Trust and the Table: Negotiating with the Devil
This is the second part of a three-part series on the role of trust in the Iranian negotiations. To read about getting to the table in the absence of trust, read the first part here. To read the final installment about what happens next, read the third part here.
Negotiating Without Trust
To catch you up, zoom in on 2012: the U.S. and Iran meet amidst mutual suspicion, despite 35 years of diplomatic silence. From there, negotiators met in secret for two years around the Iranian nuclear program and international security. But even after meetings turned public, they hesitated to build personal bonds with their counterparts. Diplomats ate meals separately…for 20 months. “At a certain point, it just started to feel strange that they had never actually shared a meal together,” an aide for the U.S. team said.
After a near collapse of the negotiations and several missed deadlines, on July 4, 2015, Iran’s chief negotiator and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif invited U.S. Secretary of State and chief negotiator John Kerry and his team to lunch in the Iranian dining room for Persian food. Kerry and Zarif commiserated about the pressures of the negotiation at home. The invitation did not go unnoticed, in many senses. The food was “ten times better than the food we ate on our side of the house,” according to a Kerry aide.
The very next day, tensions increased and shouting could be heard down the hall…but both sides remained at the table. Two weeks and undoubtedly many shouting matches later, Iran and six major world powers declared: “With courage, political will, mutual respect, and leadership, we delivered on what the world was hoping for: a shared commitment to peace and to join hands in order to make our world safer.”
That pivotal lunch almost certainly did not decide the fate of 20 months of negotiations, but it did reveal the power of building relationships as an essential component of negotiations. Negotiators discussing these issues remain firmly entrenched in opposite sides of other conflicts and disagreements around the world, from Ukraine to Asia and Syria. There was deep mistrust. According to Kerry’s aide, talks were “brutal, just brutal.” In the midst of mistrust at the table, each diplomat represented his or her country’s interests at the table, responsible to citizens in his or her home country. It seems safe to assume that negotiations were heated at points, and the talks threatened on more than one occasion.
What held the talks together, though, was a simple but powerful concept: personal relationships. “Kerry’s whole approach to diplomacy writ large is premised on the belief that personal relationships matter, because they enable you to get things done, even in very difficult situations,” an aide said. “It was Kerry’s belief that this was going to be a relationship that would really matter.” Most importantly, Kerry found a partner in Zarif who acted on the same principles.
After 20 months of negotiations, that lunch on July 4th revealed, for American diplomats, “these relationships had really developed over time.” These relationships did not make negotiations easier or ensure success. They did, however, build resiliency in the difficult moments. In arguably the most contentious aspect of negotiations, negotiations almost broke down again, this time over non-nuclear weapons. Ultimately, the U.S. agreed to lift restrictions on conventional arms in five years and ballistic missile technology in eight, assuming full compliance with the terms of the agreement.
While recognizing the international importance of a UN vote prior to a US Congressional vote, Kerry also convinced the United Nations to hold the implementation for 90 days, allowing for the 60-day review period in Congress to review and vote on ratification of the deal. Negotiators also compromised on a 24-day notice for inspection of Iranian facilities stripped of almost all capability to make a weapon and end U.N. and international sanctions.
Ultimately, no country achieved its perfect deal, but all countries deemed the terms acceptable. There is no precedent of Iranian cooperation with the terms of an international agreement, but international diplomats signed the agreement with cautious optimism. Regardless of your opinion on the merits of each individual negotiation, this unique period in history speaks to the fact that building relationships takes time – even in heated debates over deeply held beliefs and values, sometimes you just need to sit down and eat a meal together - even when mistrust remains pervasive.
A State Department official remarked of the negotiations: “It’s such a complex set of relationships…We know each other. All of the mistrust that has been there for these decades remains. It’s not gone. It’s incredibly present all the time. But it fights against the fact that we’ve spent two years getting to know each other.”