Farideh Farhi is an independent scholar and affiliate graduate faculty member at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She was most recently a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
In Iran, there seems to be a political will to resolve the nuclear standoff. This political will involves determination on the part of the Rouhani administration as well as a rare domestic consensus that the president needs to be given a chance and internal support in his declared quest to both resolve the nuclear issue and reduce the hostility that was created in the West during the Ahmadinejad administration. What is less clear or is questionable is the existence of such a political will in the United States. Tehran is fully aware that the Obama administration is under pressure to remain recalcitrant on the demand that Iran end its enrichment program and on substantial easing of sanctions. But Obama's stand-down on Syria has created optimism that he may be keen on reducing tensions in the region as well as willing to ignore forces and countries that find benefit in continued hostilities between Iran and the U.S. As such, some sort of intermediate or initial agreement within the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany) opening the path for bilateral talks is possible.
It should be noted that such an intermediate agreement almost happened in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 election but was derailed because of opposition in Iran over worries that such a deal with external players would open the path for further repression at home. The revamping of Iran's domestic dynamics after the 2013 presidential election and increased concern by many people in the U.S. regarding the potential for coercive diplomacy opening the path for another destructive war in the Middle East region has improved the prospects for a nuclear deal.
A diplomatic solution will have to be based on flexibility and realistic assessment of what is possible on the part of both sides. The broad frames of an initial agreement have been extensively discussed in public. Furthermore, at least temporary limitations on Iran's 20 percent enrichment activities were placed on the table in previous negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. Tehran has been open to the implementation of the additional protocol, but it has been resistant to further International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of its military installation at Parchin without some sort of agreement on the modality of the visit. Up to now, it has maintained a maximalist position regarding the easing of sanctions, calling for suspension of most sanctions in the first stages. This position is obviously unrealistic and will have to change.
The United States, in turn, has been quite stingy in its willingness to reduce sanctions, fearing that any kind of substantial easing would make Iran uninterested in further talks and limitations on its nuclear program. But some sort of easing -- for instance, in relation to financial restrictions on the movement of Iranian dollars held abroad -- may get in return not only suspension of 20 percent enrichment but also further cooperation with the IAEA in its demand to visit Parchin. The U.S. has been unwilling to reveal its endgame in relation to Iran's enrichment program and whether the intent is to halt or limit it. Finally, the American demand for Iran to close or mothball Fordo, the under-mountain enrichment facility that is under IAEA inspection, while publicly maintaining that the option of militarily attacking Iran's nuclear facilities is on the table is simply unrealistic, given the fact that Fordo was created precisely in response to the declared military option.
It is true that at this point there are other actions that can be taken to lessen the mistrust between the two countries. The U.S. agreement to allow Iran to be part of multinational talks on Syria will, for instance, impact Iran's threat perception and its fear that the U.S. is intent on regime change. Iran's lowering of its profile in Syria will, in turn, impact the image it has in the U.S. of being a troublemaker in the region. But the bottom line is that after 35 years of open hostility and 10 years of unfruitful and troubled negotiations, any kind of initial agreement on the nuclear file, no matter how limited, would be a truly significant step in shaking the hostile narratives that have become deeply institutionalized in both countries. In Iran, at least, it would go a long way in undermining the narrative that the nuclear issue is merely an excuse for increasing pressures and, ultimately, regime change.