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Iran and world powers should focus on action steps for short-term agreement

As Iran and the world powers prepare for the next round of talks in Kazakhstan on April 5-6, their focus should be on what is politically and logistically achievable at this stage – clear steps that will help address the immediate concerns of both sides.

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Hardliners on both sides, of course, are likely to emphasize the negative and push for further escalation, thus squandering the diplomatic opportunity and extending the vicious race of sanctions against centrifuges.

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And these hardliners aren’t wasting time. The US Congress has before it two resolutions, one backing an Israeli strike on Iran and another tightening the sanctions vice. Iranians have their own plans, such as switching on hundreds of idle centrifuges at their bunkered Fordow facility or installing more sophisticated ones, thus tripling their mid-level uranium enrichment. These actions would prolong the standoff and inevitably increase the price for both parties to forego assets acquired at great cost. 

The vicious cycle can and should be broken, even if 10 years of escalation can hardly be reversed overnight. The web of sanctions imposed on Iran is now so intricately woven that it is hard to offer significant relief short of a major – and improbable – turnaround in Iran’s domestic and foreign policies.

And Iran's extensive nuclear program has come at such a high cost that it will be extraordinarily difficult for its leadership to justify retreating in the absence of meaningful sanctions relief, lest the entire nuclear enterprise appear in hindsight to be a political and economic folly.

To be realistic, it would take years for bureaucracies to undo sanctions, restore trading patterns, and cap nuclear activities. Similarly, the UN inspectors would require several years to dig into Iran’s past nuclear activities, visit its suspect sites, and interview its scientists to ensure that the program is purely peaceful. The process is also bound to be incomplete as both sides strive to retain sufficient leverage to guard against the other’s potential reneging.

Instead, Iran and the world powers should focus on actionable steps that help address the immediate concerns of both sides.

Iran’s suspension of uranium enrichment at the 20 percent level is the lowest hanging fruit – and the most pressing demand of the Western powers. If Iran agrees to halt enrichment at this level, it would effectively restrict operations at Fordow and address the most urgent proliferation concern.

Such a concession merits commensurate reciprocation, such as restoring Iran’s access to hard currency and relaxing sanctions on its petrochemical industry – an important source of revenue.

Such a basic and preliminary accord is not ideal for the long-term, but the perfect should not become the enemy of the good. The limited trade-off would reflect commitment to diplomacy and put more time on the proverbial nuclear clock.

Nevertheless, it cannot resolve the standoff. For that purpose, the endgame should be clarified from the outset. For Iran, this means the recognition in principle of its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. For the world powers, this means that Iran agrees to steer clear of acquiring short-term nuclear-weapons breakout capability.

More sustained engagement and expert-level meetings are essential for devising the blueprint of a longer-term agreement that would settle outstanding questions over Iran’s past nuclear activities, implement enhanced safeguards on its program, and gradually roll back more significant sanctions on its oil and financial sector.

Like hurdling in track and field, springing over the first obstacle does not guarantee victory. But without it, the race is lost.

Ali Vaez is the International Crisis Group’s senior Iran analyst.


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