It’s a ‘head spinning’ moment in Washington, according to a senior American diplomat quoted in today’s New York Times. Diplomacy is on the rise. A negotiated agreement has replaced military threats in Syria, at least for the moment, and the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran looms on the horizon.
President Obama will be speaking at the UN on Tuesday, and so will Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The signals from Iran have been encouraging of late, with Rouhani promising ‘constructive engagement’ and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei urging ‘heroic leniency’ in talks with the West.
Achieving progress with Iran will be difficult given the deep differences between Washington and Tehran. Each side will need to make a conciliatory gesture to break the ice. Iran desperately wants sanctions relief and would probably offer significant concessions in return for an easing of economic pressure.
President Obama is reportedly reluctant to offer sanctions relief until Iran agrees to negotiated limits on its nuclear program. Maintaining the leverage of sanctions makes sense, but this does not preclude the option of offering partial sanctions relief now to get the bargaining process underway.
A decision to suspend non-military sanctions could open the door to significant Iranian concessions. As George Lopez and I argue, some non-military sanctions could be suspended for an initial period of six months, which could be renewed if Iran responds positively with concrete limitations on its nuclear program.
The decision to suspend some sanctions could be combined with an indication that other sanctions will be lifted on a step-by-step basis if the Iranian side reciprocates in establishing greater transparency and binding limits on its nuclear program. The advantage of sanctions suspension is that it allows for quickly re-activating sanctions if Iran does not respond in kind or attempts to exploit the gesture. It is a way of offering what the Iranians want most and provides a concrete test of their declared sincerity in building more constructive relations with the international community.