Beyond Nukes: Building Trust Between Iran and the World


December 13, 2010

Last week’s talks in Geneva between the Iranian government and the P5+1 group produced little more than an agreement to meet in Istanbul next month.

The negotiations between Iran and P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) is pacing this slowly because Iran’s nuclear program is not the real problem; at least, it is not the biggest problem between Iran and the rest of the world.

The Iranian nuclear program is not the problem, because, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated last week, her country recognizes Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy. The Iranians, for their part, have explained repeatedly that their nuclear program has peaceful purposes only. But that is not easing the international community’s concerns that Iran may be producing something other than electricity.

The Iranian nuclear standoff cannot be resolved without understanding this plain and simple fact: the mutual distrust between Iran and the outside world – especially the United States – is the major cause of the deadlock.

Problems between Iran and the rest include (but are not limited to): Iranian support for HAMAS and Hezbollah; U.S. support for MKO and PJAK (groups designated by the State Department as “terrorist organizations”); Iran’s harsh rhetoric against Israel and the United States; U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan; U.S. influence over the Persian Gulf monarchies; and the recent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran.

There’s a fairly long history to the lack of trust: Iranians have not forgotten the joint British-Russian occupation of their country in the two world wars. The CIA and MI6-sponsored coup against Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953 is remembered more vividly. Iranians also recall the dictatorial rule of the Shah and believe – mistakenly – that his reign lasted until the Revolution in 1979 only because the West supported him.

Of course, Americans and other foreigners have their share of bad memories. The storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and the traumatic captivity of American diplomats at the hands of militant Iranian students for 444 days has not receded into memory.

For their part, Iranians believe, with some justification, that the United States had encouraged Saddam Hussein to start the Iran-Iraq War in September 1980 to punish Tehran for the hostage crisis. Add to that how Western countries had lavished the Iraqi dictator with advanced weaponry during the 8-year war and you get a better sense of Iranian worries.

So what can be done about the deep distrust between Iran and the world? For a start, the U.S. should stop discussing military action against Iran as if it is inevitable. Even uttering the phrase “all options are on the table” is against the logic of talking. It would only convince the Iranian leadership that speedy development of nuclear weapons – the outcome that the nuclear talks are supposed to avert – is the only way to defend themselves. In order to build trust, Western governments – especially the Obama administration – should use a softer tone.

Western countries should also understand that, despite its oil riches, Iran is not a rich country (which may be a more subtle cause for its sense of insecurity). Even before the latest round of punitive sanctions, the Iranian economy had a performance problem. Official inflation and unemployment rates are said to be 10% and 14.6% respectively but the actual figures are probably higher. Furthermore, more than a quarter of Iran’s population is below the age of 15. Iran can only provide jobs for its growing population if it can attract more foreign investment and increase its non-oil trade with the rest of the world, which can only happen if joins the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Thus, aside from using a softer tone, the United States and other Western countries should convince Iran that, if the nuclear talks produce positive and tangible results, they will hasten Iran’s application to become a WTO member.

In order to build trust, the Iranians have an important duty as well. The revelation of undeclared Iranian nuclear facilities – a uranium enrichment plant in Natanz in 2003 and another one at a military base near Qom in 2009 – have cast significant doubts in diplomatic circles over Iran’s true intentions.

To put an end to that problem, Tehran should offer to submit the list of all of its nuclear facilities (finished and unfinished) to the P5+1 group in order to demonstrate its sincerity. A mission by the United Nations can verify that no additional nuclear sites exist in Iran, which would help to develop confidence between the two sides.

With a modicum of trust, the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 group can yield better results and serve as a stepping stone for Iran’s integration with the international community.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğ

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