For the first time since 2009, there may be signs of a break in the deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran entered the latest talks with a slightly softened position. That is good news, but the United States will have to change its negotiating strategy to take advantage of it.
Economic sanctions are biting hard in Iran. Meanwhile, its strategic position is crumbling because of the turmoil in its ally Syria and the rise of militant Sunni Islamism throughout the Arab Middle East. Together, these forces seem to have forced Iran to reconsider its own bargaining position.
So rather than strengthen sanctions another notch, America should give Iran a little tit for tat: begin negotiating directly, and put on the table the prospect of lifting sanctions, one by one, as bargaining chips.
The United States should shift from trying to further intimidate Iran to trying to clinch an agreement. The sanctions have given America leverage, and we should use it to seek a deal that would finally restrict Iran’s ability to make bomb fuel, rather than ratchet up the pressure in the hopes of getting either a broader deal now or a total surrender later.
The problem with just standing tough is that it is likely to backfire; Iran is understandably nervous, and if it thinks America is intransigent, it might double down on its nuclear program, speeding it up past a point of no return.
Hints of progress were seen at the round of talks in Kazakhstan last month. The United States, negotiating together with Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, proposed only small steps that would slightly ease American-imposed restrictions (allowing Iran to again trade in gold and silver, and to obtain spare parts for civilian aircraft), while insisting on stringent demands that Iran give up its ability to highly enrich uranium and use it to build nuclear weapons. Somewhat surprisingly, Iran said the proposal was welcome but not enough — and that it would respond in a few weeks. That contrasted with its previous pattern of flatly rejecting the other side’s proposals.
In 2009 and 2010, Iran sent another signal, in the form of a proposal worked out with Brazil and Turkey, that it might agree to export much of its more highly enriched uranium in exchange for being allowed to enrich it to a level suitable for nuclear power and medical uses. But the United States and its partners dismissed the offer as propaganda, largely because Iran had not made it directly, and because Iran would have still retained enough fuel to start building bombs later.
The new pressures on Tehran, its milder tone in the talks and its past signals that it might consider restricting enrichment levels suggest that Iran may be ready for productive bargaining. So the United States should be open to that possibility when talks resume in the coming days, and make new proposals to determine how serious the Iranians are.
Since 2003, Washington has relied on sanctions to bring Iran to the international bargaining table. But the Bush and Obama administrations have done more sanctioning than negotiating — partly because putting pressure on Iran is popular in America, while making deals with Iran is not. Rather than pushing for a negotiated solution to the crisis, Washington has often seemed to be holding out for Iran to simply capitulate.
But that only undermines the original purpose of the sanctions — to resolve the crisis without war — because sanctions can be a two-edged sword. The more pressure they exert, the more suspicious Iran’s leaders get about America’s real intentions. The more suspicious they are, the more they want a nuclear program. And the closer they get to their nuclear goals, the more they feel able to resist new pressure.
Iran’s leaders already suspect that America’s real goal is to overthrow their Islamic republic; at the same time, their citizens bitterly resent the sanctions, and generally support the idea of an Iranian nuclear program. Their leaders remember the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein violated international law by using chemical weapons and was never punished for it. Iran’s leaders concluded that they were vulnerable to aggression by their better-armed Arab neighbors, and that international agreements offered no protection.
In other words, insecurity drives Iran’s nuclear ambition, and it leaves Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, convinced that if he were to give up Iran’s nuclear program entirely, as Libya did in the last decade, he would only invite the fate of Muammar el-Qaddafi. That logic — if Iran is going to face sanctions anyway, better to face them with the bomb than without — has produced a saying in Tehran these days: “Better to be North Korea than Iraq.” Still, Iran’s leaders and citizens clearly want the sanctions lifted, and they may now be signaling a way out of the deadlock.
It’s time for the United States to test the leaders’ real intentions and offer them a path to rejoining the international community.
The committee of six nations involved in the Iran talks has achieved its original goal: to confront Iran with a united front. So the other five, whose differing agendas inevitably complicate the bargaining, should step aside and leave the United States to one-to-one talks with Iran.
And rather than offering only vague promises that serious concessions might be rewarded someday by dropping all the sanctions as a package, Washington should offer to do away with specific sanctions, piece by piece, in exchange for specific Iranian concessions. In that way, both sides might begin dismantling the most dangerous aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in incremental, verifiable ways.
Of course, Iran might lose enthusiasm for negotiations as the sanctions disappear. But by then, if its first concessions had been substantial, it would have given up critical pieces of its nuclear program, leaving the world a little safer.
Vali R. Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of the forthcoming book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.