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US-Iran deal: Compromise is key

What could Washington offer Tehran to seal the deal?

Last updated: 18 Feb 2014 11:30
Trita Parsi

Trita Parsi is President of the National Iranian American Council and author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran.
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For Washington, the idea that sanctions would be fully lifted prior to Iran's file becoming normalised is hard to sell, argues the author [EPA]

As a new phase of nuclear talks begins between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) in Vienna on February 18, one thing is clear: From here onwards, diplomacy depends primarily on the ability of the presidents of Iran and the US to absorb and sell compromise.

The stars could not be better aligned for a US-Iran breakthrough. Regional developments - from the instability following the Arab spring to the civil war in Syria - have significantly increased the cost of continued conflict, as has the escalation of the nuclear issue with steadily growing Iranian capabilities and ever tightening economic sanctions.

Domestically, developments are also favourable for a deal. Iran's hardliners and proponents of a narrative of resistance have been put on the defensive by Hassan Rouhani's election victory in June 2013. And Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has thus far firmly backed Rouhani's negotiation strategy.

In Washington, proponents of Israeli Prime Miinister Benjamin Netanyahu's line have suffered several defeats over the past year, from the nomination of Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, to the call for military action in Syria, to the failure to pass new sanctions on Iran, rendering their influence less decisive. All three defeats were, in no small part, due to the mobilisation of pro-diplomacy groups in the US. Timing-wise, striking a deal during Rouhani's first year and during Obama's last years in office is also ideal.

That doesn't mean, however, that negotiations will be easy. On the contrary, the hard part begins now.

In the interim deal, the main concessions exchanged were increased transparency and inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities, halting the expansion of the enrichment program, and ending it at the 20 percent level. In return, Iran would get Western acceptance of enrichment on Iranian soil, and agreement that Iran eventually will enjoy all rights granted by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), as well as some minor sanctions relief.

Going forward, Obama will face severe difficulties offering relief on key sanctions such as those on oil and banking, since these are controlled by Congress.

Going forward, Obama will face severe difficulties offering relief on key sanctions such as those on oil and banking, since these are controlled by Congress.

Obama can temporarily waive Congressional sanctions, but the utility of waivers is questionable due to the proportionality principle established in the Istanbul talks in the spring of 2012.

Reversible Western concessions, the Istanbul talks established, will have to be exchanged for reversible Iranian measures and vice versa. To extract irreversible concessions, similarly irreversible measures have to be offered.

Sanctions waivers are fundamentally reversible. They usually last only six months and have to be actively renewed by the president - including by whoever occupies the White House after 2016.

If Obama can only offer Iran waivers, Tehran will likely respond in kind. Its implementation of the Additional Protocol - a pivotal transparency instrument - would be time limited and subject to continuous renewal (just like the waivers) rather than being permanent. This is tantamount to adding a self-destruction mechanism to the deal. Such a deal is harder to sell, and even harder to keep. To be durable, the deal must have strong elements of permanence to it, which requires irreversible measures. It is foreseeable that waivers could be used during the first phase of the implementation of a final deal; partly to test Iranian intentions, partly because actually lifting sanctions can take years.

Washington, however, will push for the implementation phase of the final deal to be very lengthy - up to 25 years - and for waivers to be used throughout this period. According to this plan, sanctions wouldn't be fully lifted until a quarter century after the final deal has been agreed upon, i.e. when Iran's nuclear file has been fully normalised.

A hard sell

For Washington, the idea that sanctions would be fully lifted prior to Iran's file becoming normalised is hard to sell. It's even harder to sell the idea that Iran can become a normal NPT state in just a few years. Tehran is so mistrusted by the West that a short implementation phase might be a non-starter. (A lengthy implementation phase has an obvious benefit for the West as it may offer enough time for the current regime in Iran to fall.)

Tehran of course disagrees. It will push for a shorter phase, possibly only three to five years. The lengthier the phase is, the more vulnerable the deal will become, they will argue. The implementation of the deal would be put in the hands of future presidents of Iran and the US, whose cooperation neither Obama nor Rouhani can guarantee.

New deal lifts some of Iran's sanctions

Moreover, for the deal to be sellable in Iran, economic relief must be real and come early. International companies are unlikely to return to the Iranian market simply based on sanctions being temporarily waived. They will, as they do elsewhere, demand stability. Consequently, waivers won't be enough. Iran's economy won't get the boost that would justify the nuclear compromises demanded of Iran. In short, neither the Iranian elite nor the public will go for it, Iran's negotiators will argue.

Tehran worries, however, that it may not have many cards to play. The interim deal was front loaded with Iranian concessions, leaving Tehran with few bargaining chips for the final negotiations, some in Iran believe. Halting the expansion of the enrichment program and ending the enrichment of uranium at 20 percent have also eliminated the West's sense of urgency. The West can afford to drag this out, while the Rouhani government doesn't have that political luxury. 

Washington, in turn, fears that the limited sanctions relief, that Iran has received, will have a psychological effect far greater than its monetary value would suggest, causing international businesses to flock to Iran and cause the unraveling of the entire sanctions regime even if Iran doesn't agree to a final deal.

Both sides may be exaggerating their fears and putting forward maximalist opening positions for what is likely to be very tough negotiations. One thing is certain, however: Compared to the interim deal, the compromises both sides will have to embrace this time around will be of a very different order. 

Trita Parsi is the Founder and President of the National Iranian American Council and author of "Single Roll of the Dice – Obama's Diplomacy with Iran"

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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