't see that either side is decisively winning in the near term. In fact I've concluded that we are losing too much. We are losing treasured relationships. We are losing goodwill toward our fellow citizen. We are losing our recognition that we are one country -- so many of us see red states and blue states rather than the United States.  

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Can you change the world from your living room?

Posted by Jacob Hess on July 23, 2015

Americans with different political views may yell at each other but they rarely talk or listen. It’s time to revitalize a different form of political conversation. This is the third article in our series on trans-partisan politics.

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How Radically To Uproot The Root Of Our Political Misery

Posted by Joan Blades on July 23, 2015

By Joan Blades and Ralph Benko

What's really at the root of America's political misery? We say: people just are not listening to each other. It's not merely at the level of elected officials. Elected officials are only the tip of the iceberg. And the iceberg is ... us. (The good news? We can transform... everything. And it's already happening.)

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Young People... Preparing to Vote or Not to Vote?

Posted by Serena Witherspoon on July 23, 2015

I am 18 years old -- an age where the world seems to have decided that I should no longer be coddled under the domain of childhood. I feel as if I'm suffering from 'growing pains' now more than ever; last year at this time I was worrying about finding a date for prom, and now all of a sudden I worry about rent, tuition and the lack of social justice in the world. Becoming an adult means that life is no longer simple. 18 means responsibility; 18 means the future is coming; 18 means I can vote. I am now entitled to aid my fellow citizens in choosing the leaders who will hopefully effect change in America, and further, the world. 


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Celebrating (and Mourning) Marriage's Evolution in America

Posted by Jacob Hess on July 15, 2015

In the days ahead, most of America will have its eye on the Supreme Court as they issue their ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges concerning whether states have the power to define marriage as male-female institution. 

A large segment of the nation would vigorously celebrate a decision to expand that definition to include same-sex couples as an advancement of civil rights, equality and justice. That same outcome (likely, but not certain) would be mourned by another large part of the country who see the expansion in marriage's meaning as a rejection of a Judeo-Christian teaching as a commonly accepted norm. 

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