How to Stop the Lose-Lose Game

The former spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team explains how P5+1 talks can move forward.

Another not-so-concerning effect of the sanctions for the Iranian leadership is the blowback aimed at Western governments. The same Gallup poll showed that fewer than one in ten Iranians now approve of U.S. leadership. Crucially, the behavior of Western negotiators in talks this year has convinced Iranian officials that the United States and the EU don’t want to remove sanctions. More ominously, with new UN Security Council sanctions unlikely after Libya and what’s going on in Syria, Tehran knows that the West has little in its arsenal.

In Iran’s eyes, the United States is running out of bullets short of the military option, which is seen as unlikely. The Iranian leadership thinks it has many more unilateral ways to increase the pressure on the United States than vice versa. For example, Iran could change the current status quo in the Strait of Hormuz, increasing the U.S. cost of a gallon of gas to $5 to $6 prior to the presidential election. And most likely, it will continue amassing capabilities designed to be traded off in a final accord.

Bottom line: the Islamic Republic is willing to agree on a face-saving solution that would induce it to give up the cards it has gained over the past years. 

Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly obvious that domestic political considerations are pushing the Obama administration to drag its feet on the negotiations while seeking to keep them alive. This approach allows the White House to remain tough on Iran by not offering any sanctions relief without completely discarding dialogue as an instrument to solve the nuclear issue. 

This is a lose-lose game, benefiting none of the involved parties. For the forthcoming talks on July 3, the P5+1 should prepare a comprehensive list of all possible measures guaranteeing that Iran will agree to a maximum level of transparency and cooperation with the IAEA, ensuring that there is no breakout capability and that it will remain a nonnuclear weapon state forever. In exchange, the P5+1 should recognize Iran’s legitimate rights for enrichment and agree to gradually remove sanctions.

Ayatollah Khamenei has enough strength to strike such a deal. But is President Obama capable of delivering such a realistic accord? Will he be ready to withstand pressure to resist the looming Iranian escalation triggered by his own actions? And crucially, will Israel want Iran to remain a nonnuclear state? Or will it ultimately push the Islamic Republic to withdraw from the NPT and build a nuclear bomb by dragging the United States into a war? Time will tell.

Hossein Mousavian is the former spokesperson for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team and the author of The Iranian Nuclear Crisis, A Memoir published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mohammad Ali Shabani is a political analyst and the editor of Iran’s leading foreign-policy journal.