This post originally appeared on the Truman Project’s Doctrine blog on April 8, 2013.
Two days of negotiations in Almaty, Kazakhstan have left negotiations between the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, China, Russia, France, and Germany) and Iran in a stalemate. After a previous round in Almaty gave some observers [see my earlier analysis on the Fletcher Forum here] reason to be optimistic, the negotiators have returned from this second round with little progress and no agreement to meet again.
There is reason to believe, however, that the chances for a diplomatic solution may soon rise. The key will lie in the crucial next steps taken not only by the P5+1, but also between the U.S. and Iran.
Following the latest round of negotiations in Almaty, a senior U.S. official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists that the talks, “were indeed quite substantive,” and noted that the discussion was, “more natural and free-flowing than past talks.” But while the substance of the meeting was more comprehensive, even including a “30-45 minute” back and forth between Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Iran’s lead negotiator, Saeed Jalili, reports indicate that the two sides remain far apart in their positions.
Despite this, the detailed level of this round of negotiations highlights each side’s willingness to search for points of agreement. Secretary of State Kerry noted in response to the meeting’s outcome that, “It is important to continue to talk and to try and find common ground.” He said, “We remain open and hopeful that a diplomatic solution can be found.”
Iran’s position has remained largely the same, requiring an acknowledgement of the country’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, along with sanctions relief, in exchange for ceasing the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent. The P5+1 has softened from its original offer and agreed to include some sanctions relief on gold and airplane parts, but so far the offer is not sufficient for Iran.
Just as the U.S. will have to deal with its own political pressures at home, Iran will need to be able to sell any eventual agreement to its people, who have become victims of the current sanctions regime. At this point, difficulties buying medicine and the rising cost of food continue to trump the desire for gold, however much it may help to boost the Iranian economy. Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, pointed out that “Confidence building is a two-way street.”
Unfortunately, Iran’s unwillingness to budge could be interpreted as a disinclination to negotiate at all, which could derail future of talks. Feeling that they have not seen sufficient movement in negotiations, the P5+1 has yet to respond to an Iranian request to schedule another meeting. There is a real risk in suspending negotiations entirely, particularly at this point, when the window for diplomatic negotiations is smaller than ever. Ultimately though, Iran will not be able to move forward with a deal until after the country’s elections in June. After this time, Iran will have a new President. It may also have a political opportunity to revise some of its policy positions.
In the months following Iran’s elections, bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and Iran could have a real impact. Each side has acknowledged its willingness to sit down for such negotiations, given that the U.S. and Iran have the most to discuss, but the two sides have stopped short of talking one-on-one. The closest they have come is the direct discussion that took place last weekend.
Most experts agree that the only way to move forward is through bilateral negotiations. Iran’s elections could provide the perfect opportunity for each side to play to their respective audiences while presenting a deal, the parameters of which have been clear for some time.
The key is in the two sides’ willingness to tip toe to the bilateral sit-down they’ve danced around for so long.