Modest progress and an open door with Iran

In a promising turn of events, reports indicate that Iran demonstrated a willingness to stick to the subject of its nuclear program and did not insist on counterproductive preconditions, as it has in the past. "If there is goodwill, one can pass through this process very easily and we are ready to resolve all issues very quickly and simply," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in an interview Monday. But it is unclear what “goodwill” will be forthcoming. The six world powers will expect to see meaningful Iranian confidence building measures before agreeing to ease sanctions.

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If a solution is to be reached, each side will need to compromise; this cannot be a zero-sum game. At this point, experts from each side will work to come up with a set of concrete measures to be considered. Stemming Iran’s stockpiling of medium-enriched uranium is the most urgent near-term priority, and must be a part of any early confidence building steps. But from Iran’s perspective, some incentive will need to be provided. This might include the provision by the United States and its allies of fuel for Iran’s Tehran Research Reactor or the promise to delay tougher sanctions.  This “diplomatic window” is an important moment in ongoing negotiations.

At the conclusion of talks in Istanbul, President Obama remarked that, “Now, the clock is ticking and I’ve been very clear to Iran and to our negotiating partners that we’re not going to have these talks just drag out in a stalling process.” But it is important to keep in mind that diplomacy does not happen in a day. In order to reach agreement, the two sides will need to remain committed to dialogue and undergo extensive bargaining.

There are some indications that the parties see hope on the horizon.  European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton remarked after the talks that, “We want now to move to a sustained process of serious dialogue, where we can take urgent practical steps to build confidence and lead on to compliance by Iran with all its international obligations.” She went on to say that the group would be guided by a “step-by-step approach and reciprocity.” This positive attitude has not always been the case after talks with Iran, and gives some indication that the international community may be willing to reward Iran if it moves to alleviate the concerns surrounding its nuclear program.

Importantly, there is time for this negotiating process to continue. Experts continue to assess that even under the most optimal circumstances, it would take at least a year for Iran to produce a testable nuclear weapon, and considerably longer to develop the means to deliver it. Even more, US and European intelligence officials have stated their belief that, though Iran may be working toward some form of nuclear capability, there is no evidence that they have made the decision to build a nuclear weapon.
 
It is important to remember that diplomacy takes time, and in the case of Iran, plenty of time still remains. The steps taken by the US and its allies to pursue a diplomatic solution are laudable. The international community should be given the space to press forward and seek a final agreement. This is the best way to deal with the unwanted potential for a nuclear Iran.

Olson is the Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non Proliferation. You can read another one of her op-eds here.