The Grand Bargain: What Iran Conceded in the Nuclear Talks

Iran gave up its fair share in the nuclear negotiations.

Since the P5+1 and Iran announced the agreed parameters for a comprehensive settlement of the Iran nuclear issue earlier this month, Washington punditry has obsessed over the fine points of both the joint statement read by EU Foreign Minister Mogherini and Iranian FM Zarif, and the fact sheet released by the Obama administration, to identify concessions made by the United States.

Much attention has centered on centrifuge numbers, the strategic implications of the Iranian nuclear program within the context of the deal and the decision to provide early sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for substantial nuclear steps by Iran.

As with everything in Washington as late, the discussion quickly divided into two camps: those convinced that Obama gave up critical advantage over Iran too readily in order to get a nuclear deal that, even if better than what was anticipated, still is not satisfactory; and, those convinced that, given the alternatives, what Obama achieved was worth such concessions.

Lost in all of the noise is any consideration of what Iran had to give up in order to get a deal and the value of what it will really get from sanctions relief (bearing in mind, of course, the fact that no deal has actually yet been signed and its premature to start the score-carding). For some, it is assumed that Iran’s temporary concessions are so meager that, in effect, the Iranians sacrificed nothing for a deal.

But, this misses an important point: Iran had to make several compromises in order to get a satisfactory nuclear deal and, in the end, the separation between Iran’s public and private stances is far wider than those of the Obama administration. Moreover, the U.S. readiness to engage in sanctions relief is not a give-away to Iran but rather a result of a proportional exchange of concessions that, though some may wish not to hear it, is the only way that diplomacy actually works.

Iranian compromises

To get this far, Iran had to make several compromises on its longstanding nuclear policy. This started in the Joint Plan of Action, in which Iran agreed to permit the P5+1 (and the United States in particular) to have a role in its nuclear program decision-making. For a country as proud of its independence as Iran, the significance of this step should not be discounted. And, a similar mindset is manifest in what emerged from Lausanne earlier this month.

For example, Iran stated clearly and unambiguously in early 2014 that it would not pull back from its centrifuge research and development activities. On January 23, 2014, FM Zarif told CNN that “in the context of R&D and peaceful nuclear technology, we will not accept any limitations.” Supreme Leader Khamenei went even farther, noting in series of redlines that were promulgated via his official Twitter account, that Iran’s “nuclear science movement should not come to a halt or even slow down.”

Iran made similar comments about not backing down with respect to centrifuge numbers. President Rouhani said on January 23, 2014, that Iran would “not under any circumstances” destroy any of its existing centrifuges. Instead, Iran underscored that it would require as many centrifuges as necessary to fuel its existing reactors, including the 1,000 megawatt power reactor at Bushehr (which is estimated to require around 100,000 centrifuges’ worth of work a year). Supreme Leader Khamenei reinforced this position with his now famous statement in July 2014 that Iran required 190,000 separative work units (SWU), which would roughly equate to 190,000 centrifuges. Atomic Energy Organization of Iran President Ali Salehi noted a short while after Khamenei’s comments that Iran would need this amount of SWU within 8 years in order to meet its enrichment demands.

But, even the most critical reading of either the P5+1-Iran Joint Statement or the U.S. fact sheet support the contention that, if anything, Iran made sweeping concessions to the U.S. position in this regard. The Joint Statement noted that:

As Iran pursues a peaceful nuclear programme, Iran's enrichment capacity, enrichment level and stockpile will be limited for specified durations, and there will be no other enrichment facility than Natanz. Iran's research and development on centrifuges will be carried out on a scope and schedule that has been mutually agreed.

Iran therefore conceded to limitations on its R&D activities, which at a minimum will be subject to a mutually agreed scope and schedule, as well as to the size of its enrichment program. The U.S. factsheet makes this concession even more stark, noting that there would be limits on Iran’s ability to use advanced centrifuges as well as on their contribution to Iran’s ability to engage in an enrichment breakout.

As for 190,000 centrifuges, the U.S. factsheet makes abundantly clear that, for 10 years, Iran would be limited to no more than 6,104 installed centrifuges, not even 4 percent of Khamenei’s demand.

In fact, the final positions reached in the Joint Statement and the U.S. factsheet bear more in common with the U.S. position than the Iranian position.

In February 2014, for instance, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and observed that: “there is no question it would be far preferable if Iran did not have an indigenous enrichment capability...but it may be that at the end of a comprehensive agreement, we have allowed for consideration of a very small, limited enrichment program to meet practical needs that would be highly monitored, highly verified, with intrusive inspections over a very long duration of time...”