I hate to say it--and I really do hate to say it--but I told you so. This week's much-anticipated talks between Iran and P5+1 (the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) began amid great optimism but ended without even tentative agreement on anything. The good news, such as it is, is that the two sides will meet again in June.
The primary sticking point, as I anticipated, was relief from sanctions. Iran, it seems, is open to doing what P5+1 wants (halting the production of 20-percent-enriched uranium, surrendering all existing 20-percent-enriched uranium, etc.). But in return, Iran wants significant sanctions relief, and the only relief on offer involved sanctions on spare airplane parts.
Why the P5+1 refusal to budge? I think it lies partly in a mistakenly binary conception of sanctions--the idea that any meaningful sanctions relief at all means giving up most of, or at least much of, the leverage that sanctions offer. In truth, we can proceed more incrementally, giving Iran meaningful sanctions relief while keeping almost all of our powder dry.
2) Sanctions relief is cheap. Do you have any idea how many sanctions we've imposed on Iran over the past two decades? Check out this list (but make sure your scrolling muscles are in shape first). And hey, we don't even have to tap that reservoir of sanctions, because those are just the US sanctions--the acts of Congress and executive orders! There's also UN sanctions and EU sanctions. And one EU sanction--the embargo on Iranian oil that's scheduled to take effect in July--is tailor made for this occasion. The sanctions "relief" could just assume the form of delaying the onset of the embargo by a few months. Then if Iran didn't deliver on its commitments, the embargo would kick in automatically; enduring relief from the embargo would require additional EU action, contingent on demonstrated Iranian compliance. (This would in that sense be sanctions "relief" in which the default is set to "distrust".)
Look, if we can get a positive outcome from these talks without any sanctions relief, fine. But if the talks fail when a little sanctions relief would have saved them, that's like Bill Gates letting the world fall apart because saving it would have cost $10,000. We can afford to dole out some sanctions relief for incremental Iranian concessions and still have plenty of painful sanctions in reserve.
There's a chance that the P5+1 will change its position before the mid-June talks. In any event, I'm sticking with my original prediction: If no meaningful sanctions relief is put on the table before July, this will end badly.