Iran: Deal in the Making, or Persian Carpet Ride?

The proposals aren't enough.

As the participants in the nuclear talks with Iran prepare for the next round on November 20, it is as yet unclear why the dramatic negotiations in Geneva failed, indeed, whether they failed at all, or a small number of outstanding issues remain to be resolved. Israel, Saudi Arabia and others in the region, leading members of Congress and even the French foreign minister have charged in one form or another that the P5+1, the group of leading international powers negotiating with Iran, were too eager to reach what would have been a bad deal. The Iranians themselves apparently broke off the talks over recognition by the P5+1 of their “right” to enrich uranium.

The deal discussed in Geneva was to have been an interim phase, pending conclusion of a final agreement within six months, designed to freeze Iran’s nuclear program during negotiations so that it could not use the passing time to further develop it. Indeed, the best estimates today put Iran as little as two months from having enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb if its leaders choose that path, but it is clear to all that Iran is almost there and disagreement is about months, not years.

From the limited information available, the proposed deal would have included the following elements and drawbacks:

· Iran would cease uranium enrichment at the 20 percent level, dangerously close to weapons grade, and convert its existing stockpile to uses suitable for nuclear fuel. The primary danger today does not stem from enrichment at this level, however, but from Iran’s stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium, ordinarily the accepted civil level, of which it already has enough for several nuclear bombs, if further enriched.

· The number of centrifuges enriching uranium at 3.5 percent would be capped and Iran would have to refrain from operating its new high speed centrifuges, but not to end enrichment completely, nor reduce or eliminate the existing stockpile. The proposal would thus not have had a significant impact on the timeline to a first Iranian bomb (Iran currently has about 19,000 centrifuges, compared to 300 in 2005, of which 1,000 are high-speed. Approximately 10,000 are operational).

· Iran would refrain from beginning operation of its plutonium reactor in Arak during the interim period, but be able to continue construction. Since the reactor is not expected to be completed before the end of 2014 the deal has no practical effect on it.

· Iran would agree to more intrusive inspections, but the details are unknown. A separate agreement reached between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency just days after the Geneva summit failed to resolve Iran’s long-standing refusal to allow inspectors access to a suspected nuclear-weapons-related site at Parchin.

· In exchange, the P5+1 undertook not to impose additional sanctions during the interim period and to lift existing sanctions both on Iranian assets abroad and on trade in gold and petrochemicals. The primary sanctions would remain in force.

If this is, indeed, an accurate depiction of what was proposed, the deal did not in fact live up to the declared objective of freezing the Iranian program and justifies much of the criticism that the P5+1, primarily the U.S. as the leading player, were overly eager to achieve an agreement. It is important to recognize, however, that the proposal at Geneva was supposed to have been no more than an interim deal and proponents argue, given the alternatives, that it was a worthwhile attempt to at least delay the Iranian program somewhat, en route to a final agreement. This then leads to two primary questions, the role of sanctions during the interim phase, and the nature of the final agreement to be sought.

The Obama administration avers that the sanctions relief under the proposed deal is highly limited and reversible and would not weaken the basic sanctions regime, the drastic limitations imposed on Iran’s ability to export oil and access to the international financial system, which have had a devastating effect on its economy. In the short term, this is undoubtedly true.

Critics counter, however, that the sanctions regime has provided the international community with unprecedented leverage over Iran, time is on its side, and all it has to do is hold out for a while longer and Iran will be forced to come to terms. They further argue that sanctions relief, pending a final agreement, will lead to their erosion and ultimate collapse, as foreign governments and companies begin talking to Iran about future deals and Iran concludes that all it has to do is tough it out for a while longer before the sanctions are suspended completely. The critics’ greatest fear is that a final agreement will not actually be reached and that the interim agreement will thus leave Iran with its basic nuclear-breakout capability intact, but without the pressures of an effective sanctions regime.