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Iran, the West and the Proper Steps Towards a Final Agreement: Undoing 35 years of mistrust one gesture at a time

High-level talks between Iran and the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council including Germany (P5+1) over Tehran’s nuclear program are set to resume in Vienna.  This follows EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s recent visit to Iran.  Her visit signals the EU’s confidence in the ongoing negotiations but additional steps will be needed in order for a final agreement to be reached.

Ashton’s visit to Iran reflects the broader progress of the P5+1 in the negotiations since an interim deal was inked in November 2013.  Prior to the deal, Iran’s relations with the United States were largely dictated by institutionalized silence and symbolic gestures from both sides.  Two events from last year are indicative.  One was the multi-city US tour of the Cyrus Cylinder.  The other was last May’s “Rumble on the Rails” at New York’s Grand Central Station where the United States and Iran’s national wrestling teams played exhibition matches to stir support for keeping wresting on the Olympic roster.

But the interim agreement marked the first substantive breakthrough in over a decade of Iran and P5+1 negotiations by laying out a series of confidence building measures (CBMs) for both sides to accomplish.  As important as these substantive measures are in paving the way towards a final, comprehensive agreement, in order for them to succeed they must be complemented by developments outside the nuclear deal.

The reason is quite simple.  35 years of tumultuous relations between Iran and United States has bred a level of distrust of each other’s intentions that will not be undone even if all the CBMs of the interim agreement are met.  Yet the time to go all in for a final deal is now especially considering the potential consequences of a deal.

Developments outside the agreement will help buttress the ongoing negotiations while at the same time reflecting the ‘win-win’ intentions of both sides.  Examples of developments could include cultural and academic exchanges, granting Iran full membership to international organizations like the WTO and allowing Tehran a seat at the table at summits and conferences pertaining to developments in the Middle East.

A six-month interim deal will not wipe away decades of mistrust.  But when reinforced with additional goodwill gestures they will have the power to undo the distrust that has hindered the negotiations for over ten years.

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