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U.S. And Iran Tread Potholed Path From Rivalry To Negotiation


The U.S. and other major powers will hold talks with Iran later this month. The goal is turn an interim deal, limiting that nation's nuclear program, into a more lasting agreement. President Obama has asked that Congress give diplomats some room to maneuver and not pass any new sanctions bill. That he says could derail the entire process.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, this threat of sanctions is just one symptom of a deeper problem that makes these negotiations hard for both sides.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: There's an overwhelming assumption among U.S. lawmakers and policymakers that Iran can't be trusted, and it's not only hardliners making that case.

WENDY SHERMAN: We know that deception is part of the DNA.

KELEMEN: That was the Obama administration's lead negotiator, Wendy Sherman, just a few months ago. Last week, President Obama says he understands it's impossible to wish away years of mistrust. But he says these talks are not based on trust.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

KELEMEN: Retired diplomat, John Limbert, who teaches at the Naval Academy, says it doesn't help that the U.S. and Iran have been shouting at each other ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

JOHN LIMBERT: You begin to make assumptions about the other side and you make assumptions about what they will do, about their nature. They become the embodiment of evil. They become untrustworthy, they become irrational. And it works both ways. I mean, we become hegemonic, bullying, arrogant. Once you have that preconception in your mind, it's very tough to break.

KELEMEN: Limbert, once the hostage of the Iranian regime, says it's worth trying.

LIMBERT: If you say, well, we don't trust them, therefore we can never reach an agreement with them; if you take that approach, the logical extension of that is that I and 51 of my colleagues would still be in Tehran.

KELEMEN: John Limbert and his colleagues were freed only after the U.S. and Iran signed the Algiers Accord in 1981. That deal also set up a claims tribunal in the Hague that's still at work. As John Bellinger, a former State Department legal advisor describes it, the tribunal has been one of the rare places where U.S. and Iranian officials have dealt with each other rather successfully.

JOHN BELLINGER: It has not been without contention and disputes and disagreement, but it has, in a workmanlike manner over 33 years, worked through thousands of claims and billions of dollars in awards, but it was primarily useful to resolve claims when the two countries were not talking to each other.

KELEMEN: Now that the U.S. and Iran are talking to each other, he thinks they should wrap up the tribunal's work and resolve the outstanding disputes diplomatically. They're mainly Iranian claims against the U.S. government for unfulfilled military deals dating back to the Shah's rule.

BELLINGER: Billions of dollars in claims. Of course, the United States disputes that Iran is owed that money, but that is what Iran has claimed. The cases are very, very complex and could go on and on for quite some time.

KELEMEN: And they've been a major irritant in relations, says another former State Department legal advisor Abe Sofaer. He's with Stanford's Hoover Institution. Sofaer not only thinks the legal claim should be part of the discussions with Iran, he says nuclear talks should be much broader, as they were with the Soviets.

ABE SOFAER: The negotiation is not robust enough. It is nowhere near the kind of negotiation we had with the Soviet Union. It fails to reflect the practices that we engaged in when we negotiated with the Soviet Union and it isn't backed with sufficient strength.

KELEMEN: Sofaer isn't suggesting more sanctions. He argues in a new book, "Taking On Iran," that the U.S. should be confronting Iran on its poor human rights record and challenging the actions of the revolutionary guard corps, the IRGC, including in Syria.

SOFAER: We should be telling the president of Iran and the foreign minister of Iran what we think of what the IRCG is doing in Syria and what we plan to do to make sure that they fail. That would be an example, a very important example of what I mean by taking these things on.

KELEMEN: Only then, Sofaer says, would he agree with President Obama's analogy that talking to Iran is similar to talking with the Soviet Union. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.