AS diplomacy once more reclaims its place in U.S.-Iran relations, a peculiar psychological barrier continues to bedevil prospects of a settlement. The great powers are busy imposing sanctions on Iran that they will amend only if Tehran dismantles key aspects of its nuclear program. In the meantime, Iran is hesitant to make concessions, aware that the expansion of its nuclear capability enhances its bargaining power. In the search of negotiating advantage, neither side is willing to part with what they consider to be their leverage. The best means of breaking this vicious cycle is not to search for a grand deal, but a limited one that breaches the wall of mistrust and potentially sets the stage for further-reaching arms control measures.
The basic U.S. strategy has rested on the notion that increased economic penalties can produce a reliable interlocutor prone to negotiating a viable agreement. The intriguing aspect of this policy is that it is burdened by its own partial success. The American sanctions policy has triumphed beyond the anticipation of its many detractors, as Washington has convinced a large segment of the international community to abjure Iranian commerce. And yet, ironically, the more the sanctions policy succeeds, the more reluctant the great powers become to exchange any of their gains for a modest compromise.