For the first time, United States and Iran appear to have begun real negotiations. Though no agreement has been reached yet, the meeting in Kazakhstan this week was a relative success. Previous rounds of talks resembled stare-offs before boxing matches. They centered on coercion: the main motivator for concessions was the threat of new sanctions or other escalatory steps. This time around there was a genuine give-and-take. If the next meeting in Istanbul strengthens this positive trend, a major achievement can be in the making.
The two sides have been stuck in an escalatory dynamic. Both are pursuing a dual track policy of seeking negotiations while continuously escalating pressure on the other side at the same time. But rather than having the pressure compel the other side to adopt more a flexible attitude, the opposite has happened. Both sides have hardened their positions and dug in.
The unprecedented sanctions pressure on Iran, which has caused tremendous damage to the Iranian economy including cutting Iran's oil income in half and slashing the value of Iran's currency by almost 70%, did not result in Iran softening its position. Instead, Iran escalated by increasing its enrichment program, adding new centrifuges, including new advanced centrifuges, and growing its stockpile of enriched uranium. While the U.S. moved closer to the potential collapse of the Iranian economy through sanctions, Iran moved closer to a nuclear breakout capability. The escalation game left both sides in a worse position.
What is potentially a game-changer with the meeting in Almaty is that the paradigm of the talks shifted from perpetual escalation to an exchange of concessions and incentives. Both sides shifted their positions and moved a bit closer to the other.
The updated supposed P5+1 proposal is neither smaller nor bigger, it’s just more sophisticated. By restricting the accumulation of near 20 percent enriched uranium in Iran while enabling the Iranians to produce sufficient fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, Washington has focused on what’s important. The production of near 20 percent enriched uranium is not a problem as long as the Iranians turn the uranium into fuel pads for the reactor (which, according to the latest IAEA report, they are doing). So there is no need to waste political capital on demanding a complete halt to 20 percent at this stage.
To ensure Tehran’s compliance – and address the potential dangers of Iran’s updated centrifuges that can improve its dash-out capability – the new proposal calls for enhanced IAEA monitoring measures that provide early warning of any attempt to rapidly or secretly abandon agreed limits and produce weapons-grade uranium. The shift towards enhanced inspections is critical – ultimately, only an inspections and verification based solution can provide the necessary limitations and transparency the international community is seeking.
In regards to the demand of shutting down Fordo – a request the Iranians have dismissed as a non-starter – the P5+1 is now demanding that activities there be suspended. In return, there were discussions about suspending sanctions such as the recently imposed gold trade sanctions. Though the sanctions relief offered is not nearly as substantive as Tehran would prefer, this may still be digestible for Iran since the demands have in a way also decreased.