Preventing Iran's Nuclear Checkmate

June 13, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: IranNuclear TalksStrategy

Preventing Iran's Nuclear Checkmate

Having achieved its other goals in the P5+1 talks, Iran is now trying to stop inspections of its military sites.

Chess is considered to be one of the best games for strategy training. The game's main purpose is to eliminate the opponent's options and reduce the number of his available alternatives until nothing is available—Checkmate!

Chess originated in an area which today is part of Iran. It is therefore fitting that Iran’s negotiation strategy with world powers over its nuclear program can be explained according to the rationale of the game. If this analysis reflects the Supreme Leader Khamenei's stance, then Iran’s stated opposition to comprehensive inspections on military sites should not be seen as Iran's red lines. Rather, this public stance reflects a sophisticated strategy aimed to undermine the most important basis for the American policy in the post-nuclear agreement world. Tehran is preparing its final move—Checkmate!

Since the joint declaration by the EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini and the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on April 2, 2015, the Supreme Leader has been very vocal in rejecting inspections on Iran’s military sites as part of a final agreement. For example, a week after the Lausanne joint declaration, the Iranian leader stated that the military sites will not be part of the inspection package. Not long after, Khamenei reemphasized that, "no inspections of any military site or interview with nuclear scientists will be allowed."

This is not Khamenei's whim, but a well thought out move by the Iranian leader. Iran’s first goal was to secure Iran's right to enrich uranium despite five UN Security Council Resolutions that reject it. Iran, de facto, achieved this goal in the interim agreement on November 2013, which states that a comprehensive solution will include an Iranian enrichment program. This signaled the opening of the second battle—over the scope of Iran’s nuclear program.

After the interim agreement it was reported that American proposals aimed for a very limited nuclear program that significantly roll back Iranian capabilities and extended its "breakout time"—the time it would take for Iran to be capable of producing enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb—to several years. Iran's goal was to minimize its concessions on key components of the nuclear program and avoid closing or shutting down its enrichment sites and reactors. The guiding Iranian principle was to keep "irreversibility" capacity—that is, the capability to rehabilitate its nuclear program in a relative short time.

The Lausanne declaration and the American fact sheet that was published by the White House suggest some very important Iranian concessions. However, they also demonstrate that Iran achieved its second objective. According to the American document, no Iranian facility will be shut down (although the Qom enrichment facility will be converted into a research and development site), and the Iranian breakout time will only be extended to one year. This breakout time could be cut to "almost zero" in the second decade after an agreement is signed, as was stressed by the President Obama himself.

The Lausanne declaration initiated the last move in the Iranian strategy—to take the edge off the inspection regime. President Obama correctly contended that the Lausanne framework provides an unprecedented monitoring mechanism. If this framework is fully implemented, it could subject the Iranian nuclear program to intrusive inspections, allowing IAEA safeguard inspectors access to the entire supply chain of Iran's nuclear program. In that regard, this regime would be intrusive in terms of depth and scope.

This monitoring system is the basis for the American prevention strategy in the aftermath of a deal with Iran. Intrusive inspections are fundamental to deter Iran from violating the agreement, detect an Iranian violation, and provide the international community sufficient time to respond. This is a crucial element in Washington’s efforts to convince Iran's adversaries in the region to avoid unilateral steps that could lead to a regional escalation.

The Iranian Supreme Leader understands that, which is why he is now pushing America to make some concessions in the negotiations over the final details of the inspections. After successfully narrowing American policy to one main cornerstone, the Supreme Leader is pursuing a “Checkmate.” For this reason, the battle over the international inspections is the battle over the entire negotiations.

After the Lausanne declaration, President Obama noted that a nuclear deal with Iran "is not based on trust. It's based on unprecedented verification." U.S. negotiators should therefore ensure that any final agreement with Iran contains an unprecedented monitoring system that is able to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement and detects any violations. This would include Iran implementing the Additional Protocol that allows IAEA inspections to be held "anywhere, anytime."

This authority should extend to Iran's military sites where Iran’s most suspicious activities in the past have taken place. Although the IAEA conveyed its concerns about the potential military nature of these activities, the Iranian regime has yet to offer appropriate alternative explanations or recent access to the relevant sites. Lastly, a prerequisite for effective inspections is that Iran comes clean with the past and possibly current military dimensions of its nuclear program. IAEA inquiries of these activities are essential to understand how Iran promoted covert military-related activities in the past to ensure that it would not resume secret efforts to develop nuclear weapons in the future. Altogether, these three pillars could prevent an Iranian “Checkmate,” and secure a reasonable basis for the more challenging mission—to deter Iran from violating an agreement.

All the pieces on the board are prepared for the decisive moment—what will be the next American move?

Avner Golov is a researcher at the Center for a New American Security, a research fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies and a Harry S. Truman Scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

Image: Website of the Supreme Leader of Iran