No Iran Deal? No Problem

If plans for a comprehensive agreement fall through—a likely outcome—the present arrangement isn't bad.

Late last year, the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, and France—plus Germany) reached an interim deal with Iran to freeze and even roll back some of its nuclear program in exchange for limited relief from sanctions. The arrangements went into effect on January 20 and will expire after six months. According to the "Joint Plan of Action" of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, another six-month stopgap deal may be signed after the first one expires, but a comprehensive long-term agreement should be reached within a year, by late January 2015.

This comprehensive final deal will be very challenging to negotiate because of the very different expectations of the end state held by Tehran versus the P5+1 powers. Essentially, the interim deal is a halfway house to very different destinations, depending on which side of the table the negotiators are sitting at. Iran and the P5+1 powers remain on fundamentally different trajectories.

The P5+1 nations—or at least the Western faction of the P5+1—are expecting the arrangements of the interim deal to be ratcheted up such that Iran's nuclear program is even further constrained. Meanwhile, the Iranian side sees the interim deal as part of a confidence-building measure that would generate goodwill and eventually lead to their country being treated like any other non-nuclear weapons state of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Ultimately, Iran would like to be treated like Argentina or Brazil—NPT non-nuclear weapons states that also enrich uranium, but with far more lax nuclear inspections. In fact, the Joint Plan of Action explicitly says that following the implementation of the comprehensive deal, “the Iranian nuclear programme will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.”

So in the spirit of “hoping for the best while preparing for the worst”, one should be ready for a breakdown in future talks due to the divergent visions of the end state.

But while the final comprehensive deal may prove elusive, this ought not be a cause for alarm or for a rush to military action. The negotiations, after all, are about agreeing on equitable mechanisms to make sure Iran's nuclear program continues to remain peaceful. They are not about stopping Iran from weaponizing, because—while nuclear technology can be dual-use—there is no evidence whatsoever that Iran is on a mad rush to make nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, several well-meaning commentators, in their enthusiasm for further negotiations—and understandable opposition to piling on more sanctions just yet—have cast the alternatives far too starkly. Writing in the New York Times, Senators Carl Levin and Angus King, Jr. state that “There are only two ways to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon: negotiations or military action.” The president of the Carnegie Endowment, Dr. Jessica Mathews, in the New York Review of Books, echoes “There are...two remaining choices: an agreement or an attack.” Even the usually sober and carefully fact-checked New York Times editorial board miscasts the alternatives: “if negotiations fail...Iran is likely to embark on an even more aggressive search for a nuclear weapon. And that could leave war as the only option.” Such hyperbolic binary war/no-war statements are probably a bigger threat than Iran's nuclear program ever will be: should negotiations fail, such statements could be disastrously misused.