As talks between Iran the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) conclude, all parties should be commended for returning to the negotiating table. Obama should be commended for having turned diplomacy into a process rather than the one-off meetings that existed in the past. There is no other way to find a peaceful solution to this crisis. These talks were always going to be challenging, because making progress means tackling the thorniest issues that have divided the two sides for years. To that end, both sides entered negotiations with their maximalist positions, and neither budged. Looking ahead, now the hard work begins.
With that in mind, it is important to be clear about what has happened thus far. The U.S. made it clear that regardless of tangible concessions offered by Iran on 20% enrichment, it would still not offer any sanctions relief at this stage of the negotiations. As a result, the paradigm has shifted: It’s less about the U.S. knowing what Iran is capable of offering and more about one of two scenarios: The U.S. is either driving a hard bargain, or Congress has limited Obama’s maneuverability to the extent he does not have the necessary political space to offer sanctions relief to match Iranian concessions.
If this position is more than a hard bargaining tactic, and it holds in the next round of talks in Moscow in June, then likelihood of a confrontation will increase. This begs an important question: Is Congress willing to risk war for the sake of not lifting any sanctions – even if Iran offers real and tangible concessions?
We remain hopeful that this is a bargaining tactic rather than a negitiation strategy. The U.S. can afford to drive a hard bargain because time still exists to talk – but time is short.
A feasible solution is to match tangible, verifiable Iranian concessions with a delay of the impending European Unions oil embargo. This would add time to the negotiation clock and buy both sides some breathing space.
All too often in the past, negotiations have collapsed not because a deal couldn’t be found, but because domestic political factors prevented either or both sides from taking yes for an answer. Both sides must pursue a strategy centered on breaking the deadlock, rather than on appeasing domestic elements who fear peace more than they fear war.