With a 15-minute phone call on Friday, presidents Hassan Rouhani and Barack Obama publicly signaled a readiness to engage after 34 years of venomous rhetoric and diplomatic silence between Iran and the United States. The day before, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sat with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. In return for a deal that would establish enforceable standards to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities, Iran expects significant sanctions relief. “In the endgame,” Zarif said after the meeting, Iran wants “a total lifting of sanctions.” In an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes, Kerry affirmed that Iran and the U.S. could reach a deal in the next three to six months—sooner, even, if Iran is “forthcoming and clear” in its negotiations.
But shifting from the stick of crippling economic sanctions to the carrot of sanctions relief is a complicated and slow process, and it would be challenging for the process to keep up with the pace of a swift rapprochement.
Iran’s economy has been targeted by sanctions since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and its prolonged separation from the world economy has taken a toll on the country. Today, unemployment is at 20 percent and inflation above 30 percent. A ban on selling aircraft or repair parts to Iran has contributed to 14 crashes and more than 1,000 fatalities in the past 16 years. Medicine is more scarce and more expensive than ever, and basic staples such as fruit, sugar, and poultry have seen their prices triple or quadruple since a renewed round of sanctions in 2012. “These sanctions are violent, pure and simple,” Rouhani said during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday. “It is the common people who are victimized by these sanctions.” Zarif has made it clear that sanctions relief is Iran’s first priority in these negotiations.
But in reality, 34 years of sanctions are very difficult to disentangle.
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