05/23/2012 12:03 am ET Updated Jul 22, 2012

'Getting to Yes' With Iran Starts at Home

As American and Iranian negotiators meet in Baghdad, cautious optimism is clouded by the enormity of the task that lies ahead. Finding ways to communicate -- let alone compromise -- with the Iranian government over the issues that divide us has been a key U.S. goal since the outset of the Obama administration. The myriad limitations in Tehran are well documented: authoritarian governance; warring political elites; and a widely disputed presidential election that shattered an already fragile semblance of regime unity. Equally important but less understood are the limitations in Washington that create obstacles to successful diplomacy.

The U.S. has been relatively silent about its negotiating strategy vis-à-vis Iran. This is largely intentional. The Obama team knows from experience that staying the course in diplomacy will require heavy expenditures of political capital. For this reason, it has kept its cards close to the vest in an effort to prevent potential spoilers from torpedoing the process.

Rather than shed light on what concessions it might offer, American officials have focused their efforts on shaping the narrative and terms of the debate before negotiations commence. And it's all part of the show. During my tenure in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, we frequently and intentionally divulged tailored, specific information to analysts and journalists in an effort to paint a picture of an Iranian government besieged by sanctions and isolation. This is not disingenuous -- it's Public Relations 101, and the Iranians no doubt do the same.

As the media is bombarded by opinions and analyses, it can be tough to avoid getting bogged down in the spin. In order to read the tealeaves today, recalling America's 2009negotiations with Iran provides a sober reminder of the challenging context in which diplomacy must succeed. On this point, what's past is prologue.

Despite a genuine appetite to do things creatively, the Obama administration's diplomatic strategy has long been hostage to big picture policy and political constraints. As potential concessions to offer Iran were discussed in 2009, the need to "inject a bit of realism" into our recommendations was emphasized. In government-speak, this means recommendations must be politically tenable.

Passing that litmus test is no small task. In addition to domestic political considerations vis-à-vis congress, the Obama administration places a premium on maintaining an international approach toward Iran with the European Union (EU), Russia, China and Israel. Working closely with other members of the United Nations Security Council to engage Iran directly eases international concerns about U.S. intentions; signals America's serious about reaching a diplomatic resolution; and strengthens the coalition over time. This, in turn, prevents more violent actions from Israel.

For over three years, the Obama team has balanced foreign policy with a hostile congress and its need to project strength on national security for re-election purposes. If our Iran policy at times seems schizophrenic, that's because it is. Balancing these interests is no less challenging today that it was in 2009 when talks first collapsed. Iranian decision-makers walked away from negotiations because they couldn't sell the deal at home. Critics pointed out -- not incorrectly -- that Iran was expected to relinquish its greatest strategic asset (its stockpile of enriched uranium) without receiving a strategic asset of equal value in return.

Fast forward to the present and the same limitations in Washington risk yielding similar results. America strikes diplomatic quid-pro-quos with countries to keep its international coalition intact, but they in turn have influence over U.S. policy that reduces its overall flexibility. The aforementioned political realities facing the Obama administration have cemented for at least the duration of his first term. As a result, proposed concessions to Iran will likely be couched in a "realistic" policy framework. Washington's goal is less to create political space for robust diplomacy and more to ensure that policy options fit within safe, existing political realities.

The paradox here is telling. Iran's domestic politics are often described as fractious, thereby rendering Iranian decision-makers unable to take "yes" for an answer. Again, that may be the case - as it was in 2009. But there is a degree of mirror imaging going on that is not negligible. When the U.S. says that Iran's system is paralyzed and cannot respond, we should also look at ourselves.

None of this implies that America must accede to Iran's negotiating demands. Only sustained diplomacy can determine whether it is in America's interest to address Iranian concerns. But if Iran's interests are not addressed in negotiations through a step-by-step process based on reciprocity, diplomacy will be deemed one-sided and it will fail without having been executed in good faith. This increases the likelihood that the aforementioned international coalition will fragment -- and that Iran will likely exploit those fragmentations.

There is only one way to break a 34-year-old deadlock: break the rules. America and Iran must talk to each other and trade compromises of equal value in order to break down the hostility and misperceptions that paralyze our relations. Only by taking risks for peace will leaders in Washington and Tehran have the necessary deliverables to beat back critics and spoilers. The three-decade long status quo has brought us to the precipice of war and economic catastrophe. Negotiation is difficult and time consuming, but in the end there is no other way to walk back from that precipice.

Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council and a former Iran desk officer at the U.S. Department of State.