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

Posted by on September 09, 2015 at 2:19 PM

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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