Why a Nuclear Deal with Iran Is So Hard

The tension between what Iran wants and what the West needs in a deal.

It should have come as no surprise when talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva two weeks ago ended without an interim confidence-building agreement—apparently because the Islamic Republic could not accept a revised draft agreement that did not recognize its “right to enrich.” Negotiations with Iran have always been difficult, protracted affairs—in this case, made more fraught by differences between France and the other members of the P5+1. Diplomacy has been further complicated by the fact that Tehran hopes to use negotiations to confirm (if not legitimize) its status as a nuclear threshold state, while preserving a degree of ambiguity regarding its actual capabilities—an outcome that the P5+1 is not likely—or at least should not—agree to. Finding a way through these thickets will be key if nuclear diplomacy with Iran is to succeed.

What the Negotiations are Really About. Although Iran’s diplomats continue to emphasize that the Islamic Republic’s interest in nuclear technology stems mainly from a desire to produce clean energy, one can get a better sense of the factors driving its nuclear program from an infographic on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s website that describes how the regime’s ultimate decision maker thinks about the matter.

Based on a content analysis of 44 of Khamenei’s speeches on the topic since 2004, it identifies a dozen major achievements of Iran’s policy of “nuclear resistance.” Two pertain to the production of electricity and the freeing of Iranian oil for export; the remaining ten, however, describe how the nuclear program has contributed to Iran’s independence, enabled it to resist alleged efforts by the West to keep the Muslim world weak and backwards, and enhanced the Islamic Republic’s power, prestige, and influence in the Muslim world and beyond. The infographic, makes clear that the regime considers the nuclear program to be key to the country’s future as a regional and aspiring great power.

Iran’s nuclear program has, in fact, relatively little to do with the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. After all, Iran has built only one nuclear power plant that has operated only fitfully, and it has invested little in the infrastructure needed for a bona fide nuclear-energy program. Rather, its nuclear program has much more to do with Iran’s place in the world, while nuclear negotiations are about the degree of nuclear latency (i.e., proximity to the bomb) the international community is willing to tolerate in the Islamic Republic. There should be no illusions about that.

The Goals of Tehran’s Nuclear Program. This reading of Tehran’s nuclear aspirations is borne out by its actions, which provide important insights into its nuclear strategy. Its past weapons research and development work (as documented by the IAEA) and its construction of a secret underground enrichment facility at Natanz (before its existence was exposed in 2002) suggest that Iran was pursuing a clandestine parallel nuclear program at that time. If Tehran could have secretly built a bomb without getting caught, it might have done so, unveiling this capability only in the event of a crisis or war. (The model for this may have been South Africa, which had secretly produced half a dozen nuclear devices by the late 1980s, intending to keep them secret. Only the end of apartheid brought the program to light.)

In its early negotiations with the EU3 which started following the exposure of Natanz, Tehran’s goal was to deflect pressure, to deter preventive military action (believing that it would not be attacked as long as it was talking with the West), and to buy time to complete the critical facilities needed to enable a nuclear breakout.

Iran subsequently tried to build another secret underground enrichment facility at Fordow, whose existence was revealed by the United States in 2009. Twice burned, Tehran may have concluded that a parallel clandestine program is not a viable option at this time, though there are indications that some weapons research and development work continued. But there are no discernible signs that Tehran is building clandestine facilities elsewhere at this time, despite declaring in November 2009 that it would build ten more underground facilities like that at Fordow. Indeed, it would be the height of folly for it to do so while high-stakes negotiations are underway.

Thus, Tehran’s goal is probably to continue to expand and upgrade its nuclear infrastructure so that if it were to decide to build a bomb, its nuclear infrastructure would be so vast, dispersed, and hardened that an effective Israeli or American strike would no longer be possible. Such a bombproof nuclear program would make Iran a nuclear threshold state with a rapid breakout capability, allowing it to, in effect, achieve “nuclear deterrence without the bomb” (since the United States and others would tread lightly every time there is a crisis with Iran, lest the latter exercise its nuclear option)—or with the bomb, should it eventually opt to break out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).