In Vienna, U.S. and Iran Shave Down the Mistrust

Feb 24, 2014 | Updated Apr 26, 2014

After chatting with Iranian and American officials about their negotiations here in Vienna, I was reminded of Winston Churchill's words: "To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day." The truth of Churchill's observation will reverberate within the halls of decision-making throughout Washington and Tehran for at least five more months.

In what officials described as engaged and substantive discussions, Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) agreed on a timetable and framework for building a comprehensive deal to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program. Groups of experts will meet in early March to discuss various technical details, and the full delegations will meet again on March 17 in Vienna. This process will be repeated monthly through July, when they hope to sign on the dotted line.

Unlike the fast-paced, edge-of-your seat diplomacy that secured an interim deal in Geneva, slow and steady will win the race to a final deal in Vienna. With a Gordian knot of technical problems and political differences to cut through, both sides are ready for the long haul. The stream of tweets about details of the negotiations may have receded, but we learned valuable lessons about the road ahead. Three in particular stand out.

1) Finally Playing the Long Game

Precisely because the thoughtless acts of hardliners seek to destroy diplomacy, it should now be clear that the first round of talks in Vienna was about managing expectations and making sure people understand this is just the beginning. Both sides have six months to make these negotiations succeed, so nobody should expect any miracles yet. Instead, policymakers and pundits should place a premium on patience and a more long-term view.

35 years of enmity will not be undone over the course of a few meetings. A generation of officials in the U.S. and Iran has made their careers by proving how nasty they can be to the other side. It is very easy to slip back into old patters if attempts to break the deadlock do not fulfill the expectation of immediate results.

While it is essential for diplomacy to yield tangible deliverables, the more important question is: What is our goal? If it is to secure a final nuclear deal that can win the peace and deeply change the U.S.-Iran relationship, prioritizing smaller steps over the duration of the next few months will be critical. Top officials from both sides are finally playing the long game, highlighting the long-term benefits of engagement, and making the political investments necessary to give negotiations a chance to succeed.

2) Emphasizing Process

Over the next five rounds, both sides will seek a compromise that leaves everyone with something -- but not everything. Establishing a real process allows Washington and Tehran to methodically shave down decades of mistrust. For the first time, they have a road map to a strategic endgame. Making the details public is not necessary right away. To deal with the various issues at hand and avoid derailing the process, they have essentially created a matrix of "now," "soon," and "later." Seasoned diplomats must be smiling, because this is the old fashioned diplomacy we used to do.

The negotiations taking place in Vienna are based on reciprocity, which in turn will depend on how they set up the working groups covering technical issues. So far, it appears that both sides have made the wise decision to keep the process secret. Different officials will likely discuss different issues, but the important point is that both sides will decide together how to match compromises and their respective order.

3) Take Red Lines with a Grain of Salt

Red lines are set at the beginning of any negotiation. That is to be expected, and Iran and the P5+1 did not disappoint: they both ostensibly drew red lines as the Vienna talks commenced. But they also know that red lines become flexible lines once the negotiations start. They have to -- or there is nothing to negotiate over.

Iran does not believe that it is negotiating from a position of weakness, and neither does the U.S. Both are expecting a lot from the other side -- and also expecting that they should not give up very much. That is the difficult part of this negotiation process, and it is likely going to take the full six months in Vienna to realize that they are neither as strong as they think, nor as weak as the other side thinks.

We can see this idea starting to crystallize because the mentality of the negotiators on both sides has changed. Rather than exchanging ultimatums, they are now trying new ideas. And when one idea does not work, they are trying something else. That is how diplomacy works -- and that is why it takes time.

It is fair to say that this is a very difficult process, and it is fair for one to be skeptical -- but it is unfair to stop the sentence there. To finish the sentence, one must say that everything that has happened up to this point has been unprecedented. We should use that momentum going forward to tackle the tough challenges ahead -- and we should believe that this process can succeed. Otherwise, what's the point?