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The Ball is in Iran’s Court

This week’s P5+1-Iran meeting was highly encouraging but the long shadow of the past looms large.

By Trita Parsi for

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.

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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.

The gold sanctions may carry additional political symbolism since Congress regulates them. President Barack Obama would have to exercise his waiver rights to suspend them. Though lifting them has not been offered, the fact that Congressional sanctions are part of the mix may be intended to signal Tehran that the president is willing to face the inevitable challenge Congress will pose in opposition to virtually any conceivable compromise on the nuclear issue. Such a signal would be very valuable since Tehran harbors profound doubts about President Obama’s ability to deliver, mindful of the opposition he faces from Congress.

Iran’s lead negotiator, Saeed Jalili, struck a positive tone in the ensuing press conference and relished in the fact that the P5+1 package had been sweetened, pointing out that the P5+1 “offered some suggestions that include some of the items proposed by Iran in Moscow.” He added: “Some of the points raised in their response were more realistic compared to what they said in the past, and they tried to bring proximity in some points between the viewpoints of Iran and their own, which we believe is positive, despite the fact that we have a long way to reach to the optimum point.”

Calling the proposal “a positive step” and a “turning point,” Tehran must now study it carefully and prepare a response. Though the gap between the two sides is still wide, the fact that two additional meetings were scheduled without any Iranian foot-dragging – in the midst of the Iranian holiday season mind you – may also signal increased seriousness.

Hopefully, history won’t repeat itself. As I describe in A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, the atmosphere at the first negotiation round under the Obama administration on October 1, 2009 in Geneva was also very positive.

The morning session began with relatively short opening speeches. The brevity of the Iranian opening statement was viewed as a positive sign. In previous meetings Jalili had presented long monologues addressing the many injustices Iran had suffered at the hands of Western powers without going into the nuclear issue. This had earned him a reputation of being an “unbearable person” among the Europeans and Americans. “You were obliged to be very, very patient” when engaging with him, a European diplomat complained. While the first European encounter with Jalili months earlier in London had been “totally horrible,” there was a much more constructive atmosphere in Geneva, and Jalili’s conduct was described as “almost normal.”

The optimism after Geneva lasted only a few days though. Soon thereafter, the atmosphere turned sour and eventually, the talks broke down after the ensuing technical meeting.

Whether Almaty will meet the same fate as Geneva depends on Tehran. The ball is in Iran’s court.

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Trita Parsi is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on U.S.-Iranian relations, Iranian foreign policy, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. He is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States and Single Roll of the Dice – Obama's Diplomacy with Iran.