As diplomacy once more reclaims its place in U.S.-Iran relations, a peculiar psychological barrier continues to bedevil prospects of a settlement.
The great powers are busy imposing sanctions on Iran that they will amend only if Tehran dismantles key aspects of its nuclear program. In the meantime, Iran is hesitant to make concessions, aware that the expansion of its nuclear capability enhances its bargaining power. In the search of negotiating advantage, neither side is willing to part with what they consider to be their leverage.
The best means of breaking this vicious cycle is not to search for a grand deal, but a limited one that breaches the wall of mistrust and potentially sets the stage for further-reaching arms control measures.
The basic U.S. strategy has rested on the notion that increased economic penalties can produce a reliable interlocutor prone to negotiating a viable agreement.
The intriguing aspect of this policy is that it is burdened by its own partial success. The American sanctions policy has triumphed beyond the anticipation of its many detractors, as Washington has convinced a large segment of the international community to abjure Iranian commerce. And yet, ironically, the more the sanctions policy succeeds, the more reluctant the great powers become to exchange any of their gains for a modest compromise.
The Islamic Republic has been bedeviled by its own accomplishments. It is the conviction of the clerical state that America is not interested in its atomic program, but is cynically using Iran’s nuclear ambitions to foster regime change. By steadily increasing the size and scope of its nuclear infrastructure, Tehran believes that it is in a better position to extract concessions from the international community.
The clerics are trapped in their own achievement: The more their nuclear program advances, the less inclined they are to concede its core features.
The danger of such unimpeded proliferation is that as Iran’s program crosses successive technological thresholds, a constituency is emerging within the regime that argues that an Iran with a bomb maybe in a better position to renegotiate its re-entry into the global economy.
The Iranian and American narratives do occasionally coincide on one issue: Iran’s production of 20 percent enriched uranium.
The United States has long identified Iran’s higher-grade enrichment as its most dangerous and destabilizing activity. On various occasions, the Islamic Republic has seemingly been open to an agreement that addresses its high-grade enrichment program.
The Iranians’ claim has always been that they were compelled to move to higher levels of enrichment because the international community had failed to provide them with sufficient fuel for the operation of Tehran’s medical research reactor. Whatever the merits of Iran’s assertions, it does establish the precedent for ceasing 20 percent enriched uranium production for a measure of sanctions relief.
The critics of an agreement that focuses solely on 20 percent enriched uranium will correctly stress that cessation of such efforts would not significantly curb Iran’s nuclear trajectory. They will also argue, reasonably, that an agreement will not undo Iran’s mastery of complex nuclear technologies.
But the principal aim of such a bargain would be to nudge the two sides away from their existing narratives. An accord — however modest and tentative — may convince the Western powers that Iran can indeed be an arms-control interlocutor. Moreover, a cessation of 20 percent enriched uranium production can still extend the timeline of Iran’s nuclear program and ease some of the anxieties in Western capitals and Israel. An agreement may also help to move the Islamic Republic away from its corrosive perception that diplomacy is merely a ruse to increase pressure on its regime.
Although the nuclear dispute between Iran and the United States is often portrayed as a disagreement over technical issues, it is important to break the psychological barriers to deal-making.
Although various grand bargains and proposals have been contemplated, the level of mistrust is simply too high to facilitate comprehensive settlements. A modest compromise may not fundamentally alter the technical complexion of Iran’s nuclear program, but it may change the political milieu that has thus far obstructed an accord. Only then can the great powers and Iran move toward a more fundamental resolution of their lingering dispute.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.