With the elections behind him, President Obama must quickly shift his focus to key foreign policy challenges that were put on pause due to election season paralysis. On Iran, the President should hit the ground running.
Obama has a unique opportunity to make headway on the diplomatic front between November 8 and March 20, when the Iranian New Year hits. After that, Iran enters its own election season and the paralysis that comes with it. This may be his last best shot to resolve the U.S.-Iran conflict peacefully.
While both sides believe they are in a position of strength, reality is that neither Washington nor Tehran holds a trump card. U.S.-led sanctions cannot force capitulation or regime change in Iran (See: Saddam Hussein's Iraq), and America will not succumb to an Iranian nuclear fait accompli.
The only real solution is a negotiated one -- but how can Obama make diplomacy succeed? Here are four recommendations.
1) Place a Premium on Sequencing
Both sides have agreed to a step-by-step process based on reciprocity and proportionality -- but this must be translated into a clever sequencing between lifting sanctions and Iranian concessions on enrichment.
The difference between lifting sanctions and waiving sanctions is subtle but vital. Obama is asking Iran to commit to three steps, of which one is irreversible: 1) Stop enriching uranium to the twenty-percent level; 2) Ship out Iran's existing stockpile of enriched uranium; 3) Shut down its underground nuclear enrichment facility. In turn, the Iranians insist that Obama irreversibly lift sanctions.
However, Obama may only have the authority to waive a very limited degree of sanctions. Congress ultimately holds the power to lift sanctions, and there is a near consensus on Capitol Hill that it will not happen anytime soon. The battle between the White House and Congress on sanctions will be critical.
If Obama cannot lift U.S. sanctions, he has two options at his disposal: 1) Agree to temporarily freeze sanctions in return for Iran temporarily freezing the aforementioned aspects of its nuclear program; 2) Work with allies in Europe to stop EU sanctions in return for Iran stopping aspects of its program.
Ultimately, however, a limited deal is not likely to last. The more comprehensive it is, the more stable it will be. For this to be achieved, both Ian and the US must compromise: Iran by accepting significant limits to its enrichment program and full transparency, and the US by lifting -- not waiving -- its sanctions.
2) Talk Directly and Discreetly
The P5+1 mechanism for negotiations must be complemented by direct talks between the U.S. and Iran. There is no guarantee that direct talks will succeed, but the process is guaranteed to fail without them. Iran has refused a bilateral meeting with the U.S. since October 2009, but there are ways to get Tehran to agree.
Iran has stated its interest in going beyond the most difficult issue on the table -- its nuclear program -- and discussing additional regional security issues such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as human rights. America has preferred to keep the focus solely on nuclear issues. This exacerbates each of these respective crises. Washington should offer to expand the agenda -- but only in private, bilateral talks, not in the P5+1 setting. Discussing these issues is not paramount to accepting linkages between them. By separating the settings for these two conversations, Washington will get the crucial bilateral channel without further convoluting the P5+1 talks with an overbearing agenda.
3) Don't Lose the Allies!
While it is important to present Tehran with a united front, the P5+1 mechanism itself is plagued with numerous problems. In the absence of greater American flexibility on the issue of sanctions, P5+1 unity may soon fall apart. Russia has already presented its own national proposal -- a divergence from the oft-emphasized unity. If the unity collapses, Iran will stand to benefit as it plays the various P5+1 members against each other and exploits the fragmentations. Flexibility and alliance management is critical sustain the P5+1 unity.
4) Don't couple 'Go Big' with an Ultimatum
Both Tehran and Washington have realized that their opening offers this past summer were non-starters. Iran wanted all sanctions lifted before it would begin limiting its enrichment program. American sought Iranian concessions upfront only to offer sanctions relief at the very end of the step-by-step process. Moreover, "going small" -- that is, demanding less of Iran in order to justify the absence of sanctions relief -- was politically unfeasibly.
This gave birth to the idea of 'Going Big' -- circumventing the politically tricky sequencing and instead putting everything on the table. But somehow, 'Going Big' was mysteriously linked to an ultimatum. If the Iranians did not agree to our last (and first) big offer, there would be war.
This would be a serious mistake that would guarantee war. While going bigger may be necessary to reach an agreement, we can't get a big offer right through a single attempt. If the Iranians presented a big offer to the P5+1 -- "or else," the world would rightly reject it and see it as an attempt to justify Iranian intransigence.
Similarly, Tehran -- and the world -- will view any US ultimatum as an attempt to create a path towards war. Diplomacy should help avoid war, not lay the groundwork for it.