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In Vienna, U.S. and Iran Building a Recipe for Success

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As the latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) came to a close here in Vienna, one thing stood out above all else: the two sides are equally invested in building a recipe for success.

With each round of talks, Iranian and Western negotiators dive deeper into the details and substance of key technical issues -- some of which had never truly been discussed. Enrichment and sanctions are important, but they are also recurring themes. More tellingly, issues such as civil nuclear cooperation and Iran's heavy water reactor -- topics that were once deemed too contentious to touch -- are now being negotiated.

Contrary to popular assumption, there are solutions for all of the technical problems that must be solved to reach a comprehensive deal. As negotiations continue into the summer and approach the finish line, the true challenge will be twofold: mustering the political will necessary to take 'yes' for an answer, and crafting a win-win framework that allows both sides to sell the deal in their respective capitals. Looking ahead, finding a recipe for success will likely require three important steps.

1) Keep Developing Empathy

Before negotiations in Geneva and Vienna commenced, there was zero empathy in Washington and Tehran -- both wittingly and unwittingly. As talks have progressed since last October, the two sides have both taken steps to build confidence, and in turn a greater degree of empathy is emerging. According to stakeholders from both sides, this will be critical to success. "For too long, we've been running against a mindset that is entirely focused on us," a senior Western official told me. "This ignores the fact that there are critical dynamics that we don't control or have the ability to independently shape."

Being able to identify with the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of the other side demonstrates why personalities are such an important component of diplomacy. A senior Iranian official drove this point home: "Both sides have actors that only see zero-sum games and don't understand the need to concede to show sincerity." Bilateral meetings between the American and Iranian delegations at the political and expert level are a key example of steps taken to compensate for the lack of empathy.

With each passing meeting, both sides walk away with a clearer understanding of what the other side wants, which in turn helps develop over time the empathy that is necessary for successful diplomacy. "You can't define ways to build confidence that will be attractive to the other side without input from the other side on what's important and attractive to them," a senior Iranian official told me. "Sitting across the table from one another is not the same as communicating and understanding one another."

2) The Greater Power Must Bend

Both Washington and Tehran have acknowledged making progress in identifying where gaps in their respective positions exist, as well as working to bridge those gaps. With that in mind, it came as no surprise that Iranian officials insisted Washington must make a grand gesture for a comprehensive deal to succeed. However, the number of Western stakeholders that shared this sentiment was eye opening.

To that end, a key takeaway came from this round of negotiations in Vienna: The U.S. must be willing to lose small in order to win big. "The greater power has to bend," a Western official insisted. "We must take steps that are large enough to convince both skeptics and pro-engagement camps in Tehran that we're serious. It's alarming that this seems out of our ability today."

One of his counterparts was even more candid: "The U.S. and EU are being less than honest when they say that the ball is in Iran's court," he told me. "After we bend, it becomes much easier for the Iranians to follow suit and secure a comprehensive deal. And let's be honest: Unless it's made in Washington, it's not going to run." These seasoned troubleshooters make a compelling point. The U.S. should project the dignity and poise of a superpower, rather than take its cues from Iran -- or any outside actors.

3) Bring in Congress and the Majles - Slowly.

Precisely because the American and Iranian negotiating teams must be able to sell a comprehensive nuclear deal at home, they must begin laying the groundwork now. Discretion has been integral to the success of diplomacy thus far. Multiple direct, senior-level meetings and consultations were either private or full-blown secret. This was critical to overriding many of the common pitfalls that media attention and political infighting bring.

Going forward, efforts should slowly be made to bring the U.S. Congress and Iranian Majles into the process. Both negotiating teams are already providing briefings to their counterparts in the legislative branch, but these power centers will eventually need to be included in the diplomatic process for a comprehensive deal to be reached. Just as no country expects to sign a significant deal with the U.S. without addressing the concerns of the executive and legislative branches, no major decision is likely to be made in Iran unless a range of key stakeholders are brought into the discussion.

To be clear: Now is not the time to involve legislators in both countries that have actively sought to torpedo negotiations. But waiting until July could exacerbate problems rather than solve them. As the summer approaches, it will be critical for Presidents Obama and Rouhani to systematically peel off skeptics and fence-sitters until they have built legislative coalitions that can help deliver their respective country's end of the bargain. Because this process will not be immediate, negotiators must invest the requisite time, so that legislators' inclination to scuttle a deal that they were not a part of is neutralized.

Negotiators on both sides deserve credit. They are taking the necessary time to really understand each other and have discussions at an unprecedented level of depth. Because these negotiations are a herculean task, the process moved along as far as it could over the past few days for what Washington and Tehran are trying to achieve. A senior Western official didn't mince her words: "People understand the stakes are pretty profound. So there is a sense of the tremendous responsibility that's on people's shoulders."

With that in mind, policymakers and pundits should focus their efforts over the next few months on finding creative, win-win solutions that can help diplomacy succeed. Why? Because as the aforementioned senior Western official alluded to: When you eliminate diplomacy, you make war inevitable.