Beware a Bad Deal with Tehran

Parsing out what both sides will try to get from the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. 

An additional round of talks between the P5+1 and Iran about the nuclear issue is due to take place in Baghdad in May. Despite a decade of unproductive dialogue, it is important to both sides that negotiations take place: Iran seeks to prevent even harsher sanctions, while President Obama wishes to postpone difficult decisions at least until after the presidential elections. Both parties want to prevent an Israeli strike.

Although the opening positions were worlds apart, negotiations are designed to narrow this divide. In any possible deal, the assumption is that Iran will be granted legitimacy to enrich uranium on its soil. Thus, the difference between a "good deal" and a "bad deal" lies in parameters of Iran’s enrichment that would prevent it from breaking out towards nuclear weapons. The idea is to stop the clock or even reverse it, thereby allowing for nonmilitary options to stop Iran’s nuclearization to be fully exhausted.

A deal with the following parameters would be considered good: significant limitations on continuing enrichment until Iran has regained the trust of the international community; removing most of the enriched uranium from Iran, both that enriched to 3.5 percent as well as that enriched to 20 percent, closing the facility dug into the mountainside near Qom; signing the IAEA "additional protocol"; and providing satisfying explanations for the questions that remain between the IAEA and Iran. Such a deal would ensure that an Iranian breakout to nuclear weapons would be a long process and thus place Iran outside the "immunity zone." It would not meet all past demands made on Iran, but it would be better than the alternative of Iran having the bomb or being bombed. However, the probability of Iran accepting such an agreement is very low.

A bad deal, one that the Iranians are likely to offer and that the international community would be tempted to accept, would include explicit legitimacy for Iran enriching uranium on its soil up to the 5 percent level but would not include removal of most of the already-enriched uranium from within Iran’s borders. The bad deal also would include not limiting the number or type of centrifuges and enrichment sites. Iran then would be able to continue securing its sites in a way that would make damaging them much harder than it is at present. With such a deal, Iran would be able to improve its chances of breaking out toward nuclear weapons in a relatively short time after making the decision to do so.

Should the sides agree to this, even with some modifications, it would legitimize an Iranian nuclear posture in which Tehran remains dangerously on the nuclear threshold. Concurrently, the pressure on Iran would end, sanctions would be suspended or eased, and Iran would avoid the danger of a military strike.

Israel would find it hard to live with a situation in which Iran could at any moment decide to break out toward rapid nuclear-weapons manufacturing thanks to an extensive nuclear infrastructure and a significant amount of enriched uranium. However, international recognition of the legitimacy of Iran’s nuclear capabilities would place Israel in a strategic dilemma. It would be difficult for Israel to justify any offensive move against these capabilities without support from America or important elements of the international community.

In practice, the American red line is an Iranian breaking out toward nuclear arms. According to Washington, the United States would know of this development ahead of time. Israel is not convinced and has expressed its reluctance to accept that risk. The result is that a compromise with Iran also means a deepening gulf and widening disagreement between Israel and the United States. From Washington’s perspective, a reasonable deal with Iran would postpone the need for the international community to take aggressive steps against Iran and would make the need for Israel to strike the facilities redundant. While Israel’s semi-official red line is fairly clear—and Iran is likely to cross it soon—the American line is blurry. U.S. policy seeks to procrastinate on the issue and, if possible, avoid making tough decisions until after the presidential elections.

Major General (retired) Yadlin is the director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). He served as the IDF’s chief of defense intelligence and as deputy commander of the Israel Air Force.

Yoel Guzansky is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University, and a former member of Israel's National Security Council.

Image: Daniella Zalcman