Truman National Security Project

Iran Talks: Breaking the Mosaic of Mistrust

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By Christian Cooper | 10.18.13
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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 of 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.

Counting and disclosing every screw within a nuclear supply chain is akin to counting Syrian chemical weapons: it is nearly impossible and the one you miss is the one that causes the problem. Consider a spot inspection conducted by the IAEA, conceivably in as little as two hours under the complementary access provision of the AP, that finds a minor, but very real, undisclosed component within the supply chain. Perhaps accidental, perhaps intentional, perhaps just a minor mistake but a legitimate violation nonetheless.

Should that happen, there is a very specific course of action the IAEA has to take, but due process within the Security Council would be lost in the screaming headlines that would undoubtedly ricochet around the world demanding a firm response. The expansion of powers that makes the AP such an effective tool to uncover covert nuclear activity is the same thing that dooms it to failure in a world where each party is waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is why the tacit establishment of goodwill is so critical before we can expect to pop champagne in Geneva.

There are many ways the United States could demonstrate goodwill at very little cost in capital, actual or political. The obvious is a minor shift in the most recent economic sanctions that could be argued to have had a disproportionate impact on the population at large. Specific steps to relieve shortages in food and medicine sometimes created in the rush to comply with broad sanctions would be a good place to start. Literally anything would be an improvement.

The race to get all parties into agreement is understandable but is premature at best and potentially disastrous at worst. The headline risk of a violation of the Additional Protocol, even a very minor breach, in the current environment is simply too great. No one can afford to take a step back when everyone’s back is against the wall. The U.S. should take a leadership role by extending any measure of goodwill, no matter how small, to Iran by rolling back some minor element of economic sanctions in a clear signal that while the message received in 2003 may have been missed, it has not been lost.

We can dial back this threat and there is no better time to do that than now, but we must recognize that a first mistake of adopting the Additional Protocol prematurely without addressing the mosaic of mistrust will be the last.  We can’t take that chance; we simply don’t have that many chances left.

Christian Cooper is a Truman National Security Project Fellow. This article originally appear on The Diplomat.