Tehran's Almaty Opening

Tehran's Almaty Opening

The Iranian press was unusually optimistic about the failed Kazakh negotiations. That hints at space for agreement.

The second round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, held in Almaty, Kazakhstan last week, ended with no breakthrough. Iranian officials and commentators had expressed high hopes after progress in the first Almaty round in February that Iran and the P5+1 would continue to approach at least an interim deal, but the frustrating result has left the Iranian political elite once again bellowing that America and its allies have no interest in resolving the nuclear issue.

It is easy for Washington to dismiss such rhetoric as propaganda—and surely the Islamic Republic is well known for its messaging—but the drastic shifts in Tehran’s tone between last week and this week suggest that it may be time to test the waters by offering a more attractive deal to Iran. Some American commentators worry that greater leniency will be seen as weakness, but they must remember that our end goal is striking a deal—which, by definition, will mean making proposals that please Tehran—and that the pursuit of pressure for pressure’s sake has no value to the West.

The seemingly intractable stalemates that marked previous rounds of talks are well documented. Just as a common refrain on these shores was that Iran viewed the negotiations as a stalling tactic, Iranian commentators argued relentlessly that the West wanted an endless and fruitless series of talks to justify its campaign of economic and political pressure against Iran. For example, the preeminent hardline Iranian daily Kayhan ran an editorial after last June’s Moscow round entitled “When the West Makes an Agreement, It Loses,” suggesting that there exists plenty of ground for a rational deal but that it is ignored by the West, which prefers the status quo.

Yet the suggestion at Almaty 1 that the West could, in an interim deal that would include minor sanctions relief, allow the Fordo facility to remain open and countenance some degree of uranium enrichment (even to the 20 percent level under strict conditions) prompted Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi to express optimism for further progress at Almaty 2. A commentator in the reformist daily Etemaad suggested that the two sides were on the path to an interim deal at Almaty 2 that would see Iran’s right to low-level enrichment officially recognized, and the conservative daily Resalat called the talks the beginning of “a new chapter” after years of stagnation. However, after Almaty 2, the familiar rhetoric had returned, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative at Kayhan, Hossein Shariatmadari, explained the outcome by bluntly citing the leader’s words: “The Americans do not want the nuclear issue to be solved.”

The shift in tone between Iranian analysis of Almaty 1—which saw much optimism due to what a reformist commentator in Bahar described as “the first time both sides arrived at the negotiating table in good faith”—and Almaty 2, which saw the end of such hopes, implies that the Iranians may have had genuine hope for progress before last weekend. Returning to the proposals that spawned the hope and considering a greater offer to Iran is worth considering.

Undoubtedly, some would see easing up on pressure in exchange for interim confidence-building measures from Iran as capitulation that would embolden Tehran’s defiance. The Washington Post worried in an editorial that the cheery Iranian response to more favorable terms offered at Almaty 1 indicated “the tactics of a regime convinced that it can outlast and outmaneuver the United States and its partners.” In Foreign Policy and International Security, Michael Singh used a negotiations theory framework to suggest that by changing its bottom line and suggesting acceptance of Fordo, the P5+1 was opening the door for Iran to ostensibly agree to an interim deal and then proceed to stonewall future talks. Such fears may be bolstered by hardliners in Iran such as the Kayhan commentator who cited the West’s tone at Almaty 1 as a sign of the imperialist powers finally understanding “that Iran will not back away from its rights.”

These arguments, while understandable, ignore the fact that nobody can confuse the partial deal suggested at Almaty 1 with a final deal. If Iran agrees to an interim deal but later proves intransigent on other areas or reneges on portions of the agreement, the West has a well-established track record of ratcheting up its economic pressure with ruthless efficiency. The proposed partial deal is nothing but a step in the right direction that, if followed, can achieve two undeniably positive results. One is a greater assurance that Iran will not be able to build a nuclear weapon, thus decreasing regional tension. The other is a mitigation of the economic pain that sanctions have caused average Iranians, which includes severe inflation, currency devaluation and shortages of imported goods, including medicines.

This last effect should be of particular concern to the United States at a time when President Obama has just released yet another message to mark the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, in which he emphasized goodwill toward the Iranian populace. An editorial in the conservative Resalat mocked the message in the aftermath of the weekend’s talks, saying that Obama’s stance toward Iran’s quest for peaceful nuclear technology had dried up the “tree of friendship”—a reference to the iconic Iranian poet Hafez—that the president said he wished to plant with Iran. If the United States and the P5+1 wish to undermine the compelling reasoning of hardliners like those at Kayhan, putting incremental but substantial sanctions relief—such as significantly easing the banking measures that have raised the costs of Iran’s foreign trade and money transfers—on the table could go a long way toward bolstering the credibility of U.S. public diplomacy toward the Iranian people.

While the triumphant propaganda that would come from Tehran after a deal may be unsavory, the U.S. goal has never been to render the predictable public-relations team of the Islamic Republic speechless. If Washington plans to wait for Tehran to accept a deal it finds impossible to spin to the people of Iran, negotiations will be doomed to failure. The P5+1 was formed to enhance nuclear security vis-à-vis Iran. Against a defiant Islamic Republic, the nations will have to offer something in return, particularly if they expect Iran to transfer a substantial amount of its 20 percent enriched stockpile across its borders in an exchange deal, which Iran feels is not required given its full sovereign rights.

For better or worse, the United States has succeeded in deploying an unprecedented web of sanctions against the Islamic Republic. With senators on the verge of taking even further economic measures against Iran—a move that would surely be met with further anti-Western defiance by the Iranian leadership—the United States is ever ready to increase that economic pressure.

But holding back from that temptation after the failure of Almaty 2, and instead offering to allow for noticeable economic relief for Iranians, would still leave Iran facing extreme pressure and scrutiny. The United States and its allies can afford to do this in exchange for improved nuclear safeguards—yes, even if it allows Tehran to claim a moral victory. What Washington can’t afford is to relapse into the sense of futility that hung over diplomatic efforts prior to February.

Mehrun Etebari is a Washington-based Middle East analyst focusing on Iranian affairs.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/FixerKZ. CC BY-SA 3.0.