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Ahead of nuclear deadline, Iran and US grope for trust

But trust isn't the only thing lacking as the latest round of Iran nuclear negotiations head into the home stretch.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, second left, Robert Malley, third left, of the US National Security Council, European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, fourth left, Head of Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi, second right, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, and others wait for a meeting on Friday, March 27, 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Iranian and US officials are in Switzerland to continue negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program.

Brendan Smialowski/AP

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Iran and six world powers may in coming days reach a framework agreement on the country's nuclear program. And if they do, the momentous breakthrough will come despite deep mistrust that still prevails years after negotiations were opened.

American and Iranian diplomats have certainly developed a personal rapport, and have consoled each other over the death of loved ones. Both sides also use and abuse the word “trust” when speaking about negotiations and accusing the other of nefarious intent.

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But is trust even necessary for the success of what could be the most important non-proliferation agreement since the end of the cold war?

"That’s what diplomacy is about, finding arrangements with people you don’t trust,” says John Limbert, a former senior US State Department official who was among  the US diplomats held hostage in Tehran for 444 days after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

“When opponents of a deal, the bomb-bomb-Iran-crowd, say, ‘We can’t trust  them,’ my response is, ‘So what?’” says Mr. Limbert. “You negotiate inspection mechanisms, and [if] you get to a point where both sides can say ‘yes’ to something  without the sky falling in, that’s a big change.”

Both sides have adhered to the terms of the November 2013 interim nuclear deal agreed in Geneva, which halted or rolled back the most sensitive aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for financial incentives.

On Thursday, President Hassan Rouhani wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, and phoned his counterparts in Britain, China, France, and Russia. He told Prime Minister David Cameron that, “we should not lose this exceptional opportunity.”

Dark signs

Yet the technical aspects of the deal are secondary to its strategic import, argues Limbert, author of the 2009 book Negotiating with Iran. “The issue is: After 36 years, can we talk to each other in a way that actually brings a result?”

Judging by some recent rhetoric, the answer may be no.

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Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for example, spoke a week ago of “our enemies...who are mostly American,” and once echoed the “Death to America!” chants of the crowd, when discussing the lead US role in exerting economic pressure on Iran. Mr. Khamenei said the US was “hypocritical and deceitful,” that Obama included “dishonest” statements in his Persian New Year (Nowruz) message, and that Iran wouldn’t accept “America’s imposition and bullying” in the talks.

Likewise, CIA Director John Brennan said this week the US would “continue to keep pressure on Iran” whether a deal was made or not.

Iranians have also felt the sting of a years-long covert effort to sabotage their nuclear program that has included assassinations of nuclear scientists (widely attributed to Israel), espionage, and cyber-attacks. One US official this week, when asked if that covert effort would stop if a deal is reached, replied “Probably not,” according to The New York Times.

And few Iranians forget that senior US negotiator Wendy Sherman told Congress in 2013 that she didn’t trust Iranian negotiators: “We know that deception is part of the DNA,” she said.

“A deal is going to deescalate tensions, but will not revolutionize Iran’s relations with the US,” says Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “At best, it can return the relationship to the previous norm of managed hostility that existed in early 2000s, with one significant difference: the two countries are likely to remain on speaking terms.”

Improvements?

Mr. Vaez says Washington has taken steps that will be appreciated in Tehran. “Unlike his first outreach to Iran in 2009 and on par with Nixon’s opening to China, in 2013 President Obama took concrete actions to signal his seriousness to the Iranian leadership,” says Vaez. “There is a reason that there have been no [recent] covert actions against Iranian nuclear scientists or sites. These operations are much harder for spoilers to conduct without prior assurances that the United States will look the other way.”

Foreign ministers from the so-called P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) plan to arrive in Lausanne on Saturday, before a March 31 “political framework” deadline that they're hoping will provide the basis for an actual agreement three months later.

The Iranians envision a five-sentence statement, and Khamenei wants a single deal, concluded by the end of June. US officials say they expect a more detailed document that locks in parameters, to sell the emerging deal to a skeptical Congress.

“Over the last 35 years, although we’ve hissed at each other most of the time, when it’s suited our interests we have agreed on things, like getting us out of Tehran,” says Limbert.

He points to US involvement in ending the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and Iranian involvement in releasing US hostages in Lebanon. Likewise, despite differences over Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, today US airstrikes are hitting Islamic State targets around Tikrit in Iraq, even as Iranian military commanders there direct Shiite militias and Iraqi troops on the ground.

“These are not based on trust, and they are certainly not based on liking each other,” notes Limbert. “If we and the Iranians could never agree to anything...I would still be [a hostage] in Tehran.”