It will take some deft management and out-of-the-box thinking on the part of America and Iran to snatch success from the jaws of what could still be catastrophic failure. And it is on the cusp of just such failure where the world is now suspended — with the clock ticking loudly.
“There’s a small window of opportunity to de-escalate tensions, revitalize diplomacy prior to Iran’s presidential election in June,” Suzanne DiMaggio, senior fellow of the Carnegie Development for International Peace said at a Monday media briefing on arms control.
Even if a relative moderate wins the presidency, the postelection period is likely to be fraught. A new president will face considerable pressure to put his own stamp on the proceedings, select a new set of negotiators and decide in what fashion to return to the table. If at all.
“There’s an element of irreversibility here on both sides,” Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, said in Monday’s briefing. While Iran can’t get back the nearly three years of economic losses caused by the Trump administration’s “irresponsible maximum pressure campaign,” said Davenport, the US can’t reverse Iran’s knowledge on the advanced centrifuges and other research and development.
It’s true that such issues must be dealt with before any deals can be reached. Still, the longer the world waits for a return to some sort of agreement controlling Iran’s actions, the harder it will be to stop Iran’s advances in research.
Against this backdrop, Vienna’s negotiators are most likely looking for a confluence of common interests, using the existing window of opportunity to reach an agreement before a new president takes over in Iran.
There would appear to be two potential paths going forward. First, the most direct — the Biden administration simply returning to the JCPOA that Trump sought to torpedo. Then it’s largely a question of sequencing and seeing who blinks first. Will it be the US lifting sanctions or Iran spiking its new centrifuges and allowing inspections? Or, ideally, both at the same time.
The other option is the possibility of scrapping it all and starting all over — with new issues like Iran’s missile program, aid for Shiite militias, even the war in Yemen on the table along with a broader regional nonproliferation pact drawing in Saudi Arabia, Israel and all their neighbors.
Often, however, simple is just better — at least in pursuit of a program that could keep nuclear weapons out of Iran’s hands for enough time to work on solving other problems central to a stable and peaceful Middle East.