by Laicie Heeley
For the first time since 2009 when President Obama extended a hand of friendship to the Iranian people on Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, it seems that relations may be beginning to thaw. Negotiations have begun to give way to the possibility of a nuclear deal. This March, Obama extended his best wishes again, saying that he is “hopeful that our two countries can move beyond tension…toward a new day between our nations that bears the fruit of friendship and peace.” The key lies in whether the U.S. and its allies can capitalize on the leverage gained through current sanctions and use this moment of opportunity to strike a nuclear arms deal. For this to happen, the U.S. and its allies must seek middle ground in a series of small confidence building measures that set the stage for a final deal.
At this time, the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany) find themselves with an advantage. Iran is increasingly boxed in by the pressure of economic sanctions and the instability of Syria, a key Middle Eastern ally. However, in offering only minor sanction relief in exchange for Iran’s cooperation, the international community has yet to leverage that advantage to achieve a deal. Meanwhile, Iran is stockpiling enough twenty percent enriched uranium for one bomb—Israel’s threshold for military action. While Iran has been careful not to cross this threshold, the next few months provide a crucial window for avoiding a confrontation.
According to the U.S. intelligence community, Iran has still not made the political decision to pursue a nuclear weapon, a fact that should not be ignored. But the installation of new, more advanced centrifuges could shorten the time Iran would need to make a bomb if it decides to do so. Though it will undoubtedly be years before Iran would be able to deliver an atomic weapon, and thereby credibly threaten a nuclear attack, it is unlikely that the U.S. will allow the country to build or test a bomb without taking action. In a recent interview with Israeli Channel 2, President Obama remarked that, “if we can resolve [the dispute] diplomatically, that’s a more lasting solution. But if not, I continue to keep all options on the table.”
Since compromise is as politically unpopular in Tehran as it is in Washington, both sides have resorted instead to pressure. Iran’s main source of leverage is its nuclear advancement, while the U.S. has made use of sanctions, covert action and threats of war. But it appears now that sanctions are working, and the time has come to seek compromise. In a recent round of talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Iran welcomed efforts by the U.S. and its allies to offer some sanction relief and walk back demands that Iran shut down its facility at Fordow, but noted that the offer was still not enough. Nonetheless, Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, called the meeting “a turning point.”
There is an additional sign of hope. Iran is willing to schedule talks with the P5+1 during their upcoming campaign season for the presidential election on June 14. The willingness of the regime to do so—at a time during which it might otherwise prefer to place its energy and focus into domestic issues—comes as a surprise, and demonstrates Tehran’s willingness to reach an agreement. Prior to Almaty, it seemed likely that Iran would choose to stall until later in the summer when its political season had died down.
Jalili’s words and Tehran’s willingness to continue negotiations represent a marked shift in tone from previous negotiations. But the P5+1 will need to offer more than relief on gold and civilian airplane parts if it wants to capitalize on this shift. However, where Iran has begun to sound hopeful, it appears that members of the P5+1 are acting more cautiously—understandably so given Iran’s negotiating history— preferring to wait for tangible progress before signaling any hope of a deal.
Instead, the U.S. and its allies would do well to take a distinct step forward and respond to any counter-offer with a step-by-step approach that relieves some sanctions in exchange for proportional moves on the part of Iran. One or two successful confidence-building measures, such as a small amount of sanctions relief in exchange for Iran’s agreement to cease twenty percent enrichment, could go a long way to mitigate the years of mistrust that that have poisoned the relationship between the U.S. and Iran. Moreover, these steps would begin to walk Iran’s progress back from the nuclear brink.
Small steps have the power to diffuse the dangerously tense stalemate that has become the norm between Tehran and Washington. Now is the time to recognize and respond to this moment of opportunity or risk wasting a chance to stop an Iranian nuclear weapon and avoid another large-scale war in the Middle East.
About the Author
Laicie Heeley is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation where her work focuses primarily on weapons proliferation, defense analysis, and Iran. Her writings have appeared in The Washington Post, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, CNN’s Global Public Square, and the book Getting to Zero: The Path to Nuclear Disarmament.