As nuclear talks commence here in Vienna, much of the discussion has rightly focused on the various technical details that a final nuclear deal must address. Indeed, the devil is in the details. However, the bigger picture is no less important, and it provides an important backdrop to the negotiations that will be taking place here over the next few days.
While we are not yet in the clear, we are most certainly in uncharted waters. Successful nuclear diplomacy in Geneva strengthened relationships between all relevant parties and provided valuable insights into their perspectives. Looking ahead, four big picture issues will go a long way toward making or breaking the peace.
1) Handling the Spoilers
They very real presence of spoilers on all sides is widely acknowledged. Before the interim deal in Geneva was struck, efforts to break the impasse by forward-thinking officials in Washington and Tehran reaffirmed the old adage, "No good deed goes unpunished." Elements seeking to score political points at home or benefit from the continuation of conflict have repeatedly torpedoed attempts at resolving tensions.
The most recent diplomatic efforts have already faced similar challenges. Congress has pushed for more hard-hitting sanctions. Iranian hardliners are seeking ways to narrow the window of opportunity that President Rouhani's team has to negotiate with Washington. As the seriousness of talks increases, so too does the risk of spoilers lashing out. The only way to neutralize them is to build confidence through tangible deliverables that both sides can use to push back against hardliners at home. In turn, this will ensure that the commitment to finding peaceful solutions will be stronger than the spoilers' commitment to confrontation.
2) Keeping Support At The Top
No less important are the forces for moderation that do not believe the political systems in Washington and Tehran must be entrenched in permanent confrontation. The enormity of the task at hand sometimes overshadows the historic backdrop of the Vienna talks: efforts to build confidence and resolve conflict have been openly supported President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. By backing the interim nuclear deal in Geneva, they provided an unprecedented foundation from which a final deal can grow.
If these negotiations are to successfully avoid falling prey to fractious domestic politics in both capitals, it will be necessary to provide a degree of political cover for both leaders. To that end, securing a final nuclear deal will require a bit of Public Diplomacy 101: Washington and Tehran will need to lower expectations publicly while raising them privately though compromise and verifiable follow-through on their respective commitments.
Rhetoric from both sides downplaying the odds for success should come as no surprise. But words should not overshadow facts: diplomacy would not be taking place without Obama and Khamenei's direct involvement in the process. Support at the top has helped create a trickle-down effect, producing a greater (though by no means comprehensive) number of officials in both capitals that are protecting and nurturing diplomacy. Foreign Minister Zarif, Secretary Kerry and members of their respective negotiating teams have repeatedly emphasized that win-win solutions and a window to work the diplomatic channel are in the interest of both sides.
3) Pursuing Interests Over Ideology
A degree of skepticism surrounding the diplomatic process is understandable. However, an overemphasis on this skepticism risks overlooking the theoretical bedrock upon which this entire process rests, reaffirmed for all to see when the interim deal was reached in Geneva: It is in the interest of both sides to develop a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the nuclear impasse.
Unlike years past, senior officials on both sides now openly acknowledge that alleged alternatives to diplomacy -- such as an escalation of sanctions, or an escalation in the technical aspects of Iran's nuclear program -- have not only caused the drumbeat of war to intensify, but also narrowed the remaining escalatory options that both sides have at their disposal. This sharpened focus among American and Iranian decision-makers has presented a unique window of opportunity to continue de-escalating tensions and reach a final nuclear deal.
Building confidence at the negotiating table has been the only pathway to date that has turned mistrust into cooperation. If past is prologue, opponents of diplomacy will continue portraying it as weakness, appeasement, or selling out to the enemy. Both sides will in turn need to absorb these ideological criticisms and keep their sights firmly focused on their actual interests. As a senior Western official told me upon arriving in Vienna: "We're not in the business of doing favors. We're in the business of pursuing our interests."
4) Dialogue Among Equals -- But Not Equally Powerful
For the first time in recent memory, the U.S. has demonstrated through word and deed that it is willing to have a real "dialogue among equals" with the Iranian government. Washington deserves credit for abandoning the failed approach of the past and instead working toward a strategic, mutually agreed upon endgame with the current political set-up in Tehran. The results have been clear, but they should not be surprising: A slowly reinvigorated diplomatic process, and empowered moderates in Washington and Tehran who prefer to solve conflict peacefully.
A dialogue among equals is critical for success, but it should not be confused with a dialogue between two equal powers. The reality is that we face a huge imbalance in power. In light of the way Iran is portrayed by some policymakers and pundits, one would think that it rivals the former Soviet Union in terms of threatening Western interests. Simply put: It doesn't. Iran is a regional power, not a superpower. Acknowledging this power imbalance helps explain a concern that Iranian hardliners stress: dealing with a stronger interlocutor might not only lead to sacrificing national interests, but also might threaten regime survival. Emasculating this argument will be critical to success at the negotiating table. It should be made clear to Iran in word and deed that they are being challenged for what they do, not for what they are.
So, now the hard part begins. It is fair to point out that the gap between technical solutions and political solutions may be too wide to bridge. However, the likely alternative -- war -- is a stark reminder for both sides that the status quo is neither in their interests nor sustainable. Iranian and American officials are seemingly prepared to make the requisite political investment for diplomacy to succeed. At this point, only one thing is for sure: it won't be easy.
Ambassador John Limbert beautifully described to me the challenge that lies ahead: "Diplomacy is like remodeling a house: it's probably going to be more complicated, take longer, and cost more than you think." Both sides have long known this to be true -- but for the first time in over three decades, they are simultaneously demonstrating a willingness to spend their (political) capital on peace.