With Iran’s nuclear program dominating the nonproliferation airwaves, I wrote my November Bulletin column on the merits of the ongoing talks in Geneva (the latest round of which resumed on November 20 and could continue into the weekend) and why a negotiating strategy premised on forcing Iran to surrender its enrichment program is not a wise strategy. Here’s how I begin:
When, in early November, Iran and six world powers met in Geneva, negotiators made significant progress toward an initial agreement that would pause Iran’s nuclear development. Hopes are high that the remaining obstacles to a first-phase deal between Tehran and the P5+1—the United States, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom—can be overcome soon,and that future talks will further allay concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.
Despite diplomatic progress, though, skeptics in the United States and Israel argue that the current negotiations are a fool’s errand. They say that the only worthwhile agreement would be one that requires Iran to dismantle its entire nuclear program, including uranium enrichment. In addition, the skeptics argue that Iran only responds to extreme pressure, and that therefore the US Congress must pass tougher sanctions immediately and back them up with a credible threat of military action.
These Godfather-esque arguments have a certain appeal. If the United States makes Iran an offer it can’t refuse, then surely it will back down and give in to every demand, or so the theory goes. But this isn’t Hollywood, and such tactics are much more likely to backfire than succeed.
A diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear impasse is squarely within American national security interests. A reasonable deal would constrain Iran’s nuclear program, increase the international community’s ability to monitor and verify compliance, and give the United States ample warning in the event that Iran makes a dash to acquire the bomb. The first-phase deal the Obama administration is pursuing is a step toward these ends. Attempts by the US Congress to increase sanctions and condition relief on unrealistic maximalist positions—such as insisting that Iran cease all uranium enrichment—would likely doom current diplomatic efforts, thereby increasing the likelihood that the outcomes Washington is trying to prevent come to pass. Those could include unconstrained Iranian nuclear development; a nuclear-armed Iran; a US war against Iran; or all of the above.
Read the whole thing here.
One issue I did not address in the column is the reported reasons for the failure to close an initial deal at the November 7-10 Geneva round. In most tellings, a deal appeared imminent until France insisted that the P5+1 drive a harder bargain, which the Iranian negotiating team could not accept without further guidance from Tehran. The most oft-cited stumbling blocks were (and continue to be?) how to deal with Iran’s construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak and how to describe/characterize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium as part of an agreement.
On Arak, Jeffrey Lewis makes a strong case that the French were right to insist that “A freeze on Iran’s nuclear program needs to include a freeze on construction work at Arak.” Most experts seem to think that the P5+1 and Iran can reach a compromise that prevents this issue from becoming a deal breaker.
A modus vivendi on Iran’s enrichment rights could be a trickier road to hoe, but here to there is cause for cautious optimism. According to a November 15 report in the New York Times attributed to Western diplomats, a potential compromise “would be for an interim accord to affirm that Iran would be entitled to all of the rights of signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran and world powers would then agree to disagree on how to interpret that treaty.” Indeed, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif appeared to bless such an approach. However, its not clear if this will fly with the Supreme Leader or if additional sanctions relief beyond what the P5+1 has offered will be required in return.
Ultimately, a first-step deal that freezes and begins to roll back Iran’s nuclear progress is one the United States (and its allies) should take. As Shashank Joshi aptly puts it, “If Iran cheats, the West loses almost nothing; if it doesn’t, then Iran is put further from a nuclear weapon and trust is built for a bigger deal. Like all good diplomacy, it hedges against its own failure.” Meanwhile, the contemplated sanctions relief being offered to Iran is proportional to the cap on and more intrusive international monitoring of the program that is being asked of Iran. The claim that the very limited and reversible sanctions relief on offer would eviscerate the larger sanctions regime doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
The value of the deal should be assessed relative to the gains Iran could make over the next six months in the absence of the deal. Critics of reported agreement must explain how more coercive approaches will reduce Iran’s breakout potential, given that existing sanctions to date have not stopped Iran’s nuclear progress.