Iran: Deal in the Making, or Persian Carpet Ride?

November 14, 2013 Topic: Nuclear ProliferationSecurity Region: Iran

Iran: Deal in the Making, or Persian Carpet Ride?

The proposals aren't enough.


As the participants in the nuclear talks with Iran prepare for the next round on November 20, it is as yet unclear why the dramatic negotiations in Geneva failed, indeed, whether they failed at all, or a small number of outstanding issues remain to be resolved. Israel, Saudi Arabia and others in the region, leading members of Congress and even the French foreign minister have charged in one form or another that the P5+1, the group of leading international powers negotiating with Iran, were too eager to reach what would have been a bad deal. The Iranians themselves apparently broke off the talks over recognition by the P5+1 of their “right” to enrich uranium.

The deal discussed in Geneva was to have been an interim phase, pending conclusion of a final agreement within six months, designed to freeze Iran’s nuclear program during negotiations so that it could not use the passing time to further develop it. Indeed, the best estimates today put Iran as little as two months from having enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb if its leaders choose that path, but it is clear to all that Iran is almost there and disagreement is about months, not years.


From the limited information available, the proposed deal would have included the following elements and drawbacks:

· Iran would cease uranium enrichment at the 20 percent level, dangerously close to weapons grade, and convert its existing stockpile to uses suitable for nuclear fuel. The primary danger today does not stem from enrichment at this level, however, but from Iran’s stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium, ordinarily the accepted civil level, of which it already has enough for several nuclear bombs, if further enriched.

· The number of centrifuges enriching uranium at 3.5 percent would be capped and Iran would have to refrain from operating its new high speed centrifuges, but not to end enrichment completely, nor reduce or eliminate the existing stockpile. The proposal would thus not have had a significant impact on the timeline to a first Iranian bomb (Iran currently has about 19,000 centrifuges, compared to 300 in 2005, of which 1,000 are high-speed. Approximately 10,000 are operational).

· Iran would refrain from beginning operation of its plutonium reactor in Arak during the interim period, but be able to continue construction. Since the reactor is not expected to be completed before the end of 2014 the deal has no practical effect on it.

· Iran would agree to more intrusive inspections, but the details are unknown. A separate agreement reached between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency just days after the Geneva summit failed to resolve Iran’s long-standing refusal to allow inspectors access to a suspected nuclear-weapons-related site at Parchin.

· In exchange, the P5+1 undertook not to impose additional sanctions during the interim period and to lift existing sanctions both on Iranian assets abroad and on trade in gold and petrochemicals. The primary sanctions would remain in force.

If this is, indeed, an accurate depiction of what was proposed, the deal did not in fact live up to the declared objective of freezing the Iranian program and justifies much of the criticism that the P5+1, primarily the U.S. as the leading player, were overly eager to achieve an agreement. It is important to recognize, however, that the proposal at Geneva was supposed to have been no more than an interim deal and proponents argue, given the alternatives, that it was a worthwhile attempt to at least delay the Iranian program somewhat, en route to a final agreement. This then leads to two primary questions, the role of sanctions during the interim phase, and the nature of the final agreement to be sought.

The Obama administration avers that the sanctions relief under the proposed deal is highly limited and reversible and would not weaken the basic sanctions regime, the drastic limitations imposed on Iran’s ability to export oil and access to the international financial system, which have had a devastating effect on its economy. In the short term, this is undoubtedly true.

Critics counter, however, that the sanctions regime has provided the international community with unprecedented leverage over Iran, time is on its side, and all it has to do is hold out for a while longer and Iran will be forced to come to terms. They further argue that sanctions relief, pending a final agreement, will lead to their erosion and ultimate collapse, as foreign governments and companies begin talking to Iran about future deals and Iran concludes that all it has to do is tough it out for a while longer before the sanctions are suspended completely. The critics’ greatest fear is that a final agreement will not actually be reached and that the interim agreement will thus leave Iran with its basic nuclear-breakout capability intact, but without the pressures of an effective sanctions regime.

There is broad agreement today that it was the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table—Iran itself has indicated as much. It is important to note, however, that Iran has been the subject of unilateral American sanctions for close to two decades, with limited effect on its economy and virtually none on its nuclear policy, whereas the drastic international sanctions imposed on Iran just sixteen months ago have had a dramatic impact, leading to a collapse of Iran’s oil exports and foreign-currency revenues. The demand that the sanctions regime be maintained and even further heightened is thus certainly not without merit and while it is possible that increased pressure at this stage would drive Iran from the negotiating table, others counter with an equally plausible contention, that the opposite is far more likely, the sanctions have finally become a direct threat to the regime and it will have no choice but to concede, if the international community just stands firm.

A diplomatic deal is clearly preferable for all sides, none more than Israel, which will be left with only two options should the negotiations fail; living with a nuclear Iran through a policy of deterrence, or a military strike, neither of which is a particularly attractive alternative. It is far from clear that Israel would be willing to accept the first option, even as part of a broader American strategy of deterrence and containment, and a military strike will likely achieve no more than a two to three year postponement of the Iranian program; Iran already has the technology and the various installations could be rebuilt within this period of time.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken an all-or-nothing approach, that only a deal providing for a complete dismantlement of the Iranian nuclear program is acceptable. In principle, of course, he is right and this is actually the position embodied in the relevant Security Council resolutions and past American and European policy statements. The question, however, is whether this objective is achievable, or whether a less-than-perfect agreement might not provide a sufficient outcome, given the alternatives. Most analysts appear to believe today that a complete dismantlement of the Iranian nuclear program is not achievable, and that if we are to reach any agreement that caps and rolls it back, but does not completely eliminate it, Iran will have to be allowed to retain an enrichment capability at the civil level. For Israel the stakes are existential, but a perfect agreement may be the enemy of a problematic but acceptable one.

A favorable final agreement that not only the P5+1, but Israel and the Sunni Arab states could live with, would have to ensure that Iran remains at least two to three years from a breakout capability, hopefully a sufficient amount of time for the international community to respond to a renewed Iranian nuclear program. To this end, a final agreement would not just have to cap enrichment at the 20 percent level, as proposed at Geneva, but end all enrichment at that level and at least drastically reduce it at the 3.5 percent level, and transfer the existing stockpiles to foreign or at least international control; mothball the Arak plutonium reactor, or convert it to a light-water reactor or some other less dangerous use; highly intrusive inspections, require Iranian ratification of the Additional Protocol and probably more; and a stringent Security Council resolution setting out clear and immediate consequences in the event that Iran violates the agreement.

A related question is whether a final agreement should be limited to the nuclear program, or part of a comprehensive package on all issues of mutual concern (Iranian involvement in terrorism, including support for Hezbollah and Hamas, attempts to derail the Mideast peace process, role in Syria and Iraq, human-rights abuses and more, as well as Iranian demands for security guarantees, apologies for past abuses, financial demands). Given the great urgency of ending the nuclear program, preference should be given to it, even at the expense of the other issues, and it would appear ostensibly easier to achieve a limited agreement, than a comprehensive one. In practice, however, a narrow nuclear agreement may not prove feasible. The U.S. and Western countries probably cannot agree to completely lift sanctions unless at least significant progress is made on the other issues, and it is unlikely that Iran will agree to make major concessions on the nuclear issue without this. Paradoxically, a broad but not fully comprehensive agreement may prove easier.