Western leaders appear positively lackadaisical about striking a deal with Iran. As the New York Times recently reported, “Mr. Obama’s aides seem content with stalemate.” If the alleged threat from Iran’s nuclear program is so urgent that the United States—or Israel—would even consider military action, why is stalemate in negotiations satisfactory? Is the administration seriously worried?
After much haggling, the great powers—the so-called P5+1, the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—will meet with Iran in Kazakhstan next week to discuss Iran’s nuclear issues. Last time the P5+1 powers talked with the Iranians, Iran was only offered access to some meager civilian-aircraft parts in exchange for them making serious concessions on their nuclear program. No big surprise that Tehran didn’t bite. They see their nuclear program as perfectly legitimate and are demanding a serious quid pro quo for reining it in. Their primary objective in any deal is at least some lifting of the harsh sanctions placed on their economy.
The most serious issue about Iran’s nuclear program is their enrichment of uranium to 20 percent. Building up this stockpile goes a long way towards having the fuel needed for a nuclear bomb, should they decide to kick off a weaponization effort in the future. This is not to say that that is what they are intending to do. And, of course, there are many additional steps needed to make a viable, deliverable nuclear device. But gathering the required fuel is certainly one of the big hurdles in gaining a latent nuclear weapons capability. Every missed opportunity for striking a deal with Iran allows them to continue enriching more uranium. The West should not miss another opportunity to curb Iran’s 20 percent enrichment.
If the P5+1 are really as as worried as they claim to be, these nations should do what it takes to get Iran agree to this. And if it means putting serious sanctions relief on the table—as the Iranians have been asking for—then so be it.
There is no evidence to indicate that Iran is currently developing nuclear weapons—in fact, the U.S. director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has a “high level of confidence” that they have made no such decision. Yet there is no reason not to strike a deal with Iran on suspending their 20 percent uranium enrichment, especially since they are amenable to such a bargain. The future trajectory of Iranian politics is uncertain, with new presidential elections due to take place in June. Given that presidential candidates are officially vetted by the Guardian Council, it is possible that the next president may be even more hardline than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Indeed, in most countries where the middle class is suffering under foreign-imposed hardships, the tendency is to elect more nationalistic and hawkish leaders. Witness Germany in the 1930s, for instance. And when Russia and Argentina went through a similar economic meltdown about a decade ago—as Iran is going through now—their people voted in more nationalistic leaders: Vladimir Putin and Néstor Kirchner.
Even though the Supreme Leader holds the real power in major nuclear decisions and has indicated he is firmly against nuclear weapons, it still makes sense to try to curb Iran's enrichment work. And sanctions relief would be a small price to pay to get this concession from them.
In fact, it is possible that one of Iran's goals in continuing to enrich to 20 percent is its usefulness as a bargaining chip to exchange for sanctions relief. They may see enriching to this level as the only remaining leverage they have to get the sanctions removed. What are perceived in the West as being provocative steps towards a nuclear weapons capability may just be negotiating strategy to get the draconian sanctions removed. As Greg Thielmann, a former official with the State Department’s intelligence branch noted recently, “I wonder if they wanted to get more negotiating leverage, demonstrate their technological prowess, but did not want to fulfill the most alarming predictions of those who argue that Iran is intent on breaking out.”
By yielding on the sanctions, the P5+1 would merely be undoing some of the restrictions it recently put in place. So the P5+1 don’t even need to offer Iran any real “carrots” to gain their cooperation—we merely need to suspend using some of our sticks. Pierre Goldschmidt, the former deputy director of the Department of Safeguards at the IAEA has proposed a “temporary amnesty” for Iran which may be a sensible way of winding down the tensions and the seed of a breakthrough.
Unfortunately, having successfully hobbled Iran’s economy, the P5+1 powers appear to believe that they are negotiating from a position of power. As Peter Jenkins, the former UK ambassador to the IAEA put it, the “tendency is still to demand that Iran abandon the production of 20% enriched uranium and close the Fordow plant, and to offer little in return. Positions are distorted by seeing Iran as a guilty party, fortunate to be given a chance to build confidence that it intends to be a virtuous global citizen if ever it is granted release from the shackles of sanctions.” But this attitude may be somewhat delusional. It is the Iranians that are accumulating the potential bomb fuel. They too may be thinking that they are negotiating from a position of power.
But stalemate is not in the West’s favor: the longer the sanctions stay in place, the more the position of the P5+1 nations will worsen. Iran keeps collecting more and more 20 percent enriched uranium, but time is not on Washington’s side for another reason. An EU court has recently struck down (for the second time) the legality of some of Europe’s bank sanctions on Iran. As allies get weary, it may become more difficult to present a united face in enforcing the sanctions regime.
And contrary to expectations, sanctions are not leading to some groundswell movement to oust the Supreme Leader’s regime. To the contrary, recent polls show that Iranian people blame the foreign powers imposing the sanctions much more than their own government, and continue to favor their nuclear program. Ironically, the sanctions are directly benefiting the officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) because they control much of the Iranian black market. And since the regime has placed price controls on many staples and basic services, it has made itself indispensable for the continuing affordability of bread, meat, cooking oil, and transport. An Iranian activist summed it up well, "People are becoming more dependent on the government for everything. Why would they rebel against this government?"
Sanctions are also punishing and disempowering precisely the people who oppose the current government. The politically progressive and enlightened class, who until recently could afford to travel abroad for work and higher education, are now basically in survival mode.
The sanctions are also helping China obtain oil at below-market prices. Beijing has exploited Iran's economic isolation to drive a harder bargain, pressuring Iran into cheaper prices and even carrying out barter deals with substandard goods.
So let’s tally it up: sanctions have helped China get cheap oil, enriched the officers of the Revolutionary Guards, solidified the population's dependence on the regime, and hurt the enlightened middle class who could bring about true democratic reform. It’s a no-brainer: the P5+1 have to be much more willing to yield on sanctions relief in order to get Iran to suspend their 20 percent enrichment work. As Suzanne Maloney of Brookings suggests, "The incentives must be more persuasive than the paltry offers the United States has made to date."
In the past, the P5+1 have indicated that there would be "consideration" of easing sanctions "later," after Iran made concessions. This has obviously not been a recipe for success: the reciprocity needs to be simultaneous. There needs to be a symmetry of compromise by both sides.
If we can get Iran’s cooperation by merely lifting some sanctions—sanctions that aren’t exactly helping our aims in Iran anyway—why are some still holding out and considering the disastrous military option? A military strike is not really a credible option. It would be a foolish and counterproductive action as it would likely lead to Iran kicking off a full-blooded nuclear weaponization effort, just as Saddam’s Hussein did after Israel’s attack on the Osirak plant in 1981.
A strike on Iran would likely change Tehran’s latent nuclear-weapons capability into an active weaponization effort. It would empower the hawks in Iran’s national-security apparatus, ensuring the expulsion of IAEA inspectors and a race to the bomb—not to mention the possibility of a region-wide conflagration and sky-high gas prices. Such a strike would also have a “rally-around-the-flag” effect on Iranians, allowing the regime to crack down further on political opponents and silence critics, further cementing the regime’s authority.
In some ways, it seems we are back to early 1950s in dealing with Iran. Ray Takeyh in reviewing Ervand Abrahamian’s new book, The Coup: 1953, the CIA and the Roots of Modern US–Iranian Relations, for the journal Survival, mentions that Abrahamian’s historical research reveals that