The diplomatic push by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to resolve the decade-long dispute over Iran’s nuclear program reached its zenith during his visit to New York in late September, exactly one year after Iran’s currency collapsed under the weight of US-led sanctions. Although the timing is largely accidental, the correlation between sanctions and Iran’s willingness to negotiate is not. These measures have clearly hurt Iran’s economy, and its leaders are searching for an agreement with the West that includes sanctions relief.
Much analysis of the reasons for Iran’s new conciliatory approach credits sanctions for the improved diplomatic prospects for reaching a deal. Where opinions differ is how to respond to Iran. Should the West begin with positive gestures and take steps to ease sanctions or tighten them to squeeze a better deal from an adversary in retreat. The question then becomes: whose side is time on?
As Vali Nasr argued forcefully in the New York Times last week, Tehran does not feel pressed for time on political grounds because it sees itself approaching new negotiations from a position of strength.
Only a few months ago, Iran concluded a landmark presidential election that brought to power a popular government much closer to the reformist camp than to the Supreme Leader, challenging the notion of the Islamic Republic as a political system in demise. The charm offensive in this case is an olive branch, not a white flag.
Those who believe that time is on the West’s side argue that Rouhani’s election is actually a sign of Iran’s desperation. They argue that Iran’s economy is in such dire circumstances that it has forced Ayatollah Ali Khamenei into a domestic compromise that makes an external one possible.
Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.
[On the U.S. negotiating team at the COP 24 climate negotiations in Katowice, Poland] They work seriously, effectively and knowledgeably. There is only this technical negotiating team, not a political one.