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Will Confidence-Building Work with Iran?

Confidence-building is the bread-and-butter of diplomacy, or at least Western diplomacy. It has been at the heart of American proposals to advance the Middle East peace process, and it is front-and-center in U.S. proposals toward Iran in ongoing nuclear negotiations.

Seldom, however, do diplomats consider how the other side interprets confidence-building. Instead, diplomats simply project their own value system and cultural assumptions on their adversaries.

Fortunately, however, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and his aides have made clear exactly how they interpret confidence-building. I have elaborated in the current Foreign Military Studies OfficesOperational Environment Watch, a monthly publication which seeks to highlight from open sources current debates and events in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America that should be of strategic interest to the United States but which are not receiving attention in the Western press.

On October 17, Kayhan—a newspaper whose editor the supreme leader appoints and which therefore appears to conform with the supreme leader’s thinking—published a lengthy column examining the notion of confidence-building in diplomacy with the West:

Confidence building in international norms means consenting to movement within a mutually agreeable framework…. In fact, a person who says that he is building confidence is saying that he is moving toward a certain framework and rules that are acceptable to the other side. Hence, the new nuclear negotiation team of Iran is saying: In exchange for our movement toward building confidence, our rival, in other words, the West headed by the United States, must accept Iran’s right to enrichment. This, however, despite its chic appearance, is some sort of contradiction, because moving within the framework and rules accepted by them outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty means in fact for Iran to agree to give up its nuclear right. Why? Because, when our nuclear team speaks about the right of its country to enrichment in accordance with the standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the other side speaks of a superior legal rule and responds: This “indisputable right” has been taken away from you through the resolutions of the Security Council—including Resolution 1737—and your country has become an exception. In order to have those rights once again, you must act on your commitments and obligations in the resolutions and engage in negotiations with the IAEA after getting through the Security Council regarding this right…

So what is Iran to do? The article continues:

Our religious beliefs and experience and the imperialist nature of the domineering powers tell us that this confidence will never be gained unless, God forbid, our people become a dead people. The movement of Iran, however, on the course of power and strength, which requires confidence in the ability of the Iranian people, will certainly have results.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry may hope for conciliation, but the supreme leader sees any compromise as weakness. Only by pushing ahead and defying the West will Iran succeed, Khamenei believes. Obama and Kerry may think about diplomatic negotiations in the context of “How to Get to Yes” or something they learned in a university seminar room, but Khamenei sees the current talks as the diplomatic equivalent of an arm-wrestling match: Whoever is the strongest wins. Why, in such a context, Obama and Kerry seek to diminish the American negotiating position by easing sanctions is a question only they can answer but one which Congress should most certainly ask.


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