Breaking Through the Iranian Nuclear Impasse

"Iran should agree to abandon its nuclear program in full, and in exchange the United States and the P5+1 should agree to lift all UN, U.S., and EU economic sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program."

With only weeks left until the deadline for a final agreement between the P5+1 and Iran on its disputed nuclear program, sanctions and enrichment remain the sticking points. The focus on maintaining an indigenous uranium-enrichment capacity for Iran, and the equal focus by opponents of a nuclear deal on eliminating any enrichment capacity have hardened into redlines. Meanwhile, the P5+1 has so far been unable to provide specifics on sanctions relief under an agreement, and congressional opposition in the United States threatens to preempt or derail any agreement reached. Only a solution that addresses the top priorities off all key parties can break this deadlock.

Rather than haggling over centrifuges, crafting a complex, gradual and tenuous sanctions-relief mechanism, and hoping a recalcitrant Congress can be brought along, the negotiating parties should demonstrate the courage to adopt a truly comprehensive and enduring solution that all parties can accept. Iran should agree to abandon its nuclear program in full, and in exchange, the United States and the P5+1 should agree to lift all UN, U.S. and EU economic sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program. Implementation will require both sides to institute robust verification mechanisms to ensure compliance. (Some U.S. and EU national-level sanctions, based upon Iran’s support for terrorism and its human rights record, could remain in place until those issues are addressed.)

This is the most enduring and complete solution as it achieves all concerned parties’ top priorities. But after insisting on “an inalienable right” to nuclear enrichment for so long, would Iran really abandon this right, and go even further to dismantle its nuclear program entirely? To answer this question, we must discern the fundamental national interests behind Iran’s position.

Some have argued that Iran’s quest for nuclear technology is primarily a matter of status and prestige. While achieving regional-power status has been a factor in Iran’s nuclear quest, it is not the most important factor. Iran’s current quest for nuclear-energy technology began in the 1950s with U.S. support, and for WMD technology, including nuclear, chemical/biological and missile programs began during the latter part of the Iran-Iraq war, and accelerated afterwards. The Iranian leadership took hard strategic lessons from that horrific war.

First, they realized their nascent Islamic Republic faced severe isolation and hostility, both from its neighbors and the West. Second, they learned that revolutionary zeal alone was no match for modern weapons technology. The lessons they drew in the formative years of the revolution and developed in the decades since were self-sufficiency (in response to international isolation) and an asymmetric security doctrine (in response to severe disadvantages in sophisticated military technology compared to the United States and even its neighbors).

If we apply these lessons to Iran’s quest for nuclear technology, we understand that its isolation and relative weakness, rather than a quest for regional power status, are the key drivers for its position. Iran pursued WMD technology, as well as more traditional asymmetric warfare activities, as deterrents intended to offset its conventional-weapons disadvantage. The self-sufficiency/asymmetry doctrinal approach also informed their quest to pursue indigenous nuclear power and make it 20 percent of their energy generation equation.

Pages