After lengthy stalling, Iran and the P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) are set to finally meet. The good news is that overall, we’re moving towards a resolution to the nuclear standoff. After a decade, the contours of a final accord have become clear.
The P5+1 will have to recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and gradually lift sanctions. In return, Tehran needs to cap enrichment at five percent, give up higher-grade nuclear material and pledge not to enrich more uranium than what’s agreed as consistent with its civilian needs. Moreover, the Islamic Republic will be expected to agree to transparency measures going beyond its obligations as a NPT member and explain allegations of past suspect activities.
The not-so-good news is that it doesn’t seem like things will get resolved in Kazakhstan. With the West unwilling, and Iran unable, to offer serious concessions with the right sequencing, both sides will likely agree to kick the can down the road on Tuesday.
Under these circumstances, it is clear that the real window for dialogue will open after the inauguration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s successor in August.
The significance of a new Iranian president coming into office is not his potentially different approach or influence. It is the senior leadership’s ability to channel new initiatives via the president and easily deflect blame on him for any potential failure. Moreover, domestic tensions in Iran are likely to diminish as soon as Ahmadinejad steps down. This will aid talks, as the Islamic Republic will only seriously negotiate from a position of perceived strength.
From a Western perspective, the next Iranian president would not only be a welcome new face to deal with, but post-Ahmadinejad Iran will also be seen as more likely to follow through on a deal. This might open the door for more serious consideration of the kind of sanctions relief necessary to get the ball rolling.
The prospect of a six-month wait until the opening of the real window for diplomacy need not necessarily be a bad thing. If the time from now until then is used wisely, things can be set up for rapid movement on the nuclear issue this fall.
To facilitate progress towards a settlement, the P5+1 need to recognize that a nuclear deal might not be enough to permanently solve the nuclear issue.
A final nuclear accord is highly likely to compel Iran to accept measures not required of any of the 189 other members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is where the main challenge lies. In the long run, Iran will only endure these limitations—which no other nation will face—if it leads to the rehabilitation of its relationship with the West.
The crucial nature of this aspect of Iranian priorities should not be underestimated. The Islamic Republic is highly committed to the objective of establishing a strategic conversation with the West. Rhetoric aside, it has remained at the negotiating table—despite the sanctions, assassinations, sabotage and cyberattacks. And even though Iranian nuclear negotiators have refused to bilaterally meet with their American counterparts for years, US officials have been present in all meetings between Iran and the P5+1.
Keeping this in mind, it becomes obvious that the real danger doesn’t lie in failure to rapidly reach a nuclear deal. It lies in the prospect of Iran and the P5+1 settling for an agreement, only to watch it collapse due to failure to link it to a resolution of broader issues between Tehran and the West.
To preempt this scenario, President Obama must clearly convey to the Islamic Republic that he seriously seeks a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue, and strongly tie progress on this matter to wider strategic dialogue. Washington’s concerns about Tehran will most rapidly be settled if Iran is shown goodwill and an endgame that features an improved relationship with the United States.
In this endeavor, a good first step would be to listen to Iran’s Supreme Leader. Ayatollah Khamenei might actually be right about the paradox of “pointing a gun at Iran” while “saying you want to talk.” To clarify his intentions, President Obama must withstand the upcoming wave of pressure for more sanctions. Crucially, with John Kerry and Chuck Hagel by his side, he must take on Congress to secure the concessions needed to break the nuclear deadlock.
Furthermore, with the Persian New Year coming up in March, President Obama should consider once again including the leadership of the Islamic Republic among the addresses in his Nowruz message. When he took that unprecedented step in 2009, Ayatollah Khamenei quickly responded that “if you change your attitude, we will change ours.” Ominously, the only US-Iran bilateral meeting within the P5+1 framework during the past four years was held in the fall of 2009.
To get a lasting nuclear deal with Iran, look beyond the nuclear issue. The alternative is unthinkable.
Mohammad Ali Shabani is a doctoral researcher at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London and editor of the Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs. He has worked in media organizations and think tanks in Iran.