Having won reelection, President Obama now has greater diplomatic freedom and the political space to offer significant concessions to Iran, including the lifting of some of the economic sanctions that have been in place for more than half a decade as a response to Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for concessions by Iran. As of yet, there is little evidence that he is willing to do so.
Although the usual coalition of hawks, neoconservatives, Republican lawmakers, and members of Washington pro-Likud Israel lobby are stepping up pressure for a more confrontational stance vis-à-vis Iran, there are also growing calls from moderates, centrists and Nixonian realists to make an offer to Tehran that goes well beyond what has been offered in past talks, most recently the sessions held between April and June in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow, which made no headway.
In early December, a high-powered coalition of two dozen former U.S. diplomats, military and intelligence officials and other Iran experts released a letter to Obama that suggested a new path. At its core, the letter insisted that an initial accord could succeed in achieving a “verifiable halt to Iran’s accumulation of 20-percent enriched uranium,” though not necessarily a complete halt to enrichment entirely, if the product were to be exported or converted to metallic form. But, they added, such a deal must also include a “reciprocal relaxing [of] some of the international and financial sanctions imposed on Iran.” The letter was signed by, among others, James Dobbins, a former assistant secretary of state; Thomas Pickering, a former under secretary of state; and Paul Pillar, a CIA officer for the Near East and South Asia. The signatories added that the administration’s goal should be to restrict, not suspend, Iran’s “enrichment to normal reactor-grade levels,” i.e., 3-5 percent enrichment.
So far, no administration official has publicly acknowledged that an interim deal might involve the lifting of key economic sanctions. For some time now, Obama administration officials have hinted that they’d be willing to accept Iran’s continuing enrichment to reactor-grade uranium, though none have been willing to say so explicitly and unequivocally. Yet most Iran watchers in Washington believe that no agreement can take place without both an acknowledgment of Iran’s right to enrich and the lifting of some, if not all, sanctions.