The latest round of talks between the P5+1 (the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia) and Iran ended on a positive note today as the two sides agreed to continue their discussion in the coming months. Early reports indicate that talks this week in Almaty, Kazakhstan, seem to have been among the most productive of the past year, leaving some onlookers cautiously optimistic for the future of a deal. But the six powers will have to seize this momentum now, or risk far more dangerous consequences down the road.
After two days of negotiations, the parties have agreed to hold an experts meeting in Istanbul on March 18 followed by a political directors meeting in Kazakhstan on April 5-6. While Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili described the Almaty meeting as a “positive step,” U.S. negotiators were more circumspect, preferring to wait for more tangible progress before signaling any kind of breakthrough.
“If Dr. Jalili has said it is positive, then I'm pleased,” said the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton. “But we have to look at the results.”
The negotiators can be forgiven for their hesitance to rejoice after years of stalemate and decades of mistrust on both sides. But regardless of past disappointments, the increasing pace of diplomatic negotiations is a positive move forward. Eight months of diplomatic silence has led some to harden their stance on the Iranian nuclear issue as the country continues to move closer to the ability to quickly build a nuclear device. But the increasing bite of sanctions on Iran, paired with willingness on the part of the six powers to begin to offer up some sanctions relief, seems to have provided a small window of opportunity for a diplomatic solution.
In some ways, in offering some small amount of sanctions relief and indicating readiness to work with Iran on the issue of its 20% enriched uranium, the U.S. and its international allies have softened their negotiating position. The six powers have retreated slightly from the more hard line stance of June 2012, but it is precisely this kind of willingness to compromise that will eventually deliver a deal. Iran is currently under the strongest sanctions regime ever enacted, but the purpose of these sanctions is not simply to punish. The sanctions are meant to be, and must be, used as leverage in acquiring a deal with Iran. This is not weakness; it is strategy in its simplest form.
In the coming weeks, it will be key for the P5+1 to push for some level of compromise. An inability or unwillingness to reach for a negotiated settlement will deprive the U.S. and the world of a very real opportunity to stop Iran’s nuclear program from reaching a critical tipping point. Beyond that point, the options become murkier and much more dangerous, and will almost certainly lead to another large-scale ground war in the Middle East. Now is the time to push this deal to its conclusion, or face greater repercussions down the line.