Iranian Nuclear Negotiations: A Long Way from Trust

Posted on Tuesday 31st July 2012

by Nicholas J Wheeler and Dani Nedal

Can trust develop between nuclear rivals? If so, under what circumstances and what would this entail? These are some of the core questions that a research project funded under Research Councils UK’s Global Uncertainties Programme is attempting to answer. The realm of international politics is commonly described as one in which trust is rare and often dangerous, due to the high stakes involved if actors mistake potential partners for adversaries, or vice versa. In no instances are the stakes higher than between nuclear rivals. That said, the language of trust is frequently invoked in diplomacy. Moreover, and as some of the project case studies demonstrate, trusting relationships between rival countries can sometimes emerge and can open up new possibilities for co-operation.
Trust is hard to build and easy to destroy, and simply speaking about the need for greater trust is not enough. The case studies of relations between India and Pakistan, the US and the USSR, Brazil and Argentina and the West and Iran show that trust-building requires a sophisticated and reflexive approach to diplomacy. Such an approach should be characterised by recognition that others rarely see us as we see ourselves and a greater willingness and capacity to empathise with adversaries and accept risks in the pursuit of a better relationship.

The case of Iranian-Western relations and the crisis surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme offers an important example of the challenges trust-building involves. The language of mutual trust is currently being invoked by all parties in the negotiations, but neither side seems to have reflected sufficiently on the conditions that would allow it to develop. Trust is the key to success in the negotiations, and indeed to ending the three-decade-long enmity between the US and the Islamic Republic. But trust can only be built between adversaries if both accept that their own security does not require the insecurity of the other and, in fact, requires the pursuit of mutual security. The problem is that, in the self-help realm of international politics, states that seek security first and foremost often find themselves adopting policies that make other security-seeking states feel insecure. The latter, in turn, can respond by adopting policies that reinforce the former’s feeling of insecurity, and so on in a downward spiral – the classic security dilemma – that can lead to costly arms races and, occasionally, to war.

Fortunately, there are ways in which security-seeking states can escape such a tragic, vicious spiral, signal their benign motives and build up mutual trust. But for this to happen, rivals must at least be open to the possibility that the other side is acting out of fear and not of aggressive intent. Crucially, they must also appreciate how their own actions may have contributed to the other’s feelings of insecurity. But if one or both sides harbour malign motives, or are convinced that the other does, there is indeed little chance of a trusting relationship developing. Security-seekers need to be reassured; ‘greedy’ states[1] (that is, states with aggressive motives and intentions) may very well need to be contained, deterred and perhaps even defeated. But security-seekers are still able to reassure other security-seekers and signal their benign motives by behaving in ways that would be too costly for a greedy state. Security-seekers who send such signals of their benign motives can then look to an adversary to reciprocate in kind. This assumes that the state initiating the conciliatory move has assessed the motives and intentions of its rival accurately. There is always the possibility that it has mistaken a greedy state for a security-seeker. Moreover, a greedy state is likely to view any concession on the part of the latter as a sign of weakness to be exploited.

So, in the case of the West and Iran, are we seeing two parties behaving like security-seekers and attempting to achieve mutual security? Or are we witnessing a clash of irreconcilable interests, in which each side believes that it can only be secure if the other side is insecure?

Even a cursory glance at the recent talks between the P5+1 (the US, UK, Russia, China, France and Germany) and Iran reveals that, while they might be talking the talk, they are not walking the walk of reciprocal trust. Both sides, in the wake of long histories of betrayal, aggression and unpredictable behaviour, are convinced that the other is unreliable and untrustworthy. Western states view Iran’s support for international terrorism and its anti-Israeli posture as proof of its irreconcilably belligerent nature. They fear that if Iran were to build nuclear weapons, it would use them to intimidate Arab governments aligned with the West, to attack Israel and perhaps even to arm anti-Western terrorist groups.

Iran’s leaders, in turn, focus on the West’s long history of intervention in Iranian and regional politics, and specifically on the recent fates of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi. The former, despite having ‘failed’ to develop weapons of mass destruction, was still subject to Western interventionism, whilst the latter, despite having given up weapons and aligned himself to the West,[2] was still eventually deposed by these same Western governments. It is hardly surprising then that Iran appears to believe that it must seek a position of ‘nuclear latency’ – the capability to produce weapons-grade uranium in a short amount of time – if it is to avoid the same fate. If the West is bent on the destruction of the Islamic Republic, as key Iranian leaders – and crucially the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – seem to believe, then any settlement of the nuclear issue which does not provide for a certain degree of latency could be perceived as bringing with it an unacceptable level of vulnerability. Providing Iran’s leadership with concrete reassurance that such fear of Western motives and intentions is unjustified should therefore be key to the West’s current diplomatic efforts.

Talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Istanbul in April and Baghdad in May 2012 produced ambiguous results in this respect. On a positive note, the tone in Istanbul was noticeably different to before, with both sides emphasising the ‘constructive’ nature of the talks. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Baroness Catherine Ashton, representing the P5+1, even remarked upon the agreed commitment to move forward on the basis of reciprocity, through engaging in confidence building and addressing the mutual ‘trust gap’.

