From the outside, the heated debate between Tehran and Washington seems as though it could be summarised by the question: Which side will make the first move? Tehran wants Washington, which was responsible for violating its obligations and inflicting heavy losses on Iran, to start by lifting all additional sanctions imposed on it by the Donald Trump administration, following its unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018.
Washington, however, rejects the immediate and automatic return to the nuclear agreement. It insists that Tehran initiates a return to its obligations under the agreement, halting all of its activities that violate it, including surrendering the 17 kilograms of 20 per cent-enriched uranium that it produced. Washington also wants Tehran to dismantle the additional centrifuges that were operated and cease all production of enriched uranium, in preparation for Washington's return to the agreement.
However, on the inside the debate over what the "first step" is, and who will take it, is hiding deeper fears and conflicts as well as interests that are more conflicting than they appear at first glance.
Even by imposing its return to the nuclear agreement without alteration or change, which is unlikely, Washington is not hiding its insistence on reaching a "comprehensive agreement" with Iran that addresses its missile programme and regional role.
Iran, fully aware of this, says that the negotiations were completed in 2015, and categorically refuses to open the rest of the files at the negotiating table. In imposing the condition that Iran firstly returns to its obligations, Washington finds strong support from the powerful European troika: France, Germany and Britain.
The Russian Federation and the European Union (EU) support Iran's return to its commitments, and warn of the consequences of the collapse of the nuclear agreement if Tehran insists on continuing its threat of "violating its obligations". This will place the Iranian nuclear programme outside the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
No one wants the nuclear agreement to collapse, with the exception of three or four countries of which Israel is at the forefront – a well-known fact. However, the differences surrounding the ways to salvage the agreement and the conditions for lifting US sanctions, or returning to Iranian commitments, seem very confusing. It puts the relationship between Washington and Tehran in the midst of these differences, fuelled and deepened by extremists on both sides as well as their allies.
If the intentions are true, and the parties are loyal to the interests of the region's peoples and their need for security, stability and development, then "diplomacy" will not be lost as a means to salvage the agreement.
It will be possible for Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, who was involved in the efforts to finalise the agreement more than five years ago, to bridge the gaps, such as adopting step-by-step tactics, confidence-building measures, integrating third parties in settlement efforts or adopting initiatives that appear to be humanitarian, but are political on the inside.
Unfortunately for the two parties, however, each side's internal dynamics may prevent or delay progress on the road to settlement and solution. Iran will be holding decisive presidential elections in five months – not the most appropriate time to conduct negotiations with Iran. In Washington, internal problems plague the new administration, and it is consuming almost all of its time and energy as it works to overcome them.
With the presence of allies who have practiced pressure and blackmail policies, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Defense Forces' Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi, combined with the influence they have on the Jewish lobby in Washington, the task of the new administration regarding Iran will be challenging.
This article first appeared in Arabic in the New Khaleej on 3 February 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.