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.
In a recent editorial, the New York Times gave President Obama similar, blunt advice. “Whatever package is offered has to include meaningful relief from sanctions or there will be no incentive for Iran to do anything,” said the editors of the Times.
There’s reason for optimism, administration officials claim. An Obama administration official told the Washington Post in mid-December, “Our assessment is that it is possible that they are ready to make a deal.” Yet there is no concrete sign whatsoever that the administration is planning to make significant changes to the offer that it has placed on the table since 2011; namely, that in exchange for Iran suspending production of medium-enriched uranium the United States would merely allow Iran to purchase spare parts for American-made aircraft. The official told the Post that it’s possible that the deal could be sweetened, but he gave no specifics. Other reports, too, say that the administration is considering nothing truly new or dramatic in its offer to Iran and no sweeping proposal or grand bargain.
Several times, Iran has rejected this idea outright, and there’s no reason to believe that Tehran has softened its stance. Indeed, although Iran has signaled a new willingness to find a diplomatic solution to end the long-running standoff, top officials continue to insist that Tehran won’t suspend its enrichment of medium-enriched, 20-percent uranium fuel ostensibly being produced for a medical reactor. Whether that refusal might be altered if Iran were offered significant relief from sanctions is what needs to be tested, according to experts in Washington.
Adding to the cautious optimism is the fact that various Iranian hardliners have started to express a desire for direct talks with the United States. Mohammad Javad Larijani, the secretary of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights and one of three powerful brothers who are close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said recently, “To protect the interests of our system, we would negotiate with the U.S. or anyone else even in the abyss of hell.” Other hardliners have joined Larijani by suggesting that it might be useful for Iran to work out a deal with the United States. This includes Mohsen Rezaie, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guard, who said that Iran is now in a position to talk to the United States on an equal footing, as well as General Muhammad Reza Naqdi, the head of the Basij militia, who allowed that “if the United States behaves properly we can negotiate with it.”
Media reports and Russia have both suggested that talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers could begin as early as next month.
Adding to the positive momentum is the fact that separate talks, on a parallel track, between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency might be making headway. Without providing any details, both Iran and the IAEA said that unspecified “progress” was made in talks held in mid-December, and a new round is tentatively scheduled to take place in Tehran in mid-January. Despite the reports of progress, however, it appears that the two sides went over the same ground that has been covered repeatedly for many years, and that the IAEA’s continued refusal to give Iran access to documents about its nuclear program continues to be an obstacle to such an agreement.
In addition, the IAEA has been seeking access to a military site at Parchin, a complex southeast of Tehran, where IAEA officials suspect Iran may have previously carried out explosive tests of an atomic nature. On Wednesday Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Qashqavi was quoted by Iranian media outlets as saying: “If the trans-regional threats (against Iran) dissipate, then they will find it possible to visit Parchin,” an apparent reference to Israeli threats to launch airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear facilitates.