Trust and the Table: A Series on the Iran Deal. Part 3: What Happens Now?

Posted by on September 09, 2015 at 2:55 PM
Image via The Wall Street Journal
Image via The Wall Street Journal

The Aftermath of Negotiations: What Happens Now?

This is part three of a three-part series on the role of trust in the Iranian negotiations. To read about getting to the table and negotiating with the enemy, read parts one and two here.

The first two parts of this series established relationships as the cornerstone to building trust in negotiations. In the absence of trust, policymakers built informal relationships for twenty years before formalizing diplomatic relationships. Even after returning to diplomatic functions, representatives met in private to build a foundation in personal relationships before taking the risk of making negotiations public.

And when negotiations began, building relationships took priority for Kerry and his team. As a result, mistrust certainly remains among the involved international powers (P5+1) and Iran, but relationships became resilient enough to withstand that mistrust and fundamental disagreements, paving the way to a joint action plan. The release of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was not, however, the end of the negotiation process.

As the world approaches the stages of approval and implementation, relationships remain integral to continuing diplomatic relationships. Each state must approve the agreement, and the United States remains the most tenuous proponent of the Plan.

They came to an agreement – so what does that mean for US approval?

While the ultimate success of the Joint Plan of Action in preventing Iran’s procurement of nuclear weapons is important, it is not the only issue at stake in the agreement. No one expects that this agreement will satiate all of America’s concerns, in particular the “profound concern about human rights violations committed by the Iranian government or about the instability Iran fuels beyond its nuclear program, from its support for terrorist proxies to repeated threats against Israel to its other destabilizing activities in the region.”

Indeed, the Washington Post reported, “In the short term, the Iran deal could well lead to more rather than less confrontation across the region, as leaders on all sides seek to prove to their domestic and regional constituencies that they have not capitulated. Both the Iranians and the United States may well seek to escalate in Syria or Yemen in order to prove that they remain committed to maintaining their image and pursuing what’s in its interest.”

So, the deal with Iran is not perfect, and in many ways, it reflects the lingering hostility among the states that negotiated the plan. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “It would be surprising if the U.S. negotiators themselves wouldn’t want a slightly different agreement, but they must have concluded that this agreement represented the maximum they could get not only from the Iranians, but also the Russians, Chinese, and others in the negotiations.”

But where this agreement does not ensure universal satisfaction or guarantee stability, it does accomplish a critical purpose of international agreements. Beyond its singular merits or weaknesses, it opens the door for further cooperation and diplomacy around issues of vital importance to all parties moving forward. And it presents opportunities to build trust internationally, in areas where trust hasn’t existed for decades. Ambassador Zarif has said that this agreement “provides a solid foundation for further and more effective diplomatic interaction." He sees hope that the agreement will usher in "a new chapter" in the country's relations with the United Nations and the six states of the negotiations.

Ambassador Zarif’s words echo a comment from a recent book tour by Senator George Mitchell. In responding to a question about the lasting impact of the Good Friday Accords he orchestrated in Northern Ireland, Senator Mitchell spoke to the power of peace agreements on the international stage. “The Good Friday Agreement does not mean there will be peace or reconciliation,” he said. “It means that they are possible.”

As for the possibility of improvements or adjustments, the time has passed – a better deal is not an option at this time, and “advocating for improvements on the agreement that already has been made is moot point.” Now, Congress must debate the merits of an agreement and decide to support it or not. And it must do so within 60 days of the United Nations vote.

How Congress Negotiates

In the approval process, Congress now has a responsibility to weigh the opportunities against the risks, taking into account our vital interests in the world while acknowledging limits to American power. Just as in the negotiations themselves, the debate surrounding the agreement will be contentious and risky. Divergent perspectives on issues of threat, security, and America’s identity in the world will take center stage, and require resiliency among members of Congress to remain present in such difficult conversations. But where the Iranian negotiations built on a foundation of relationships, personal relationships within Congress have been falling since 1995.

In 1995, Congressional leadership changed the legislative calendar to encourage members of Congress not to live in Washington, D.C., and instead fly into the District for two to three days per week. Where members of Congress used to move to Washington after election, enroll their children in the same schools, and socialize after working hours, they began to only interact in the context of political positioning. At the same time, leadership eliminated the seniority system for committee leadership, instead awarding leadership based on commitment to party ideals. Essentially, at the same time that leadership began discouraging friendship across the political aisle, they began rewarding political intransigence. Both led to a void of trust and relationships, discouraging constructive conversation across party lines.

As such, the conversation witnessed by the American public is vitriolic and caustic – unproductive, uncompromising, and sometimes even personal. In speaking about the deal and its negotiators, Republican Committee Chairman Bob Corker suggested, “I believe you've been fleeced.” Republican Senator James Risch declared, “You guys have been bamboozled.” Senator Lindsey Graham called President Obama the “Neville Chamberlain of our time.” And in a show of bipartisan mistrust, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez questioned whether the language in the deal is tough enough. Democratic leader Chuck Schumer openly opposes the deal.

In response to his opposition, Secretary Kerry bemoaned: “We've got 535 secretaries of state.” To an outside observer, it would seem there is no interest in understanding the other side, their motivations and their interests. There is no resiliency to support Congressmen and women to remain at the table after hearing things with which they vehemently disagree.

In this process, the glaring difference between what was accomplished with Iran and the current struggle within Congress now reveal glaring contrast. Members of Congress have a responsibility to ensure that any international agreement accurately protects core American interests, but they also have a responsibility to negotiate with their fellow members, and with the country’s international representatives. And that’s where the lack of personal relationship building is most starkly evident. Regardless of Congress’ ultimate decision regarding the plan, it has revealed a glaring and persistent weakness in the American Congressional system: without relationships in place, constructive conversation around different perspectives will continue to fall apart.


Negotiation – whether within our own communities or on the international political stage – takes place within the context of the relationships and trust among the people involved. In the case of Iran’s nuclear program, negotiations required almost 20 years of groundwork to build relationships amidst glaring mistrust. Once negotiations began, policymakers made relationships a priority, culminating in shared meals across divides.

Mistrust still pervades every aspect of this plan, but the relationships formed by diplomats created a resiliency that allowed negotiations to continue in the most difficult moments. The most important aspect of this agreement, then, is what it represents. This agreement does not symbolize healed relationships and reinstated trust. It simply sets the groundwork to see if peace and reconciliation are possible. An agreement is the first step, rather than the final one. There is still a long way to go.

Perhaps, ironically, negotiating with one of our most historic global enemies could teach our own government about negotiating across divides. With more resilient and intentional relationships, perhaps Congressmen and women could debate and govern with an eye to further cooperation and collaboration, rather than digging in their heels at the first sign of disagreement. So as Congress debates the merits of this agreement, they could take a page from the P5+1 and begin their debates by sharing a meal. I would be hesitant to recommend wrestling, though.

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