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At Iran nuclear talks, put trust on the table

Talks resume Wednesday over the Iranian nuclear program, with the US and Iran still highly mistrustful of the other. Even if a pact is signed, implementing it will require some degree of trust. Better to start with some trust now.

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    US Secretary of State John Kerry, third left, meets with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, center, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, third right, at the Iran nuclear talks in Geneva Nov. 7.
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Talks between Iran and the West resume Wednesday with the hope that a deal will avert war over the Iranian nuclear program. That hope, however, will rest on more than mere words in a possible agreement.

Both sides are so mistrustful of each other that they are demanding quick and verifiable actions soon after the ink is dry.

“I don’t trust the people who sit across the table from me in these negotiations,” says Wendy Sherman, the diplomat leading the American delegation at the talks in Geneva. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei expresses similar cynical doubts about the United States.

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With such strong suspicions – built up over 34 years of icy nonrelations between Iran and the US – it is difficult to see how either side would concede an inch in the talks. The level of mistrust is even being measured by outsiders. The National Journal ran a poll of 100 American foreign-policy experts to find out if they think Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is being “genuine” in claiming he has sufficient approval by the supreme leader to negotiate on the country’s nuclear program. (Most did.)

“There is so much mistrust that we bring to these negotiations after generations of suspicion,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told CBS News on Sunday. “And that cuts both ways.”

Any negotiation requires a degree of trust. To balance their competing interests, each party must first come to understand each other’s core interests and then weigh them against their own. Only an honest and open discussion can start that process.

And despite their demands for deeds over words, Iran and the US will eventually need to rely on a level of mutual trust to implement what is bound to be a very complex agreement.

During the first formal round of talks earlier this month, the West made an offer that it hoped Iran could easily accept. Instead, Iran balked – but not enough to walk away for good. The deal calls for Iran to freeze much of its nuclear program in exchange for the West suspending some sanctions. This would begin to establish trust and buy time for a grander deal.

Yet the proposed steps require a sequencing of mutual concessions with the likelihood that each side must accept the other’s commitments.

Diplomacy rests on each side doing what it says its will do. Trust is the necessary lubricant of cooperation. It helps cool the passions. It allows each side to get to know the other enough to avoid a dangerous miscalculation. Most of all, it allows each side to incorporate the other’s interests in a deal.

The old Reagan axiom of “trust but verify” begins with trust. Rather than start these latest round of talks with a lack of trust, the US and Iran need to put a little of it on the table. Can the West agree to lift some sanctions before Iran completes all the West demands? Will Iran agree now to allow international inspection of its military site south of Tehran, called Parchin, to end suspicions that it is making nuclear weapons?

Such steps will take some bravery. But as Winston Churchill said: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

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