With a new round of nuclear talks in the books, Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) used their time in Baghdad to communicate directly and trade proposals. Despite high anticipation leading up to negotiations, the P5+1’s public position was known for months: capping Iran’s uranium enrichment at the 5-percent level; shipping to a third-party country Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to higher levels; and scrapping its deeply buried uranium-enrichment facility.
Equally important but less clear was the P5+1 package of incentives that would reciprocate Iranian concessions. Its opening salvo surprised even the most ardent skeptics of the Islamic Republic: stringent demands to curb uranium enrichment but no sanctions relief at this stage of negotiations. Instead, Iran was told the P5+1 would not consider easing sanctions even if Tehran shipped out its stockpile of uranium enriched to the 20-percent level. Unsurprisingly, the Iranian delegation deemed this proposal “outdated, not comprehensive and unbalanced.”
As a result, the focus has shifted: negotiations are less about the United States knowing what Iran is capable of offering and more about Washington driving a hard bargain—or not having the necessary political space to reciprocate Iranian concessions. Based on the step-by-step principles of reciprocity that were agreed to during talks in Istanbul last month, non-U.S. diplomats privately note that Washington moved the goalposts in Baghdad and put a diplomatic solution to the crisis at risk.
Real and Imaginary Threats
A disconnect remains between the two sides on what comprehensive, transparent and practical steps should look like. From Tehran’s vantage point, if it agrees to walk back uranium enrichment, it wants the West to walk back sanctions. Critics have pointed out—not incorrectly—that Iran was expected to relinquish its greatest strategic asset (its stockpile of enriched uranium) without receiving a strategic asset of equal value in return. If the status quo holds, diplomacy will be deemed one-sided and will fail without having been executed in good faith.
Despite this disconnect, there is still time to bridge the gap—and both sides have an interest in doing so. To that end, they have agreed to another round of talks in Moscow, despite their positions remaining distant. Diplomacy was always going to be challenging; making progress means tackling the thorniest issues that have divided the two sides for years. In that sense, these negotiations represent a small step forward in a delicate process that will unfold over months rather than days or weeks.
Both sides entered negotiations with their maximalist positions, and neither budged. This is common to any negotiation. By returning to the negotiating table, diplomacy becomes the sustained process it was always supposed to be rather than the one-off meetings that have existed to date. Now the hard work begins: finding an agreement that can be sold to the respective domestic political constituencies. Talks will continue at the working level and reconvene at the political level in Moscow after confidence-building measures and sequencing are agreed upon. There is no other way to find a peaceful resolution to this crisis.
A feasible solution for building trust is to match tangible, verifiable Iranian concessions on enrichment with a delay of the impending European oil embargo. This would add time to the negotiation clock and allow the necessary political space for diplomacy to run its course. Privately, European diplomats note that they await a signal from the United States on whether to delay the embargo. If the Obama administration approves, there is unlikely to be serious resistance—but the EU will not act without prior American acquiescence.
Both Iran and the P5+1 know this, and posturing for Moscow has already begun. To create greater political space at home, Obama administration officials have told the media that the United States will negotiate from a position of strength and that tough proposals will be presented to the Iranians to continue leveraging sanctions into concessions.
For its part, the Iranian government’s rhetoric is no less resolute: Sanctions will not affect Iran's nuclear calculus; there is no need for Tehran to halt uranium enrichment at the 20-percent level; and it may need to reconsider its membership in the nuclear nonproliferation treaty if its rights as a signatory are not respected.
It is tempting to dismiss this cycle of escalation as bluff and bluster, but its tenacity should make everyone worry. As time passes, each "red line" declared and subsequently crossed threatens to trap Washington and Tehran in rhetorical corners. An alarming amount of decision makers on both sides have started to believe their own defiant rhetoric—and thus fail to distinguish between real and imaginary threats. This raises the risk that a simple confrontation will lead to miscalculation and full-scale conflict.
A Tipping Point
As both sides escalate for leverage, the reality is that neither side has gained an upper hand. Increased international pressure sharpens Iran's choices, but there are divisions inside the Obama administration on whether sanctions alone will cause the Islamic Republic to capitulate. The status quo is not sustainable, and neither the United States nor Iran has time on its side. In this high-stakes game of chicken, policy makers in Tehran and Washington can no longer gloss over the conflict with short-term tactics. Both sides are nearing a critical point at which delaying the inevitable choice between military action and compromise is no longer tenable.