The main challenge is that each side doubts the other’s commitment to diplomacy. Washington and the Europeans are skeptical that Iran could compromise before its presidential election in June. Tehran, in turn, fears a process in which its concessions are reciprocated by at best partial, reversible, or even symbolic reprieve from sanctions. But both sides’ doubts are based on faulty assumptions.
For one, key decisions In Iran still rest with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, not with whomever inherits the presidential mantle. And while from Tehran’s perspective, no deal is better than a bad deal – particularly during an electoral season – a good deal is better than none.
An accord that could reassure Iranian markets – as the prospects of a deal did after the Almaty meeting – could only help facilitate transition to the post-Ahmadinejad era. Iran’s agreement to hold these nuclear talks before the elections, notwithstanding the Persian New Year holidays, is a testament to its openness to a deal.
And the talks have already shown progress, however modest. The new P5+1 proposal reportedly reframed the nuclear concessions that would be expected from Iran, and offered, among other things, to relax restrictions on gold trading and the sale of petrochemical products.
Tehran should recognize that the offer counters its fears that sanctions are immutable. But it should also temper its expectations: Given the high level of mistrust and the legal hurdles embedded in the sanctions regime, a more generous offer at this time is simply unrealistic. Even these moderate incentives would require President Obama to persuade an antagonistic Congress – and the 27 European countries – to undergo painful consensus-building.