Commentary before, during and after these negotiations suggested that the Obama administration had mapped out a potential deal aimed at bridging this trust gap.[3] This involved Iran suspending its production of 20 per cent uranium and transferring its existing stockpiles to France and Russia for conversion into fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, in exchange for which the West would offer recognition (at an unspecified date) of Iran’s right to enrich to lower levels. The deal also raised the possibility of avoiding new sanctions, but crucially not the US financial sanctions or the EU oil embargo which came into effect on 28 June and 1 July 2012 respectively. A key Iranian goal in the negotiations has focused on achieving a measure of sanctions relief, but there has been no willingness on the part of Western governments to accommodate such demands. Moreover, recent reports indicate that the US reneged on its offer to recognise Iran’s right to enrichment in the second round of talks in Baghdad.[4]

The problem lies in the fact that both sides continue to dismiss each other’s concerns as propaganda aimed solely at improving their respective bargaining positions. Each side operates with what has been described as a ‘peaceful/defensive self-image’[5] and assumes that its benign motives and intent are transparently obvious to the other side. Consequently, each side attributes malevolent motives to what it perceives as the other’s hostile actions, leading each to expect the other to take the first step in de-escalating the situation. Such a situation was reported after the Baghdad talks by a Western diplomat: ‘we have to regain trust, but they have to take the first step’.[6] The end result of this approach to negotiation is stalemate, and is hardly conducive to the development of a trusting relationship.

Western governments seem to have committed themselves to a strategy of ‘sticks and carrots’, with a twist. They hit Iran with sticks, in the form of sanctions and covert attacks against Iran’s nuclear programme (reportedly including targeted assassinations[7] and cyber-strikes[8]), and threaten to increase the size of the sticks, through harsher sanctions and even the use of force. This then leads to a belief that Iran is negotiating only as a result of these growing sanctions. If Iran yields, it receives the promise of carrots and the privilege of not being beaten with bigger sticks. The aim here is not to build trust, but to beat Iran into submission. President Obama’s former Middle East Advisor Dennis Ross[9] and British Foreign Secretary William Hague[10] claim that this strategy is working because it has succeeded in getting Iran to the negotiating table. They view Iran’s willingness to negotiate as a result of this pressure rather than as indicative of an honest desire to achieve a peaceful solution to the crisis, and refuse to entertain the possibility that Iran is showing flexibility on its nuclear programme not because of repeated threats, but in spite of them.

The subsequent round of talks held in Moscow in June again ended in deadlock. Neither side was prepared to make the kind of conciliatory move that would be necessary to unwind the spiral of confrontation. A potential deal was on the table:[11] sanctions relief – including a crucial postponement of the EU oil embargo, which greatly concerns Tehran – in return for the freezing of 20 per cent enrichment at Fordo and the conversion of the existing 20 per cent stockpile into fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor. The flaw at the heart of Western policy, however, has been its failure to recognise the extent to which its use of threats as a means of leveraging concessions from Iran has served to increase Iranian mistrust. This, in turn, has strengthened the hand of those members of the Iranian leadership who argue that the only means of safeguarding the country’s security lies in the maintenance of a latent nuclear weapons capability. This might stop short of weaponisation, either, as some have argued,[12] for ideological or religious reasons, or, crucially, because Iranian leaders recognise that crossing this line would bring on military attacks from the combined forces of the United States and its allies. But what is clear is that no agreement will be reached if the West does not recognise Iran’s right, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to operate an indigenous nuclear fuel-cycle.

Western governments will have to learn to live with Iranian nuclear latency. But latency comes in different forms. Iran has said that it is open to accepting higher levels of transparency through the IAEA Additional Protocol, and is prepared to take other steps to communicate its peaceful nuclear intentions. These safeguards offer the best protection against Iran developing the bomb because they significantly raise the political cost of any decision by Iran to break out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and increase the likelihood of a timely warning of any such transgression. Perhaps acknowledging this reality is too much for the Obama administration in an election year. But it is only through this type of reciprocity, based on an appreciation of the need for each side to do more to understand how its own actions have contributed to the fear and insecurity of its adversary, that the seeds of trust will grow. The urgent challenge is to persuade key decision-makers in both Iran and the West that this is the only sustainable path to mutual security.

Nicholas J Wheeler
Professor of International Relations
Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security
University of Birmingham

Dani Nedal
Research Fellow
Department of Political Science and International Studies and the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security University of Birmingham


This article was originally published in RUSI Newsbrief Vol. 32, No. 4, 2012), at where a full set of references can be found. 



[1] Charles L Glaser, Rational Theory of International Politics: The Logic of Competition and Cooperation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[2] James Risen, ‘Seeking Nuclear Insight in Fog of the Ayatollah’s Utterances’, New York Times, 13 April, 2012.

[3] David Ignatius, ‘The Stage is Set For a Deal with Iran’, New York Times, 18 April 2012.

[4] Mark Landler and Ellen Barry, ‘In Moscow, Iran to Face Critical Choice in the Latest Round of Nuclear Talks’, New York Times, 16 June 2012.

[5] Nicholas J Wheeler, ‘“To Put Oneself into the Other Fellow’s Place”: John Herz, the Security Dilemma and the Nuclear Age’, International Relations (Vol. 22, No. 4, December 2008), pp. 493–509.

[6] Cited in Laura Rozen, ‘Iran Nuclear Talks in Baghdad Almost Foundered in Final Hours’, Al-Monitor, 26 May 2012.

[7] PBS Perspectives, ‘An Iranian Scientist’s Assassination’, 18 January 2012.

[8] David Sanger, ‘Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran’, New York Times, 1 June 2012.

[9] Dennis Ross, ‘Iran Is Ready to Talk’, New York Times, 14 February 2012.

[10] James Reynolds, Interview with William Hague for the BBC, 16 April 2012, available at <>, accessed 11 July 2012.

[11] Kelsey Davenport and Greg Thielmann, ‘Ex-Iranian Envoy Mousavian Suggests Zero Stockpile of 20% Uranium’, Arms Control Now, 6 June 2012.

[12] Juan Cole, ‘Yes, MEMRI, There Is a Fatwa from Khamenei Forbidding Nukes’, Informed Comment, 22 April 2012.