Exploring the role of trust in Iranian nuclear diplomacy

Matthew Moran (KCL) and Christopher Hobbs (KCL)




This paper will explore the question of trust in the context of Iran’s recent negotiations with the P5+1. Three rounds of talks in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow failed to make substantive progress towards resolving the nuclear crisis. The reasons for this seem clear: Iran was unwilling to make concessions on the controversial issue of uranium enrichment without some relief from the sanctions that are crippling Iranian society. However Iran’s diplomatic manoeuvring over the past decade - agreeing to talks but then pulling out, or reneging on any negotiated solutions, and often proposing alternative or revised approaches instead - has eroded the ability of the international community to place trust in Tehran. In this context, lifting, or even freezing sanctions was never really considered by the P5+1. For Western powers in particular it is for Iran to make the first moves towards resolving the nuclear crisis.

Viewed in this light, it would appear that the diplomatic route is close to exhaustion. However the situation is more complex than it may first appear. This paper will show how Tehran has, through linking the national nuclear programme with Iranian nationalism and using this link as a source of legitimacy and support for the regime, constructed a powerful narrative that promotes defiance on the nuclear issue. This narrative helps explain the Iranian insistence on advancing its nuclear capabilities in the face of widespread international opposition. More importantly, this process has created a context where compromise or perceived capitulation to international powers is difficult to reconcile with the combatitive narrative that the regime has constructed. The paper will argue that for the diplomatic route to have any chance of success, the international community must be willing to engage in a trust paradox of sorts. That is to say, despite having little trust in Iran, the P5+1 must place trust in Tehran’s proclaimed desire to resolve the crisis. Demands made of Iran must be matched by concessions perceived to be of near equal value. In this way, Iranian negotiators will be able to present concessions as a win at home and fit any retreat on the nuclear programme within the parameters of the nuclear narrative.

Dr. Matthew Moran

Dr Matthew Moran is a Research Associate at the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS) within the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Currently funded by a MacArthur Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, his research interests include nationalism, identity and nuclear non-proliferation.

Dr Christopher Hobbs

Dr Christopher Hobbs is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS) within the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. A physicist by training he is currently funded by a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship to carry out research on nuclear security issues. He has published articles on technical aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme, the threat posed by nuclear terrorism and the work of the Department of Safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency.