If President Barack Obama and Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei do not compromise at the upcoming nuclear talks next Saturday, the region will -- in the words of a diplomat involved in the matter -- head towards "total war." For the sake of world peace, both sides must compromise.
Yet, there are some indications that the next round of talks may differ little from previous failed discussions. Driven by limited political maneuverability at home, domestic pressure not to compromise, and a perception of strength that lures the parties to believe they can force on the other a fait accompli, the talks have often been about imposing terms of capitulation on the other.
It has never succeeded.
The White House is going into the talks with extensive demands. Iran must cease production of 20% enriched uranium, cease all activities at the underground Fordo facility and give up its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium.
From a non-proliferation perspective, these are reasonable demands. Iran has said that it would only enrich as much 20% uranium that it needs to produce fuel pads for its Tehran Research Reactor. If the West would provide Iran with the fuel pads, the White House reasons, Iran would have no reason to continue enriching at this level nor would it need its stockpile. And since Iran planned to use Fordo for enrichment at this level, demanding that those plans be set aside also seem reasonable.
If Iran would agree to this, the US's current conviction that Iran cannot dash for a bomb without getting caught would persist. Iran would need about a year to build a bomb, but would get caught within 30-60 days if it tried to build one, thanks to the current level of inspections. Iran's activities at Fordo and its growing stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%, however, reduces Iran's dash-out time and it could make it more difficult for the inspectors to catch any Iranian foul play. This is why the White House's focus is on Fordo and Iran's enrichment at 20%, and why Khamenei should agree to compromise.
What remains unclear, however, is what Obama is willing to put on the table. Thus far, White House officials have only indicated that Iran would be given fuel pads to produce medical isotopes and a promise not to impose new UN sanctions on Tehran.
This package is a non-starter to most observers - including to other P5+1 diplomats. The problem is not necessarily the demands, but the imbalance between what is demanded and what is offered.
A senior US official told me in an interview for my book A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press, 2012), that the US tried very hard to turn the October 2009 talks into a win-win. "Not because we wanted to do Iran a favor," he said, "but because there was no other way to get a deal."
There still isn't another way to get a deal.
By June, European oil sanctions will kick in. And the US is intensifying its campaign to strong-arm other states to cut oil imports from Iran. It appears highly unlikely that Iran would agree to give considerable concessions in return for a halt to new UN sanctions while other more biting sanctions continue to be added.
It seems unavoidable that any de-escalation of Iranian nuclear activities must be accompanied with a de-escalation of sanctions in order for a deal to be struck.
Obama's challenge is that there is almost no political space for lifting some of the existing US sanctions. Since Congress has imposed most US sanctions, Congress must also approve any changes to them. Last time Obama took a fight with Congress over Iran sanctions, he lost the Senate vote with 100-0. He is not going to pick another fight over this issue with Congress in a middle of his re-election bid.
Greater flexibility may exist in the EU and Asia. But as time passes, the less valuable the promise of lifting sanctions will become. For instance, the offer of Asian powers to reverse their cuts in Iranian oil imports only carries credibility for a few more months. Once the Asian refineries pay the cost of shifting away from Iranian oil, they are unlikely to double that cost by shifting back to Iranian oil. At that point, in the words of an Asian diplomat, the Asian powers "will lose their leverage."
Herein lies the contradiction of coercive diplomacy (the dual-track approach) combined with phased negotiations. Coercive diplomacy dictates that pressure must be put on the other side for it to compromise. The incentive offered to the targeted state to concede is an easing of the pressure once it ceases its objectionable policies.
In a phased approach, in which the deal is separated into several different steps, a contradiction emerges if the pressured state actually complies. On the one hand, a change of behavior should be rewarded with a reduction of pressure. On the other hand, additional pressure is deemed necessary in order to coerce the sanctioned state to continue to compromise for the ensuing steps in the phased approach.
This contradiction risks collapsing the talks because the sanctioned state will likely only accept that its concessions are met with additional pressure if it so weak that it has no choice but to accept capitulation.
There is a risk that Obama's silence on the incentives side is motivated by the logic of the phased approach, that is, demands will be made throughout the talks but real incentives will only be offered in the final phase. But there is also a chance that the silence is a calculated move. While demands can be leaked to the US media, incentives will only be presented at the negotiating table once a diplomatic process has been put in place.
So far, both sides have shown a greater willingness to take a risk for escalation than a risk for peacemaking. Both sides believe that only the other party is guilty of this lack of courage. For war to be avoided, both sides need to look themselves in the mirror.