Making a nuclear deal with Iran

By Kingston Reif | November 20, 2013

When, in early November, Iran and six world powers met in Geneva, negotiators made significant progress toward an initial agreement that would pause Iran’s nuclear development. Hopes are high that the remaining obstacles to a first-phase deal between Tehran and the P5+1—the United States, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom—can be overcome soon,and that future talks will further allay concerns over Iran's nuclear program.

Despite diplomatic progress, though, skeptics in the United States and Israel argue that the current negotiations are a fool’s errand. They say that the only worthwhile agreement would be one that requires Iran to dismantle its entire nuclear program, including uranium enrichment. In addition, the skeptics argue that Iran only responds to extreme pressure, and that therefore the US Congress must pass tougher sanctions immediately and back them up with a credible threat of military action.

These Godfather-esque arguments have a certain appeal. If the United States makes Iran an offer it can’t refuse, then surely it will back down and give in to every demand, or so the theory goes. But this isn’t Hollywood, and such tactics are much more likely to backfire than succeed.

A diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear impasse is squarely within American national security interests. A reasonable deal would constrain Iran’s nuclear program, increase the international community’s ability to monitor and verify compliance, and give the United States ample warning in the event that Iran makes a dash to acquire the bomb. The first-phase deal the Obama administration is pursuing is a step toward these ends. Attempts by the US Congress to increase sanctions and condition relief on unrealistic maximalist positions—such as insisting that Iran cease all uranium enrichment—would likely doom current diplomatic efforts, thereby increasing the likelihood that the outcomes Washington is trying to prevent come to pass. Those could include unconstrained Iranian nuclear development; a nuclear-armed Iran; a US war against Iran; or all of the above.

A moment of opportunity. The June 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani, and the devastating impact of US and international sanctions on Iran’s economy, have brought about a moment of opportunity in which striking a deal is possible. Rouhani ran on a platform of promising to reduce Iran’s economic isolation and foster more constructive engagement with the outside world. He has also pledged to work with the P5+1 to satisfy international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. The country’s sagging economy likely played a significant role in Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s decision to bless Rouhani’s election and provide Iran’s nuclear negotiating team with the apparent authority to make concessions in return for sanctions relief.

Yet while sanctions have helped to bring Iran to the negotiating table, they have not stopped its nuclear progress. Iran is operating more than 10,000 centrifuges of an older model, the IR-1, at its enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow. It has also installed more than 1,000 advanced IR-2 centrifuges, though they have yet to be activated. In addition, Iran has stockpiled nearly 200 kilograms (kg) of uranium enriched to 20 percent. This material is a big proliferation concern because, while uranium is not considered weapon-grade until it is enriched to about 90 percent, most of the work has occurred by the time it reaches 20 percent. Approximately 240 kg to 250 kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent, when further enriched to weapon-grade, is enough for one bomb.

The Obama administration has rightly argued that there is still time for a diplomatic solution; after all, the US intelligence community's assessment continues to be that Iran is at least a year away from building a nuclear weapon should it decide to do so. Moreover, in an important demonstration of good faith, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s most recent quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program revealed that since Rouhani’s election, the country has paused the expansion of its enrichment capabilities. However, this pause is reversible. In the absence of a diplomatic agreement, Iran could install and activate thousands of additional centrifuges, which would bring it closer to a “breakout capability” to produce weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear explosive device without detection.

The P5+1 and Iran appear to have agreed on a two-step diplomatic process to address the standoff over the latter’s nuclear program. The purpose of the first phase is to freeze the most proliferation-sensitive aspects of the program for about six months, thereby buying time to negotiate a more encompassing deal that places much more stringent limits on Iran’s enrichment capacity.

Although the exact details of the unfolding first-phase agreement remain sketchy, press reports indicate that Iran could agree to halt production of 20-percent-enriched uranium. The media also report that the Islamic Republic could choose to convert or downblend existing 20-percent material, freeze the introduction or activation of additional centrifuges, and stop construction of fuel assemblies for the Arak heavy water reactor (which could provide Iran with a pathway to the bomb via plutonium rather than uranium). Additional elements of a deal may include oxidizing any 3.5-percent-enriched uranium that is produced so that the stockpile of this material does not increase, and agreeing to additional transparency measures to provide greater outside access to the program. In short, meaningful Iranian concessions appear to be on the table.

In return, the P5+1 may be considering temporary sanctions relief, to include releasing some Iranian assets from oil sales that are frozen in foreign banks; suspending sanctions on trade with Iran in petrochemicals, gold, and other precious metals; and providing Tehran with access to civilian aircraft parts. The much-stronger sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors would remain in place as leverage to secure a final deal.  

While such a first-phase agreement wouldn’t fully solve the Iranian nuclear impasse, it would put time back on the clock. According to the Institute for Science and International Security, if successfully implemented, the deal reportedly on the table would double the time it would take Iran to make weapon-grade uranium.

The wrong strategy. Despite the important diplomatic progress that is being made toward an initial deal, many US members of Congress, with the support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are calling for the immediate imposition of tougher sanctions. What’s more, they claim that any deal must require Iran to give up its entire enrichment program. Sanctions have been successful to this point, they say, and so the United States should maximize its leverage to force Iran to choose between its economy and its nuclear program. 

While zero Iranian enrichment would be ideal from a nonproliferation standpoint, it’s almost certainly a non-starter, both in the first phase and any final agreement. As Colin Kahl, former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, has written, the supreme leader “has invested far too much of the regime’s domestic legitimacy in defending Iran's ‘rights’ (defined as domestic enrichment) to completely capitulate now, even in the face of withering economic sanctions.” Moreover, even if Rouhani were willing to agree to zero enrichment, he wouldn’t be able to take such an agreement back to Tehran, as he would be eviscerated by regime hardliners.

Likewise, doubling down on sanctions in the middle of a promising negotiation could blow up the talks by undercutting Iranian moderates and empowering hardliners. Furthermore, it’s not clear how more sanctions would collapse Iran’s economy fast enough to prevent the regime from achieving a breakout nuclear weapons capacity. While Iran’s economy is suffering under the weight of existing sanctions, Kahl writes, it does not appear to be on the verge of imminent collapse. Additional penalties could also undermine the international cooperation that has been essential to the effective implementation of existing sanctions. For example, Turkey has indicated that it will not make further reductions in oil imports from Iran. A premature US rush to pass more sanctions might cause other countries to take similar steps or even increase Iranian imports, especially if the United States rejects a deal that the rest of the international community views as reasonable.

To make matters worse, passing more sanctions now in the hopes of collapsing Iran’s economy could convince Khamenei that the United States isn’t actually interested in a negotiated settlement but rather desires regime change. This could prompt Iran to decide to acquire nuclear weapons. In the event that diplomacy fails or Iran does not make good on its commitments, passing more sanctions will still be an option.     

The international impasse over Iran’s nuclear program has reached a fork in the road. One path is the diplomatic route, which provides the best chance of putting much stronger and more intrusive constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. The other path calls for immediately increasing sanctions and demanding Iranian surrender, which would likely undermine diplomacy and increase the likelihood of a nuclear-armed Iran. The right choice couldn’t be clearer.  

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