Potential nuclear deal would allow Iran to keep some nuclear facilities

Analysis: Talks resume this week in search of a compromise that will likely be opposed by hawkish elements on both sides

The reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran

As Iran, the United States and their negotiating partners prepare to meet again in Geneva this week, a potential compromise is taking shape that would allow Iran to keep all or most of its declared nuclear facilities, but under strict monitoring and other restrictions that would make it extremely difficult to build weapons. Even if such a deal was to be concluded, however, it’s not an outcome that would be easily accepted by Israel and its more hawkish allies on Capitol Hill.

Officials familiar with the negotiations suggest that the emerging compromise formula could satisfy the urgent non-proliferation concerns of the U.S. and the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) group, while also allowing Iran to say that its right to a peaceful nuclear program had been respected.

Declared opponents of such a compromise -- including Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – insist that Iran be required to dismantle most if not all its nuclear infrastructure, especially the underground uranium enrichment plant at Fordow and a heavy water reactor under construction at Arak which, when completed and brought online, would yield plutonium, another potential bomb fuel. However, even if Iran proves willing to accept new limits on its production of nuclear fuel and more intrusive monitoring of its facilities, it’s unlikely to agree to destroy infrastructure for whose construction it has paid such a heavy economic and diplomatic price. (Even if it did agree to their dismantling, Iran would retain the know-how to rebuild them.) Former and current U.S. officials – and even several Israeli security experts – have told this author that any realistic diplomatic solution would leave Iran with some enrichment capacity.

“From the Iranian perspective, if the P5+1 insisted on some of these maximalist demands -- dismantling of these big facilities, totally abandoning their enrichment program, exporting every gram of enriched uranium… they would consider that to be a failure,” Robert Einhorn, a former US negotiator with Tehran, said on Nov. 1 at the Brookings Institution.

The sort of deal demanded by Netanyahu is simply not obtainable, Einhorn said, but what could be achieved in the current negotiation is a “good deal” that prevents Iran from taking a “big leap forward” in nuclear capability in the near future.

Thursday’s talks in Geneva come at a moment when both Iran and the United States have compelling incentives to quickly reach an agreement.

Economic sanctions have taken a horrific toll on the Iranian economy, and while the Obama administration has lobbied Congress for a pause in new sanctions, more penalties will almost certainly be imposed by the end of the year absent significant progress in nuclear talks. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani campaigned on a pledge to improve the economy and needs to show results as he approaches the 100th day of his presidency. More sanctions could convince Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the US is more interested in regime change than a nuclear deal.

The Obama administration also needs a foreign policy achievement after months of fumbling over Syria. U.S. officials want to freeze Iran’s nuclear progress before it creates a stockpile sufficient that re-enriching it to materiel for a single bomb would take a matter of weeks -- a so-called breakout capability that some experts say Iran will reach by the middle of next year.

And while the U.S. Congress may approve new sanctions, the success of any sanctions requires compliance by countries that actually do business with Iran – and it is by no means clear that the rest of the world will fall in line if Iran is perceived to be more willing to compromise.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking Saturday in Istanbul, suggested that it was too late for the outside world to destroy Iran’s nuclear knowhow and that the objective should be “to ensure [the program] is peaceful: allow it operate in a transparent fashion.”

While Zarif has denied an account of Iran’s nuclear proposal made available to Al-Monitor last month -- and others have said it contains details not yet tabled by Iran -- both serving and former officials have confirmed its basic structure: Iran wants a phased, one-year process in which the first six-month phase will include significant confidence-building measures such as a halt to enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, in return for measurable easing of sanctions. At the same time, Iran wants the parties to agree on the endgame – what Iran’s nuclear program will consist of after each side has satisfied the other’s concerns – because Tehran fears the goalposts being moved once it shows a willingness to compromise.                                                                                                             

In parallel to the Geneva talks, Iran has re-invigorated negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about investigating possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program including past research into weaponization. While Iran is no longer linking the two sets of negotiations, progress on one would certainly boost the other.

Yukiya Amano, director general of the IAEA – which would also be tasked with monitoring any new nuclear agreement -- was uncharacteristically upbeat after last week’s talks in Vienna. 

“We did have a very productive meeting,” Amano told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars last Friday. “In the last meeting, there was some real change. Iran made a proposal that contains some real substance.” Without disclosing details of the proposal, Amano said the Iranians had agreed to a “step-by-step approach … to resolve all outstanding questions through cooperation and dialogue.”

Amano said that the IAEA, which has inspectors on the ground in Iran every day of the year, is “quite confident we can find any changes or deviation [of Iranian nuclear materials] in a reasonable amount of time” at declared facilities, but that Iranian acceptance of the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – which allows short-notice inspections of undeclared sites – would “give us more confidence on the peaceful nature” of the Iranian nuclear program.

Another possible means of increasing confidence would be more intrusive monitoring of declared facilities through remote cameras. An Iranian source told this author recently that Iran might agree to on-line live-stream monitoring of Fordow, as well as allowing the IAEA to visit the Parchin military installation where the IAEA believes Iran previously conducted tests of what may have been high-explosive triggers for a nuclear device.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. official specializing in non-proliferation who is now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said in an email, “Online monitoring of Fordow is a clever way to parry the demand for shutting down Fordow entirely, but it would be a new departure for Iran, which to date has insisted that it will not accept safeguards measures that do not apply to other states. Online monitoring is not a standard safeguards practice.”

Such monitoring, however, would be something the Iranian government could implement without permission from its parliament. Such permission would be required to ratify the Additional Protocol. Iranian officials have indicated that in the first phase of a nuclear agreement, they would seek steps that could be accomplished by the executive branches on both sides. That’s a way around the domestic political obstacles on both sides created by decades of hostility.

On Monday -- the anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the US Embassy -- Iranian hardliners were still chanting “Death to America.” A better indication of where relations stand will come Thursday in Geneva when negotiators return to the quieter business of trying to narrow gaps between what is politically possible on both sides.

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