Heather WilliamsFormer Chatham House Expert
In the midst of any disappointment at a failure to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, a lesson from US-Soviet negotiations should be remembered: trust takes time.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and former EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as a part of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program in Vienna on 22 November 2014. Photo by Getty Images.US Secretary of State John Kerry and former EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as a part of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program in Vienna on 22 November 2014. Photo by Getty Images.

US−Soviet negotiations 25 years ago at Reykjavik are often cited as a turning point in the nuclear standoff between the two superpowers, which heralded a new spirit of dialogue and trust-building. At the time, however, Reykjavik was widely perceived as a failure because it did not result in a final agreement. The lesson of Reykjavik should be kept in mind when considering the failure of Iran and the P5+1 to reach a comprehensive final agreement on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

The goal of these ongoing talks is to ensure Iran is in full compliance with its international obligations when exercising its right to enrich uranium for purely peaceful purposes. A nuclear-armed Iran or breakout-capable Iran would present a threat to the region and the international community. One year ago, Iran and the P5+1 concluded a Joint Plan of Action, originally intended to be six months in duration, which required Iran dilute its stocks of 20% enriched uranium, limit enrichment to 5% and allow for enhanced monitoring of its nuclear facilities, in exchange for sanctions relief. The agreement was extended for an additional six months due to failure to reach conclusive agreement on any of the major negotiating issues, such as the number of centrifuges Iran would be allowed to keep, the duration of an agreement and sanctions relief. Yesterday’s deadline for a final agreement resulted in an extension to 1 March for a political agreement and 1 July for a fully detailed agreement. In the meantime, the terms of the original Joint Plan of Action remain in place. While this means there is no final deal on the table, it at least means the sides will continue talking.

To be sure, there are risks to an extension, particularly with regard to domestic politics undermining the process. A new Congress will take over in Washington in January and numerous bills are already under discussion for further sanctions against Iran. While President Obama has the power to unilaterally lift existing sanctions in the event of an agreement, a move by Congress to enact new sanctions could undermine talks and send mixed messages to Tehran. Hardliners are similarly poised to poison the waters in Tehran. In addition, Iran could simply be buying time to further develop a covert nuclear programme.

The additional extension raises the question of how much longer these talks will go on, and whether this extension will be followed by another. Less than a week ago, US Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed the idea of an extension, and he stated previously that an extension would only be considered if the two sides were extremely close to a deal. In yesterday’s announcement, Kerry said, ‘We are certainly not going to sit at the negotiating table forever. But given how far we have come over the past year, particularly in the past few days, this is certainly not the time to get up and walk away’. This suggests significant progress has indeed been made and should not be abandoned due to artificial time constraints. It appears unlikely that talks can go on beyond July in their current format, however, given domestic political changes and pressures in both countries.

The coming months should be used as an opportunity to build trust between the P5+1 and Iran, but also, perhaps more importantly, to build support in those seven respective capitals for an agreement. This is what both Reagan and Gorbachev did after Reykjavik, which contributed to the conclusion of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987 and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991. Iran has participated in nuclear negotiations for over a decade now, but that may be an insufficient amount of time for the requisite trust to develop. Negotiations are also an opportunity for personal relationships to develop, along with improved understanding of both sides’ national interests and domestic constraints.

There will likely always be distrust between Iran and many of its current negotiating partners and a nuclear agreement is not a panacea for this deeper distrust, just as it was not a panacea for tensions in US−Soviet relations. Indeed, many of Reagan’s closest advisors spoke out against arms control with the Soviets, arguing Gorbachev was a Soviet hardliner with a ‘new paint job’. The Soviets would undoubtedly violate any agreement at the first chance, it was argued, and were using the talks to buy time. These arguments should sound familiar to contemporary Iran-watchers. But continuing to work towards a comprehensive final agreement is worthwhile now for many of the same reasons it was worthwhile to persevere after Reykjavik.

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