The opportunity for a compromise on nuclear and other regional issues between Iran and the United States has never been so ripe as now, when talks resume between Iran and international negotiators in Istanbul this weekend.
The desire for progress on both sides of the table is observable. What can ensure a tangible result?
The answer is an active effort to keep this new engagement continuous and irreversible. Just as nonproliferation is vital to the US, the peaceful use of nuclear technology is valued in Iran as an inalienable right. Hence, an agenda for an ongoing negotiation that balances these two interests must be proposed at the very first meeting to capture the momentum.
The failure of past negotiations is often associated with domestic political rivalry in both Iran and the US. It seems today, however, that both sides have overcome internal divisions.
That Iran agreed to take part in talks without further delay, in spite of sharp critics ranging from military and political officials to the Tehran Friday prayers leader Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, is a good sign and a momentous decision.
At the same time, the US administration is in an election year. The Obama administration must make a courageous decision considering the criticism that anti-Iranian hardliners will use to foil any credible political deal with Iran. Thus, this is a promising start.
Another encouraging sign is the reappointment of Hashemi Rafsanjani, the symbol of pragmatism in the Iranian body politic, as the head of Expediency Council, the body that advises Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It was the supreme leader who reappointed Mr. Rafsanjani, despite overt enmity against him expressed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the last seven years.
The leader’s hailing of Rafsanjani for all his endeavors came at a time when Rafsanjani recalled a sensitive letter he drafted to the leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a couple of years before his demise. The letter spoke of the need to resolve relations between Iran and the US and also improve relations with Saudi Arabia, not only for mutual oil policies but also for regional peace and tranquility.
These are important signals from the Iranian side, sent at the highest level.
In the US, President Obama asserts that Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear technology. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton affirmatively reflects on the religious decree of Ayatollah Khamenei against the production and use of nuclear weapons. Mrs. Clinton has urged Iran to translate its religious belief into active government policy – including allowing inspections and exchanging some of Iran's enriched uranium for fuel for its research reactor.
Both signals show a softening of the US position backing the 2006 UN Security Council resolution that demanded Iran “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development.” The American softening also indicates a readiness for respectful engagement.
At a time when neither suspension of Iranian nuclear activity nor international collaboration with Iran on nuclear technology seems feasible, the one possible step is either a temporary cap on the number of centrifuges or a demonstration of restraint in the level of enrichment – or both – as confidence building measures by Iran.
According to the Iranian News Agency, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran considers the idea of a temporary cap on the level of enrichment a likely path Iran could take. That would allow for the 20 percent enriched uranium required for producing medical isotopes. This leaves the door open for a fuel swap. The idea of a fuel cap was repeatedly affirmed by Mr. Ahmadinajad last summer. Such a position matches the US request for sustainable transparency and meticulous verification, supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
To make these talks a success, the parties must first aim for a win-win negotiation. Each side at the end of each round must have something tangible to show to the public back home.
Second, reciprocity is crucial. Word for word, and action for action, mutual concessions will secure the result, limit expectations, and warrant a continuation of the process.
Third, the promulgation of an initial agreement or statement, expressing the principal positions of each side, can shut the door on those who might be interested in prolonging the crisis. An initial agreement could be in the form of a joint communiqué, to limit disparate interpretations and also to promote the commitment to getting real results from each round.
Finally, as the incoming president of the Non-Aligned Movement, Iran wishes to be treated as a reliable member of the international community. Therefore, a respectful and cooperative atmosphere free from blame and recrimination is necessary for a constructive, problem-solving approach to resolving the nuclear issue as well as other regional issues.
By approaching with compromise, maybe we will be able to see the US high-level delegation as a guest to the nonaligned summit in Tehran this summer.
Mansour Salsabili is a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. A senior political expert on leave from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, he participated in a number of efforts ranging from UN reforms to the Non-Aligned Movement. The views expressed here are entirely his own.