Observers of the 74th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) this week who were hoping for a breakthrough in the United States-Iran nuclear deal stand-off would have been disappointed. In speeches to the assembled world leaders, Presidents Donald Trump and Hassan Rowhani staked out familiar positions. Trump called Iran one of the “greatest security threats facing peace-loving nations”, referred to the regime’s “record of death and destruction”, and called for an end to financing of Tehran’s “bloodlust”. Rowhani, who followed Trump a day later, charged that the US had engaged in “merciless economic terrorism” and “international piracy”, and warned that a single blunder in the region could ignite a “big fire”. On the surface, these speeches suggest that both sides are holding fast to intractable positions, and that a solution to the current tensions in the Gulf remains elusive. Sanctions remain at the heart of the matter: The US continues its “maximum pressure” campaign, with the latest round coming after it blamed the Islamic Republic for the recent attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. Iran demands that sanctions be lifted before it will consider negotiations. But a closer look at the speeches offers hints that positions may not be as intractable as they seem. Rowhani concluded his speech with a “message of the Iranian nation”. “Let’s invest in hope toward a better future rather than on war and violence,” he said. “Let’s return to justice, to peace, to law, commitment and promise and finally to the negotiating table.” Trump too, reiterated his wish to resolve the issue through negotiations. He said: “America is ready to embrace friendship with all who genuinely seek peace and respect. Many of America’s closest friends today were once our gravest foes. The United States has never believed in permanent enemies. We want partners, not adversaries. America knows that while anyone can make war, only the most courageous can choose peace.” So is the path to a renegotiated nuclear deal closed? While no one should expect direct US-Iran meetings soon, talks are conceivable, if difficult to accomplish. Much depends, however, on both parties coming to a compromise, including on ballistic missiles, and overcoming difficult domestic opposition to talks, let alone a new agreement. Any renegotiation efforts are most likely to start with indirect approaches between the US and Iran through the European partners, to establish the parameters of what is possible What factors offer hope? There are several, including the fact that the two leaders have not completely taken negotiations off the table. Take the list of 12 demands of Iran made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2018. It is not clear that Trump has a personal commitment to such maximal demands, which include restricting Tehran’s ballistic missile development and support for militant groups. Rather, he seems most interested in clinching a longer-term deal that precludes an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. The Iranian offer to prohibit nuclear weapons under the country’s laws and expedite accession to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol agreement (committing to intrusive inspections into nuclear sites), as well as its scrupulous adherence to the Joint Comprehensive Points of Agreement (JCPOA) up to a year after the US’ withdrawal, all strongly suggest it has no intention in the intermediate term to pursue such arms. The US and Iran thus agree, in Rowhani’s words, on the “minimum”. In his UN speech, however, Rowhani stated that Iran would be willing to consider “more”, if the US would also “give and pay more”. But what does “more” mean? Macron urges Iran and US to show ‘courage of building peace’ It is likely that Iran would reject demands to substantially curb its ballistic missile development, and to curtail support for its militant partners in the region. As researcher Anthony Cordesman notes, these measures help Iran compensate for weaknesses in its conventional forces, including an outmatched and dated air force. It is thus unlikely to give these up without a corresponding change in its strategic environment. However, a limited restriction on Iran’s ballistic missile programme could be acceptable. Iran has previously declared a 2,000km range limit for its missiles. North Korea is instructive in this regard. Trump has been sanguine about Pyongyang’s recent short-range missile tests, which do not put the US homeland in jeopardy. He could be similarly accepting of Iran’s missile programme. Researchers from the Brookings Institution have suggested compromises on Iran’s satellite launch programme, which, it is feared, could aid the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles ( ICBMs ). Proposals include an agreement to restrict the testing of re-entry vehicles — necessary for ICBMs but not satellites — and a rigorous inspection regime. Iran could be persuaded to accept one for its space programme, as it has for its nuclear programme. A limited agreement could be enough for Trump, who despite his rhetoric on these issues has shown little inclination to keep the US involved as the “policeman” of the Middle East . That said, the biggest obstacle for both sides remains domestic politics. While many of Trump’s supporters favour American retrenchment from the Middle East, others oppose any compromise with Iran. For Iran, the domestic factor is an even bigger issue. It is uncertain if Rowhani can muster enough political support for talks, or even if he can weather internal efforts to scuttle any such attempts. The Abqaiq attack is instructive in this regard. The scale and brazenness of the attack represented a major escalation from previous Iranian measures to put pressure on the international community. US sanctions Chinese entities over alleged transfers of Iran oil Researcher Maryam Alemzadeh has written of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) making “spontaneous decisions” and embarking “on actions that are ideologically praiseworthy” even when “not pragmatically justified”. Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal has suggested the attack could have been orchestrated to spoil negotiation prospects. It is possible the Guard, which was critical of the JCPOA to begin with, conducted the attack to undermine domestic advocates for renegotiation and strengthen the hand of Iran sceptics in the US. Additionally, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s support will be crucial to shield the effort from conservative criticism and guard against spoilers. However, he backed the JCPOA only to see the US turn its back on it, so it is unclear if he can be persuaded again. Finally, with Iranian parliamentary and presidential elections due in 2020 and 2021, respectively, talks with Washington are likely to invite criticism. That said, European leaders, particularly France’s Emmanuel Macron , have used the UNGA stage to push for talks between both sides. Any renegotiation efforts are most likely to start with indirect approaches between the US and Iran through the European partners, to establish the parameters of what is possible. Talks between the two adversaries face substantial hurdles. But even as world leaders prepared to depart New York, Rowhani on Friday once again reiterated his desire to seek a negotiated solution, saying wider talks with the US were possible if Washington returns to the JCPOA as a starting point. That is as clear a signal as there is that room to manoeuvre exists. Tan Feng Qin is a Research Associate at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.