Farideh Farhi writes for Muftah:
In many ways, in the twenty-two months since Barack Obama took office not much has changed in U.S.-Iran relations. With upcoming talks in early December, it is unlikely that changes in the status quo will occur in the interim. At this point, neither the location nor the agenda for talks have been set. There is also little goodwill on both sides. Nonetheless, there is a perceptible shift in the diplomatic winds between the two countries that may signal an end to this enduring saga, even if it may be slow in coming. Ironically, the change has much to do with the Obama Administration’s decision to play the last card short of military action, namely, “sanctions that bite”, as well as its declared refusal to settle for containment. As Defense Secretary Gates stated, “I don’t think we are ever prepared to talk about containing a nuclear Iran. Our view is that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable.”
With containment off the table, this final stage of sanctions assumes even greater importance and may force both sides into a settlement in the interest of avoiding military action. Although the Obama Administration continues to keep its cards closely guarded, the contours of an acceptable final agreement are clear. The Iranians would be allowed to keep some enrichment capabilities, whether in terms of a set number of centrifuges under increased international supervision or by linking the number of centrifuges to the actual amount of fuel needed by the Iranians (a number currently at zero as the only operational Iranian reactor, Bushehr, would run on Russian fuel). The Iranians also would commit to limit uranium enrichment to a maximum of 5% and would agree to a rigorous inspection regime by following through on their commitments to ratify the Additional Protocol to Iran’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Safeguards Agreement. This Additional Protocol, which expands the inspection authority the IAEA enjoys under a country’s existing NPT safeguards agreement, was signed by Iran in December 2003, implemented for a time voluntarily, but ultimately never ratified by the Iranian Parliament.
In the past, Iran has been open to intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities and willing to limit uranium enrichment to 5%, though it has balked at any inspection regime that subjects it to obligations that are not exacted against other countries and that go beyond its obligations under the NPT. Nonetheless, the question remains as to whether the tactical maneuvers of the last year have effectively foreclosed the possibility of a negotiated agreement between the United States and Iran.
Both sides are caught in narratives developed not only to antagonize one another, but also to appease their respective domestic audiences. While Obama’s extension of an offer to Iran for direct negotiations without preconditions was initially promising, the U.S. government ultimately reverted to Bush Administration tactics, attempting to exploit Iran’s domestic weakness to obtain concessions in the international arena. Rather than success, however, this strategy has prompted the Iranian government to counter with strident rhetoric and increased domestic political repression, in the name of defending against foreign intervention in Iranian affairs. So far, the only thing that can be said with confidence about the failed nuclear negotiations is that the real losers in this political game of brinksmanship have been the Iranian, urban middle class and private sector, which have become increasingly unsettled and confused in the face of an economic pinch from abroad and political repression at home
Should they begin, the December talks may be able to shift U.S.-Iran relations back onto a positive track. For this to happen, however, will require that the United States and Iran put aside the bad blood and recent acrimony, and remember the strategic importance their improved relations will have for the Middle East region and beyond.