03/21/2013 11:46 am ET Updated May 21, 2013

Obama and the Iranian Nowruz: A 2009 Redux?

Watching President Obama's latest Nowruz speech, I couldn't but tread a minefield of conflicting emotions, flirting between paroxysm of hope and anxious memories of recent diplomatic debacles vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear impasse.

He sounded upbeat, and considerably more hopeful than his previous greetings, especially in 2011 and 2012, when the U.S. and its allies launched an intensifying campaign of 'covert war' against Iran's military-nuclear establishment, buttressed by a 'total economic warfare' against the whole country. Back then, there were hardly any signs of good will and mutual amity to go around with. Obama very well knew that the Iranian people would see through his glittering words and condemn blanket sanctions against the innocent millions. But his re-election has provided a new opening, an unprecedented opportunity to break the ice in Iran-U.S. relations, and more importantly avoid a disastrous armed campaign -- exactly a decade into the Iraqi debacle.

What's New with Obama 2.0?

Upon his re-election, Obama signaled his determination to break the nuclear deadlock diplomatically by selecting John Kerry and Chuck Hagel as his top men in the Department of State and Pentagon. He also eased out the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, General James Mattis, who has openly questioned Obama's 'carrot and sticks' approach, while expressing his distrust for the Iranian leadership -- providing valuable ammunition for the neo-cons pushing for another (even more) disastrous war.

Obama's efforts seemed to have paid off, especially when Iran's representatives, during the February Almaty Talks, described America's de facto recognition of Tehran's enrichment rights (coupled with more enticing Western offers to ease sanctions) as a potential 'turning point.' Offered with a 'face-saving' deal by the West, the Iranian delegation, led by the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili, immediately agreed to follow through with a detailed, technical discussions before a high-level meeting again in Almaty by April. Unlike in the past, beginning with the Istanbul I talks in 2011, the Iranians, this time, focused clearly on the nuclear question, without delving into the metaphysics of a 'grand bargain' with the West and the recognition of Iran's place in the sun.

It is precisely against this background of encouraging atmospherics that Obama presented his 2013 Nowrouz greetings, where a more sober and experienced U.S. president expressed how he had "no illusions about the difficulty of overcoming decades of mistrust," while emphasizing "a serious and sustained effort to resolve the many differences between Iran and the United States."

He spoke of a practicable solution, underpinned by the "United States [preference] to resolve this [nuclear standoff] matter peacefully, diplomatically," which could be achieved through a bargain, giving "Iran access to peaceful nuclear energy, while resolving once and for all the serious questions that the world has about the true nature of the Iranian nuclear program."

Crucially, Obama breached another milestone by this speech: While his earlier greetings (think of 2009) expressed how he -- in contrast to previous U.S. administrations -- recognized the legitimacy of the Iranian regime, supposedly not actively seeking 'regime change,' this time Obama explicitly acknowledged Tehran's rights to peaceful nuclear enrichment (3-5 percent purity levels, in technical terms). So far, so good, but they say the devil is in the details. And this is where one gets an eerie feeling that Obama may be again heading into another hasty, pressure-based (doomed-to-fail) diplomatic outreach towards Iran.

Back to Pressure Tactics?

While implicitly recognizing how "the people of Iran have paid a high and unnecessary price" as a result of the unilateral sanctions, notably a blanket Western embargo against Iran's hydrocarbon exports and financial sector, Obama instead placed the blame on Iran's "leaders' unwillingness to address [the nuclear] issue."

Well, public diplomacy is about circumventing formal diplomatic channels to reach out to the greater populace (in this case the Iranian street), but Obama seems to be in effect saying that the Iranian people should accept the price of not rising up to the regime and changing its nuclear policy. The problem with this rhetoric is that the Iranian regime has actually acknowledged the impact of the sanctions on the civilian economy -- which has precipitated a food and health crisis in a country known for its relatively high living standards and welfare programs -- by repeatedly expressing its willingness to negotiate enrichment levels, and even consider a more intrusive inspections regime under a so-called Additional Protocol, which would cover both nuclear and military facilities, notably in Parchin.

Right after Obama's greetings, Iran and world powers, the so-called P5+1, conducted a crucial technical meeting in Istanbul to iron out the details of an eventual deal, which would be intensively haggled during the Almaty II high-level nuclear talks. After an initial news blackout, with little substantive leaks of the actual proceedings of the meeting, Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor broke the silence by providing a glimpse into the dynamics of the technical discussions, especially by quoting an unnamed 'Iranian source closed to the talks.'

