According to analysts in Washington, reinforced by comments from Iran itself, a big reason for Tehran’s recalcitrance is that Iran wants to prove to the United States that its vaunted sanctions regime will not force Iran to make unilateral concessions at the bargaining table. In addition, Iran is concerned that it won’t get much in return in talks with the West, and that it will be asked to make unilateral concessions on uranium enrichment without getting sanctions relief in return. Combined with Iranian internal divisions, as its own presidential election season gets underway, that could mean that for the next six months or so Ayatollah Ali Khamenei simply won’t be ready to talk seriously, despite scheduling the Kazakhstan round.
Others suspect that Iran is waiting to see how President Obama’s new national security team – with Kerry as secretary of state, Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, and John Brennan at the Central Intelligence Agency – will shape Obama’s stance at any talks.
In Washington, some would argue there’s a growing consensus, at the level of think tanks, Iran experts, and other analysts, that a preliminary, first-round deal, including “shop, ship, and shut,” might work, if in response the P5+1 could lift some of the economic sanctions on Iran and agree to limited Iranian enrichment.
Perhaps the best-case scenario is the possibility that there are ongoing, secret and back-channel talks between Washington and Tehran. Nothing along those lines has leaked and there is no indication of this, yet. But in advance of the first round of Iran-P5+1 talks in Vienna in 2009, the United States and Iran did indeed engage in quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
In fact, of course, any sanctions relief for Iran will occur slowly and step-by-step, not all at once, in parallel with steps taken by Iran and openness to more intrusive inspections and oversight by the IAEA.
But it’s certainly not helpful that in early January yet another round of unilateral sanctions was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. The complex set of new measures targets key industrial sectors, including shipping and imports of products such as aluminum, steel and coal, and seeks to block Iran from using barter commodities such as oil and gold to pay for imports. The Washington Post paraphrased U.S. officials as saying that, “the new policies are closer to a true trade embargo, designed to systematically attack and undercut Iran’s major financial pillars and threaten the country with economic collapse.” Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that contained the sanctions provisions despite having hinted earlier that he might veto the NDAA over a host of measures contained in the bill.