Step by Step with Iran

Unless Washington accepts a process of reciprocal concessions with Iran and puts sanctions relief on the table, war will only become more likely.

To say that President Barack Obama has a full plate would be an understatement. As the beginning of his second term in the White House approaches, the sheer magnitude of his foreign-policy to-do list is striking. Further complicating matters is an age-old Washington truism: presidents have a finite amount of political capital, making the first year of their term a pivotal year for tangible progress before political will dissipates. Looking ahead to 2013, perhaps no issue better illustrates this sense of urgency than U.S.-Iran relations.

Today’s pressing concerns over Iran’s nuclear program have been used by the United States as an impetus for the harshest sanctions regime in recent memory. For its part, Iran continues to methodically advance its program: just enough to escalate the conflict, but just below Washington’s criteria for war. Indeed, neither side wants war—but in this game of chicken, both sides have thus far refused to blink.

With tensions running high, 2013 may start off on a positive note. Iran and the world powers (P5+1) have reportedly agreed to a new round of negotiations in January. In addition, both sides now have the benefit of knowing what has not worked to date: The P5+1 asked Iran to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level, ship its corresponding uranium stockpile out of Iran, and shut down its deeply buried enrichment facility at Fordow. In return, Iran would receive fuel rods for its research reactor in Tehran; spare parts for civilian aircraft; and no new sanctions for a defined period of time.

To the surprise of few, Iran rejected this proposal. Since then, Washington and Tehran have exacerbated a long-standing cycle of mutual escalation that increasingly traps both sides in their rhetorical corners. With so many combustible issues at hand, it is easy to lose track of the need to shoot the wolf nearest the sled. As the U.S.-Iran conflict moves into 2013, that wolf is sanctions relief.

The expectation of some sanctions relief is not entirely unreasonable. The United States has itself argued that sanctions were needed for leverage in negotiations, but here’s the catch: Washington’s unwillingness to use that leverage as a bargaining chip has turned sanctions into a blunt instrument causing minimal change to Tehran’s strategic calculus—but maximum pain to innocent Iranians.

Looking ahead to January, some signs remain foreboding. When asked by the Washington Post about its upcoming offer to Iran, a senior U.S. official remarked: “The package has a similar bone structure [to the package that Iran has already rejected], but with some slightly different tattoos.” Privately, administration officials concede that Iran is unlikely to accept any package that does not include sanctions relief. As one senior official told me recently: “A step-by-step process based on reciprocity is easy to talk about, but in practice it’s much harder for us to give Iran something of equal value in return.”

To that end, the most no-brainer aspect of this diplomatic process—you relinquish a strategic asset, we relinquish a strategic asset—may turn out to be the root of its demise. So where do we go from here?

Iran’s rejection of America’s opening gambit—and Washington’s subsequent refusal of Tehran’s counteroffer—has shown both sides that maximalist positions exacerbate a dangerous cycle of mutual escalation. This helped give birth to the idea of “going big”—putting everything on the table, in an effort to circumvent politically tricky sequencing. In theory, this makes sense. In practice, it is fraught with two key risks: First, it remains unclear whether a “big” offer would accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its own soil—a non-starter for Tehran. Second, if Iran rejects America’s first (and only) big offer, war becomes more likely.

With opposite ends of the diplomatic spectrum unlikely to work, finding the middle ground in 2013 will be key. To that end, following through on a step-by-step process based on reciprocity provides a framework for the least bad option: both sides agree to take three steps, each of which can be reversible if Washington or Tehran violates the agreement.

Tehran would stop enriching to the 20 percent level; ship out its stockpile of corresponding uranium to a mutually agreed-upon third-party country; shut down its Fordow facility; and reduce its existing stockpile of low-enriched uranium below the level needed for any possibility of weaponization. In turn, Washington would suspend key banking sanctions, back a suspension of the EU oil embargo, and freeze new sanctions initiatives. Under this arrangement, both sides are trading an equal number of concessions, which in turn builds trust, buys time for negotiations to continue, and helps disarm spoilers in Washington, Tehran, Tel Aviv, Brussels and Riyadh.

To be clear, striking a deal of this nature is far from perfect, and sustaining it will be challenging. Most notably, it will be difficult to agree upon a time frame by which additional progress on negotiations must be made, and both sides will worry about whether suspending these activities will undermine their respective efforts to reach a final settlement.

But therein lies the rub: As the U.S.-Iran conflict reaches the precipice of a war that both sides would independently seek to avoid, Washington and Tehran must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There is no guarantee that diplomacy will succeed. But there is no way to know for sure unless the U.S. puts sanctions relief on the table.

Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council.