Officially, the P5+1 stated that they offered Iran with a "revised confidence-building proposal", without providing more details. "The meeting also provided an opportunity for both (P5+1) and Iranian experts to explore each other's positions on a number of technical subjects," said Michael Mann, the spokesperson for the EU Foreign Policy Chief, Catherine Ashton, who, ahead of the technical meeting, called for more 'flexibility' and 'creativity' to seal the deal. On the surface, during and immediately after the technical talks, things seemed to be well on track. Both Iranian and Western officials kept their silence, probably a calculated move to maintain some positive momentum ahead of the Almaty II talks.

The unnamed Iranian source, however, provided some cause for guarded optimism, if not skepticism with respect to the nuclear negotiations. Apparently, the P5+1 have asked Iran to enact a six-months confidence-building scheme, whereby Iran would 'de facto' shut down the country's best-guarded enrichment facility in Fordo (never mind Israel's repeated threats of aerial attacks), and 'suspend' its uranium enrichment at 20 percent (never mind concerns with medical isotopes and Iran's enrichment rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty). In exchange for this 'first phase' of cooperation based on 'voluntary measures' by Iran, the P5+1 would relax restrictions on some petrochemical exports and the trade of precious metals and gold. According to the Iranian source, there was an offer by the P5+1 to withhold any new United Nations Security Council resolutions against Iran, but actually there was no guarantee from Washington to prevent pending (and more debilitating) sanctions in the U.S. Congress to come on board. In short, no gurantees against more debilitating sanctions and no real sanction relief, since what is really hurting Iran is the E.U. oil and shipping insurance embargo, and sanctions on Iran's financial sector, especially the Central Bank (Bank-e-Markazi).

The P5+1 offer was not only limited and 'imbalanced' in the view of the Iranians, but it was also vague. According to the proposed deal, once the first phase of confidence-building measures is finalized, then more substantive incentives and 'significant steps' would be instituted.

"Our question was, 'What do you mean by these further, significant steps?' because these are vague, unclear statements," the Iranian source told the Monitor. "Are we going to repeat what we have done again and again? There is no guarantee here, about when and how your [P5+1] confidence could be built. You are only relieving some of the sanctions, not lifting the sanctions."

The problem with this confidence-building measure is that it is one-sided. It does not address Iran's distrust towards the Western powers, which could go back on their words whenever they wish. After all, for almost half a century, Iran has been negotiating with varying Western partners, including Russia, to finalize at least a single fully operational power plant and ensure it has enough enriched uranium for medical isotopes. There was no proposal to address this issue, thus Iran's complain of an 'imbalanced' deal.

The Second Roll of the Dice?

At this point, one is tempted to assume that just when Iran seems to have made an opening, the Western powers seem to have shifted back to the 'pressure tactic,' a toxic mixture of nominal concessions, vague incentives, and threats. The Iranians used an anonymous source to express their discontent, because they didn't want to derail the earlier positive momentum ahead of the upcoming talks.

What must be noted is that the Western sanctions are considered as a systemic threat in Iran, so one could argue that regardless of who becomes the Iranian president in the upcoming June elections, the regime, under the guidance of the Supreme Leader, would prefer to secure sanctions relief, unimpeded access to medical isotopes, and an irreversible and unequivocal Western recognition of enrichment rights, in exchange for an AP, enrichment restrictions, and perhaps even some modification in Fordo. This is the negotiating position of Iran, which Obama seems to be unwilling to consider more seriously and in an urgent manner. The clock is ticking: Sanctions are hurting the Iranian people and the Israelis are speaking of a specific deadline.

This is precisely why I have anxiously reflected on this year's Nowruz greeting by Obama as potentially a 2009 redux. Back then, Obama squandered an unprecedented chance to make a deal with Iran, because (a) he was too impatient for Iran's complex decision-making dynamics and (b) refused to hear out Iran's fundamental demands, or negotiation 'red lines.'

Obviously, Obama's visit to Israel would be followed by a vigorous effort to project an image of a non-compromising West, determined to deny Iran a free pass to drag its feet from one diplomatic engagement to the other. (Though, it is not clear whether Netanyahu could secure enough cabinet-level support for an Iranian campaign under his new, largely liberal governing coalition -- the first one without an ultra-orthodox partner.)

Nevertheless, there is still time to avoid another diplomatic debacle, provided both sides carefully learn the lessons of the past and institute more flexibility into their negotiating positions.