As Washington contemplates another round of diplomacy with Iran, an intense debate is gripping the Islamic Republic's corridors of power. An influential and growing segment of Iran's body politic is calling for a negotiated settlement of the nuclear issue. Such calls have transcended the circle of reformers and liberals and are increasingly being voiced by conservative oligarchs. In the midst of this melodrama stands the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whose instincts for resistance are being challenged by some of his loyal supporters.
The international community can play an important role in nudging this discussion in the right direction. Pursuing a deliberate arms-control process that initially focuses on stopping Iran's more dangerous enrichment activities will both ease tensions and press this debate in the right direction.
In a sense, the sanctions policy that the United States has pursued over the past decade is beginning to bear fruit. Sanctions and pressure were never going to provoke an Iranian capitulation, but they have seemingly succeeded in convincing influential sectors of the theocracy to reconsider their options. The notions of talks with the United States and compromise solutions are not new in Iran, but had previously been embraced by largely inconsequential actors such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his two predecessors, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami.
In recent days, however, that chorus has been gingerly joined by some hardliners. In November, Mohsen Rezai, the former head of the Revolutionary Guard, stressed that given Iran's strength, it is now in a position to address the United States on a more equal footing. In a similar vein, General Muhammad Reza Naqdi, the head of the Basij militia, who had previously acclaimed the virtues of sanctions as empowering domestic production, now claims that "if the United States behaves properly we can negotiate with it."