Is a Final Nuclear Deal with Iran Possible?

Is a Final Nuclear Deal with Iran Possible?

The toughest issues are still on the table.

The interim agreement between the P5+1 and Iran does not address Iran’s military nuclear activities and aspirations. Its only stated purpose was to freeze the current situation – possibly delaying Iran’s decision to ‘breakout’, and slightly prolonging the time that would be needed to achieve the ability to produce a nuclear explosive device if/when a decision is taken – with an eye to gaining time for negotiating a comprehensive deal.

However, the interim deal has nevertheless become a new starting point for progressing toward a comprehensive deal. Therefore, what it does and does not establish have more far-reaching implications, and go beyond the goal of providing some breathing space for the more difficult negotiations to come. Iran has received some sanctions relief, and companies are already lining up to resume business with Iran in anticipation of further easing of economic and financial restrictions. The thorny issue of Iran’s right to enrich uranium has already been given a clear direction in the interim deal: the P5+1 have granted de facto recognition of Iran’s ability to continue to enrich uranium, at least to the low level of up to 5%. While no explicit reference to an Iranian ‘right’ is mentioned, the deal stipulates that some enrichment will be allowed in the final deal, with the details left to be worked out at a later stage.

Significant issues were purposely avoided in the initial rounds of talks, and tacitly deferred to the final negotiations. But their omission is already raising concern. These include: the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program as included in IAEA reports; the application of scrupulous inspections, including the right to search for concealed nuclear and nuclear-related facilities; the ultimate fate of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program; and the fate of the heavy-water reactor at Arak. For example, the issue of inspections at Parchin – which were very prominent on the IAEA agenda for the past two years – are conspicuously absent from the IAEA’s current to-do list. When the inspectors recently visited Arak, following the interim agreement, no mention was even made of the need to inspect Parchin.

All of these issues must be resolved if the ultimate aim of the P5+1 – to remove any possibility of a rapid nuclear breakout – is meticulously pursued. However, beyond the specific technicalities that need to be worked out, the fundamental question that must guide international efforts in negotiating a final deal is whether Iran is willing to give up what it has consistently denied having – its military nuclear program and aspirations. Once a decision is taken, the technicalities will not pose a major hurdle. This is a decision that Iran has to take up with itself, not with others. The second central question – that depends very much on the answer to the first – is whether Iran can be trusted to uphold any final agreement that resolves all the above issues. Based on past experience, as long as Iran has not made a decision to reverse course in the nuclear realm, it is highly doubtful. In this case, any future agreement will again be a bad compromise, leaving dangerous uncertainties and Iran with breakout capabilities, albeit at a slower pace and with the risk of a stronger international reaction.

A good agreement would resolve all outstanding issues, leaving no loopholes to be taken advantage of. Iran would cease and dismantle, verifiably, all activities related to the military aspects of its nuclear program. Tough verification measures would provide assurances that no clandestine nuclear program is continuing, and that the produce of any uranium enrichment activities cannot be used for military purposes. The heavy-water reactor would be transformed into a light-water one, and greatly reduced in power. In principle this could be the basis for a good final agreement.

A bad agreement would leave unresolved at least some of the above-noted issues. If the military-related issues are not taken care of, Iran will retain the possibility to use its remaining capabilities to break out and produce a nuclear explosive device. If the IAEA is not given a mandate to search for concealed nuclear and military nuclear facilities, all could be lost, especially if Iran denies intelligence reports on this matter, and refuses access. Continued extensive enrichment in Iran would leave open the possibility of a military nuclear capability within a relatively short time, with the probability of not being detected before it is too late. Leaving Iran with the possibility of producing plutonium is almost unthinkable. If Iran tries to invoke an “inalienable right” to reprocess irradiated fuel, in the same manner that it invokes a right to enrich uranium, the road to a plutonium-based nuclear weapon would be rather short.

As they move to the stage of serious negotiations for a comprehensive deal with Iran, the P5+1 should also provide answers to some troubling questions. First, what became of the determination that the US displayed a year ago, when it demonstrated a keen appreciation of the importance of gaining leverage over Iran? Why is it that in America today we hear members of Congress, proliferation experts, and a significant portion of American public opinion voicing their concerns over the interim deal and Iran’s true intentions, whereas the administration is steadfastly defending the interim agreement, to the point that it seems most concerned with not upsetting Iran?

The administration is insisting that this is the best deal they could get and that the “only” alternative to this interim deal was war. This can hardly be proven empirically, but is a good way to stop any critique of the deal. Who can say that a greater display of determination based on leverage would not have yielded a better result? Between this particular deal and Iranian capitulation there was room for a better deal. After all, the original draft deal – that might have been adopted if the French had not raised objections – was improved when France’s reservations were incorporated. Raising those reservations did not lead to war. John Kerry’s insistence that additional sanctions pressure would have led to military force is equally puzzling. Finally, Iran has already begun advancing problematic interpretations of the interim deal, specifically regarding its intention to pursue construction work at Arak and that it is testing its advanced centrifuges. Why are the P5+1 not pushing back?

The most critical question that the P5+1 should answer for themselves and the international community is what the criteria are for pronouncing success and failure of this process. How much more ground will be given to Iran, and still the international negotiators will regard it as moving in the right direction? The main question for the P5+1 at this point is not so much what they will do in case of failure, but rather how they will define such failure. What needs to happen for them to finally pronounce that no agreement has been reached, and the negotiating process has failed?

Unfortunately, there is probably no answer to this last question, and the most probable scenario is that talks will drag on, with Iran using the time gained for its own nefarious ends, exploiting loopholes in the deal and doing everything possible to expand its economic reintegration. The only sticks that remain in the world’s arsenal are more sanctions, and credible military threats, but the probability of these being employed now is diminishing, with commercial interests taking over the arena and unraveling the hard-worked-for sanctions. With continued US reluctance to wave military capabilities as a ‘pressure wand,’ the situation is likely to deteriorate.

The interim deal, meant only to put more time on the clock, could very well end up being a critical step in a dangerous dynamic that ultimately ends with a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran.

Ephraim Asculai is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. Emily B. Landau is Director of the Arms Control program at INSS, and the author of “Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation.”

Image: Flickr/Tristan Schmurr. CC BY 2.0.