Iran and the West: whose ball in whose court?

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Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s new president-elect, has expressed hope for better foreign relations. With tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program running high in the United States, analysts are debating who will make the first move.

“This is an excellent opportunity for both sides to turn the page,” said Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute.

Moving things forward on the nuclear front has to be a shared burden between both countries, Vatanka added.

However, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said the ball is in Tehran’s court, and the United States is waiting for a substantive response from the Iranians.

Contrary to that view, Vatanka said some people in Washington want to give the Iranians something to work with, and are arguing for a genuine easing of economic sanctions.

“Iranians want serious sanction relief. The Americans have to do that,” said Vatanka.

A compromise on sanctions exists in theory on paper, but the question is whether or not it can move forward, he added.

The United States wants to “see the Iranians take concrete steps to provide the kind of transparency the world community, in particular the Western powers, expect from Iran” on its nuclear program, he said.

However, Rowhani is in a tough spot, and cannot take office making big promises, Vatanka added.

“He can’t come in and say ‘we’re going to suspend our enrichment forever’… They can’t even live with the idea of temporary suspension,” he said.

Psaki said it is too early to speculate about Rowhani’s future policies, and cautioned that Iran’s nuclear portfolio will remain under the control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

There are some areas where the United States could compromise, including lessening restrictions on Tehran selling crude oil, and relieving the pressure on the Iranian Central Bank, Vatanka said.

The oil embargo, imposed by Washington and the European Union, bans many of Tehran’s biggest customers from buying its oil. The Iranian Central Bank is the country’s biggest recipient of oil payments, and oil exports account for 80% of Tehran’s export earnings. Iran has seen a 40% reduction in oil exports since the embargo took effect.

Meanwhile, U.S. conditions for nuclear negotiations remain the same, said Psaki.

Rowhani’s stated willingness to adopt a more flexible approach in nuclear diplomacy and relations with the United States does not entail compromising on Iran’s rights under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, said Farideh Farhi, an advisory board member of the National Iranian American Council.

The president-elect’s stated policy preferences are not all that different in substance from Iran’s current position, Farhi added.

“Rowhani is hoping that his election in such a convincing manner will also convince others, particularly the United States, to also become more flexible in negotiations,” Farhi said.

The ball is the U.S. court, not Iran’s, as previous negotiations were not equitable, and asked Tehran to take major steps in limiting its nuclear program in exchange for very little, she added.

“This formula won’t work, even with Rowhani at the presidential helm,” Farhi said.

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