Iran's Nuclear Offer Isn't Good Enough—Here's A Better One

Outlining a deal that resolves Western worries.

Iran’s recent overtures aim to ease the stranglehold of sanctions and facilitate Tehran’s re-engagement with the international community. Is Tehran prepared for serious concessions? Are there options for a reasonable settlement that can meet Iranian and U.S. redlines?

Sanctions have isolated Iran from energy markets and the global financial system. Oil exports, which generate nearly half of Iran’s revenues, have fallen by nearly 60 percent since 2011. Iranians struggle to conduct routine financial transactions such as securing letters of credit.

In public statements, Iranian leaders claim that further progress on the nuclear program would backfire. Troubles in Syria notwithstanding, the regime maintains that it is in a strong regional position. Iran has achieved key threshold capabilities in its nuclear program and enjoys conventional and unconventional military superiority over many other regional powers. Iran’s leaders acknowledge that proceeding too far along the enrichment path could provoke rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey to ramp up their own nuclear programs. Nor does Tehran discount the possibility of further sanctions, not to mention a U.S. or Israeli military strike. These statements are encouraging, assuming that they reflect the regime’s genuine strategic calculus.

Iran’s leaders are using more moderate language at home as well. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has endorsed a policy of nermash qaramona—“flexibility of the hero.” Iranian leaders are invoking the Imam Hassan, who accommodated the rule of the Sunni leader Muawiyah for the sake of peace in the Muslim world. By praising Hassan, the regime may be bracing the religious establishment for compromise.

If Iran’s conciliatory statements reflect a true policy change, domestic discontent may be the most important factor influencing Khamenei. A broad cross-section of the Iranian public, particularly its younger generation, supports Iran’s reintegration with the world. While talks with the West risk a backlash from hardline elements, further isolation could produce even greater pressure for change.

Rouhani enjoys both a reputation as a moderate as well as a close relationship with Khamenei. The new president, having served as the supreme leader’s representative on the National Security Council, may avoid the fate of his more pragmatic predecessors, whose diplomatic initiatives on the nuclear issue were undermined by Khamenei and his hardline allies.

Favorable rhetoric notwithstanding, the deal that Tehran is pursuing would not satisfy U.S. concerns. Without becoming an official nuclear state, Iran seeks the capability to produce a large number of nuclear weapons within a short time period. In his outreach to U.S. policy experts in New York, Rouhani affirmed that the fuel needs of its civilian nuclear-power plants should determine the size of Iran’s enrichment capability. Nor has the regime agreed to ship enriched nuclear fuel to Russia. Iran claims a right to industrial production of enriched uranium as well as a stockpile of partially enriched material—in effect, an industrial-level enrichment capability that could cloak the development of enough enriched material for a nuclear arsenal.

Allowing Tehran to maintain a stockpile of low and medium-enriched uranium would limit the warning time that the international community would have in responding to an Iranian breakout. According to IAEA estimates, Iran, as of mid-August, was maintaining a stockpile of 6,774 kg of low-enriched uranium gas, 186 kg of medium-enriched uranium gas, and the equivalent of 187 kg of medium-enriched uranium gas held in oxide form.

Still, the prospect for a more reasonable agreement, however small, warrants negotiations on two tracks.

The immediate challenge is to ensure that Iran does not enhance its nuclear capabilities during the negotiating period. Washington should stick with the current sanctions policy unless inspectors can verify that Tehran has frozen the nuclear program.

A verified freeze could open the door to a deal that addresses three core issues: Iran’s enrichment of uranium, the heavy water plant at Arak, and Iran’s acceptance of a verification regime.

Given Iran’s violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and various UN Security Council resolutions, any comprehensive deal should ideally force Tehran to cease all enrichment. Iran’s ten-year contract with Russia will supply enough fuel for the country’s only nuclear-power plant at Bushehr. Even if Tehran follows through on plans to build more nuclear-power plants, it will not be able to do so for at least another decade.

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