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Opinion

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.

By Ali Vaez / April 3, 2013

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili listens to a question during a final news conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Feb. 27. Negotiators will return to Almaty for the next round of talks April 5-6. Op-ed contributor Ali Vaez says Iran should agree to suspend uranium enrichment at the 20 percent level in exchange for restored access to hard currency and relaxed sanctions on its petrochemical industry.

Pavel Mikheyev/AP

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Washington

Something changed in the nuclear talks between Iran and world powers last month in Almaty, Kazakhstan. For the first time, the two sides negotiated in earnest.

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Gone were the preconditions and meandering lectures of the past. Instead of maximalist upfront demands in return for nebulous future rewards, the envoys discussed explicit quid-pro-quo options. Both sides described the meetings with adjectives ranging from “useful” to “pivotal”.

Yet the follow-up 13.5-hour meeting in Istanbul between the parties’ arms control officials revealed that a great gulf remains in expectations. It was a sobering reminder that the diplomatic process is as fragile as the prospect of an agreement is elusive. Misperception and brinkmanship might yet make this opening another instance of what historian G.M. Tevelyan called “the turning point at which history fails to turn.”

As negotiators prepare for the next meeting in Kazakhstan on April 5-6, their focus should be on what is politically as well as logistically achievable at this stage.

The main challenge is that each side doubts the other’s commitment to diplomacy. Washington and the Europeans are skeptical that Iran could compromise before its presidential election in June. Tehran, in turn, fears a process in which its concessions are reciprocated by at best partial, reversible, or even symbolic reprieve from sanctions. But both sides’ doubts are based on faulty assumptions.

For one, key decisions In Iran still rest with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, not with whomever inherits the presidential mantle. And while from Tehran’s perspective, no deal is better than a bad deal – particularly during an electoral season – a good deal is better than none.

An accord that could reassure Iranian markets – as the prospects of a deal did after the Almaty meeting – could only help facilitate transition to the post-Ahmadinejad era. Iran’s agreement to hold these nuclear talks before the elections, notwithstanding the Persian New Year holidays, is a testament to its openness to a deal.

And the talks have already shown progress, however modest. The new P5+1 proposal reportedly reframed the nuclear concessions that would be expected from Iran, and offered, among other things, to relax restrictions on gold trading and the sale of petrochemical products.

Tehran should recognize that the offer counters its fears that sanctions are immutable. But it should also temper its expectations: Given the high level of mistrust and the legal hurdles embedded in the sanctions regime, a more generous offer at this time is simply unrealistic. Even these moderate incentives would require President Obama to persuade an antagonistic Congress – and the 27 European countries – to undergo painful consensus-building.

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