Western leaders appear positively lackadaisical about striking a deal with Iran. As the New York Times recently reported, “Mr. Obama’s aides seem content with stalemate.” If the alleged threat from Iran’s nuclear program is so urgent that the United States—or Israel—would even consider military action, why is stalemate in negotiations satisfactory? Is the administration seriously worried?
After much haggling, the great powers—the so-called P5+1, the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—will meet with Iran in Kazakhstan next week to discuss Iran’s nuclear issues. Last time the P5+1 powers talked with the Iranians, Iran was only offered access to some meager civilian-aircraft parts in exchange for them making serious concessions on their nuclear program. No big surprise that Tehran didn’t bite. They see their nuclear program as perfectly legitimate and are demanding a serious quid pro quo for reining it in. Their primary objective in any deal is at least some lifting of the harsh sanctions placed on their economy.
The most serious issue about Iran’s nuclear program is their enrichment of uranium to 20 percent. Building up this stockpile goes a long way towards having the fuel needed for a nuclear bomb, should they decide to kick off a weaponization effort in the future. This is not to say that that is what they are intending to do. And, of course, there are many additional steps needed to make a viable, deliverable nuclear device. But gathering the required fuel is certainly one of the big hurdles in gaining a latent nuclear weapons capability. Every missed opportunity for striking a deal with Iran allows them to continue enriching more uranium. The West should not miss another opportunity to curb Iran’s 20 percent enrichment.
If the P5+1 are really as as worried as they claim to be, these nations should do what it takes to get Iran agree to this. And if it means putting serious sanctions relief on the table—as the Iranians have been asking for—then so be it.
There is no evidence to indicate that Iran is currently developing nuclear weapons—in fact, the U.S. director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has a “high level of confidence” that they have made no such decision. Yet there is no reason not to strike a deal with Iran on suspending their 20 percent uranium enrichment, especially since they are amenable to such a bargain. The future trajectory of Iranian politics is uncertain, with new presidential elections due to take place in June. Given that presidential candidates are officially vetted by the Guardian Council, it is possible that the next president may be even more hardline than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Indeed, in most countries where the middle class is suffering under foreign-imposed hardships, the tendency is to elect more nationalistic and hawkish leaders. Witness Germany in the 1930s, for instance. And when Russia and Argentina went through a similar economic meltdown about a decade ago—as Iran is going through now—their people voted in more nationalistic leaders: Vladimir Putin and Néstor Kirchner.
Even though the Supreme Leader holds the real power in major nuclear decisions and has indicated he is firmly against nuclear weapons, it still makes sense to try to curb Iran's enrichment work. And sanctions relief would be a small price to pay to get this concession from them.