When Iran agreed to serious engagement with world powers over its controversial nuclear program last month, it put special store in the agreed upon process: a "step-by-step approach and reciprocity."
For the Iranians, that meant draconian sanctions imposed by the US, European Union, and the UN would be eased with each concession from Tehran. But as the next round of talks looms on May 23 in Baghdad, questions are being raised about whether the US can – or even intends to – ease sanctions no matter what steps Iran agrees to take.
One senior Iranian figure last week stated that Iran's "minimum expectation" in Baghdad talks is lifting sanctions.
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Yet in the US the power to adjust American sanctions resides not with President Barack Obama but with Congress, which has voiced a hawkish stance on Iran in a US election year. Iran is also under four sets of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council (UNSC), and starting July 1 will be subject to a European oil embargo, which may be the most negotiable set of trade restrictions. Historically, the lifting of sanctions against various regimes has been a slow, conservative process.
Administration officials say that "sanctions relief is not on the table unless and until we see substantial concessions" from Iran, says Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"I don't think there is really any give on the sanctions issue ... in part because in a political year, an election year, with a Congress that is very solidly behind these sanctions, it would be very difficult for the president to appear to be waffling on them at all," says Ms. Maloney.
The word "incentive" is rarely used in Washington, regarding Iran, though other measures may be offered in Baghdad.
"I do worry that there is a disconnect," says Maloney. "The Iranians from their perspective need something to demonstrate some sense of victory, and to persuade the skeptics within their own camp that there are rewards to be gained from cooperation, not just preventing any further pressure, but actually lifting some of the sense of siege."
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Iran has signaled it may stop 20 percent uranium enrichment – used to fuel an existing reactor in Tehran, but also just a few technical steps away from weapons-grade material for a bomb – and cap enrichment levels to below 5 percent, to fuel ordinary power reactors.
Iran may also accept a more stringent inspection regimen by implementing the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
A critical test will come next week, when Iran meets with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to discuss outstanding claims of past weapons-related work, and access to a military base at Parchin, which Iran has rejected twice since January.
Iran 'cleansing' sensitive site?
Satellite images published this week by the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington have prompted speculation that Iran was "cleansing" the site a month ago, prior to any inspection.
Senior Iranian officials have proclaimed that all such issues will be resolved "very quickly and simply" in Baghdad, given the right attitude on the other side of the table.
Yet Iran also expects the so-called P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, England, France, and Germany) to lift some of the sanctions that are crippling its economy. The raft of measures target Iran's banking and lifeline oil sectors in particular. Iran's nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili was reported to have "relentlessly" pressed his P5+1 counterpart, Catherine Ashton, for a delay in the European oil embargo, during a bilateral meeting in Istanbul.
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"We are at a crucial threshold," says Kaveh Afrasiabi, a former advisor to Iranian nuclear negotiating teams from 2004 to 2006.
"The decision-makers [in Iran] are moving in the direction of a flexible response," says Mr. Afrasiabi, contacted in New York. "They obviously need to show some net Iranian gains as a result of concessions, without which [any agreements] would be tantamount to political suicide."
Iranians aware of US politics
That means reciprocity, even if it does not include sanctions relief right away. The Iranians feel they have been victims of broken contracts and double-speak during past nuclear negotiations, says Afrasiabi, and therefore want to see some firm guarantees.
"The Iranians understand the intricacies of American politics, the exceptional situation of an election year and the environment in which Obama operates," says Afrasiabi. "So I think they are willing to some extent to accommodate themselves ... but only so far."
Inside Iran, messages have been mixed.
"Judging by the newspapers and media, there is a range of expectations; strangely the government is the moderate one," says an analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named.
Hardliners demanding a complete lifting of US and Western sanctions at the Baghdad talks are being countered by officials with this argument: "You raise expectations and define the success of this meeting by something extraordinary like removal of sanctions, [but] when it doesn't happen it will damage us very badly, damage the economy and produce another shock," says the Tehran analyst.
One carrot: right to enrichment
Instead, Iran may get formal recognition of its right to enrich to a certain level – which could be presented as an initial victory in Tehran.
"If the UNSC resolutions [which require a suspension of all enrichment] are shoved under a rock, and Iran can continue enrichment, then the Iranians will have to reciprocate," says the analyst.
“A successful strategy must allow Iran to come out of talks with a smile on its face, even if it gives up the most sensitive parts of its nuclear program,” writes Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an analysis published yesterday.
Yet history has shown that it is far easier to impose sanctions than to remove them. It took more than seven years after the US invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein, for example, before the UN voted to finally cancel its sanctions on Iraq.
"This is the difficulty of our policy," says Maloney at Brookings. "We're trying to use economic pressure in order to change their security perceptions. But in effect we cement their own sense of insecurity because they see the sanctions as a permanent means of ending the Islamic Republic."
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