How to Stop the Lose-Lose Game

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

Although the nuclear talks in Moscow did not achieve concrete results, there is still time to get past the nuclear impasse. The Obama administration clearly isn’t interested in offering the Islamic Republic the kind of concessions that would allow it to back down. The key questions now are: Will President Obama, if reelected in November, be more flexible? And will Iran muster confidence that Obama can get U.S. political support for any agreement?

Chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili went to Moscow resolved to get sanctions gradually lifted and recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium to 3.5 percent. In exchange, he offered a freeze on 20 percent enrichment, confidence-building measures on the 20 percent enriched stockpile, a commitment to cooperate with the IAEA to resolve remaining ambiguities and agreement to address the IAEA’s “possible military dimension” issues. The last point concerns inspection protocols and related matters.

However, the P5+1—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—offered Jalili essentially nothing Iran wants, so there was no reason for him to budge.

A week before the Moscow talks, after meeting with his Russian counterpart in Tehran, Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, aptly described the mood in the Iranian capital: “Sometimes the process slows down and sometimes it accelerates, but overall I’m optimistic about the final outcome.” Salehi understands that domestic politics would become far more radical should dialogue collapse, with unpredictable consequences.

While positions on the likely framework of a final accord actually moved closer at the Istanbul talks in April, things went in the opposite direction in Moscow, largely because of disagreement on incremental confidence-building measures. The shift was reflected in remarks by Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, who hinted at a return to emphasis on Iran’s “international obligations” under UN Security Council resolutions calling on Tehran to halt enrichment entirely. At the same time, she maintained that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty remains the basis of the talks, although many signatories to the NPT enrich uranium at low levels for peaceful purposes.

The NPT, to which the Islamic Republic is a signatory, does not deny Iran’s right to enrich uranium. And, even though the upcoming talks in Istanbul will be lower-level and “technical” in nature, the main point is that they will continue. Iran and the P5+1 have not engaged in dialogue this consistently since Jalili was appointed as Iranian top nuclear negotiator in 2007.

The two main factors determining the pace of negotiations are the Iranian economy and the U.S. presidential election. However, Israel’s efforts to block a face-saving solution by threatening to drag the United States into another war in the Middle East should not be ignored.

Consider the Iranian economy, which is nowhere near collapse. The reality is not that “Iran is on the verge of a choice between having a nuclear program or an economy,” as Cliff Kupchan, a senior analyst on the Middle East at the Eurasia Group, insists. To put things into perspective, the Islamic Republic has lost some 40 percent of its expected oil income this year, according to the International Energy Agency. The European Union embargo on Iranian oil, due to go into full effect on July 1, has practically already been implemented. Moreover, the Obama administration has already given six-month waivers from sanctions to most other countries purchasing Iranian crude. Assuming even an annualized 60 percent loss—which cannot be taken as absolute truth due to the opaque nature of Iran’s crude exports—the Islamic Republic will still rake in an estimated $40 billion from oil this year. That’s roughly twice as much as when Mohammad Khatami was president a decade ago. It is no coincidence that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has dubbed this Persian year “the year of national production, supporting Iranian labor and investment.” He adds that the “economic Jihad” is “never-ending.”

This is not to say that ordinary Iranians aren’t suffering from the sanctions. A recent Gallup survey showed that at times during the past year, almost half of Iranians didn’t have enough money to buy food needed by their families. That’s three times as many as when the first UN Security Council sanctions were passed against Iran over its nuclear program in 2006. But Iranians increasingly view the sanctions as designed to encourage a popular revolt against their government rather than an effort to drag the Islamic Republic to the negotiating table.

Iranians recall Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous quote when an aide raised concerns about inflation: “This revolution was not about the price of watermelons.” His successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, recently told the Iranian nation that “what the enemies of Iran fear, and must fear, is not a nuclear Iran, but Islamic Iran.” In other words, Iran’s leaders emphasize the sanctity of the revolution over Western pressures.

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.