Can the US and Iran strike a nuke deal?

Leaders on both sides have shown interest in negotiating a solution to the nuclear standoff. What would a deal require?

Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, front right, takes part in talks on its nuclear program with officials, back, from right, from the U.S., Britain, France, the E.U., China, Germany and Russia in Almaty, Kazakhstan, April 5, 2013.
Ilyas Omarov/AFP/Getty Images

Al Jazeera asked a number of analysts of U.S.-Iran relations to reflect on whether there are realistic prospects for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff and what that would involve.

Geneive Abdo

Stephan Rohl

Geneive Abdo is a fellow in the Middle East program at the Stimson Center and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Many stars have aligned to make this moment an opportune time to resolve two conflicts in the Middle East -- the Syrian civil war and Iran's march toward a nuclear weapon. A new, more moderate faction is in power in Iran, led by President Hassan Rouhani, who has vowed to break the deadlock with the West over Iran,s nuclear program. Not only does Rouhani have the support of key figures within the regime, but more important, he has the backing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

At the same time, a diplomatic settlement could materialize to end the war in Syria. Such a settlement would have to include Iran, and the outcome is likely to dispense with President Bashar al-Assad while preserving remnants of his Alawite-led regime. Key officials in the Obama administration have signaled they are willing to give Iran a role in the negotiations -- something Tehran has demanded for many months. Iran views this scenario as advantageous: Even with Assad gone, Tehran would retain its footprint in Syria and its supply routes to Hezbollah, its key ally in Lebanon.

Iran could use Assad as a bargaining chip in nuclear negotiations and appear to be giving up a key weapon. Therefore, from Iran's perspective, there are many benefits to negotiating now on the nuclear issue to try to get some of the U.S., U.N. and European Union sanctions lifted. Sanction relief is Rouhani's top priority. Given that, Iran might agree to cap its uranium enrichment at lower levels than the current 20 percent and allow more transparency regarding its nuclear facilities and capability.

Another incentive for Iran's leaders to make a deal is that they understand and have acknowledged their own society's demands for sanction relief in order to improve the economy and end Iran's isolation from the rest of the world. Khamenei, in particular, appears to have reached the realization that his survival and that of the regime depend on substantive political and economic reform.

Meir Javedanfar

Meir Javedanfar is the owner and editor of the Iran-Israel Observer. He teaches contemporary Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.

There is a very realistic prospect for a diplomatic solution for three reasons:

First and foremost, Barack Obama has a very different approach to Iran from George W. Bush's. Unlike Bush, Obama has been willing to negotiate with Iran unconditionally from the start of his first term in 2009. In fact, in the 34 years of postrevolution Iranian history, no other U.S. president has tried as hard as Obama to reach out to Iran's leadership. He has been one of the biggest backers of diplomacy with Iran.

The second is Rouhani. He also wants a deal, but unlike Ahmadinejad who also wanted to reach a deal with the United States, his relations with the supreme leader are much better. Rouhani is not seen as a threat to Iran's most powerful man, as Ahmadinejad increasingly was after 2011. As important, if not more, is the fact that Rouhani is a moderate who believes in diplomacy and moderation. The sanctions that are hurting the Iranian economy are powerful leverage, one that Rouhani can use to convince the supreme leader and the hard-liners that unless a deal is reached, they all have something to lose, not just him. 

Last and not least, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is warning the U.S. that a bad deal is better than no deal with Iran -- a clear indication that an agreement with Iran has a realistic chance. Otherwise he would not be so worried.

Iran has a right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and the international community has the right to demand and ensure that Iran is not building and cannot build a bomb. Therefore, an overall deal should allow Iran the ability to enrich uranium on its soil at a lower level. Before that happens, the Iranian government must answer for the IAEA in the clearest manner all remaining questions about Iran's alleged military-related nuclear activities in the past. The Iranian government must also allow stringent IAEA checks in place at its nuclear sites. The quantities of low-enriched uranium that remain in Iran must be at a level that is at no time sufficient to build a bomb if the Iranian government decides to do so.

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an independent scholar and affiliate graduate faculty member at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She was most recently a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

In Iran, there seems to be a political will to resolve the nuclear standoff. This political will involves determination on the part of the Rouhani administration as well as a rare domestic consensus that the president needs to be given a chance and internal support in his declared quest to both resolve the nuclear issue and reduce the hostility that was created in the West during the Ahmadinejad administration. What is less clear or is questionable is the existence of such a political will in the United States. Tehran is fully aware that the Obama administration is under pressure to remain recalcitrant on the demand that Iran end its enrichment program and on substantial easing of sanctions. But Obama's stand-down on Syria has created optimism that he may be keen on reducing tensions in the region as well as willing to ignore forces and countries that find benefit in continued hostilities between Iran and the U.S. As such, some sort of intermediate or initial agreement within the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany) opening the path for bilateral talks is possible.

It should be noted that such an intermediate agreement almost happened in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 election but was derailed because of opposition in Iran over worries that such a deal with external players would open the path for further repression at home. The revamping of Iran's domestic dynamics after the 2013 presidential election and increased concern by many people in the U.S. regarding the potential for coercive diplomacy opening the path for another destructive war in the Middle East region has improved the prospects for a nuclear deal. 

A diplomatic solution will have to be based on flexibility and realistic assessment of what is possible on the part of both sides. The broad frames of an initial agreement have been extensively discussed in public. Furthermore, at least temporary limitations on Iran's 20 percent enrichment activities were placed on the table in previous negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. Tehran has been open to the implementation of the additional protocol, but it has been resistant to further International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of its military installation at Parchin without some sort of agreement on the modality of the visit. Up to now, it has maintained a maximalist position regarding the easing of sanctions, calling for suspension of most sanctions in the first stages. This position is obviously unrealistic and will have to change. 

The United States, in turn, has been quite stingy in its willingness to reduce sanctions, fearing that any kind of substantial easing would make Iran uninterested in further talks and limitations on its nuclear program. But some sort of easing -- for instance, in relation to financial restrictions on the movement of Iranian dollars held abroad -- may get in return not only suspension of 20 percent enrichment but also further cooperation with the IAEA in its demand to visit Parchin. The U.S. has been unwilling to reveal its endgame in relation to Iran's enrichment program and whether the intent is to halt or limit it. Finally, the American demand for Iran to close or mothball Fordo, the under-mountain enrichment facility that is under IAEA inspection, while publicly maintaining that the option of militarily attacking Iran's nuclear facilities is on the table is simply unrealistic, given the fact that Fordo was created precisely in response to the declared military option. 

It is true that at this point there are other actions that can be taken to lessen the mistrust between the two countries. The U.S. agreement to allow Iran to be part of multinational talks on Syria will, for instance, impact Iran's threat perception and its fear that the U.S. is intent on regime change. Iran's lowering of its profile in Syria will, in turn, impact the image it has in the U.S. of being a troublemaker in the region. But the bottom line is that after 35 years of open hostility and 10 years of unfruitful and troubled negotiations, any kind of initial agreement on the nuclear file, no matter how limited, would be a truly significant step in shaking the hostile narratives that have become deeply institutionalized in both countries. In Iran, at least, it would go a long way in undermining the narrative that the nuclear issue is merely an excuse for increasing pressures and, ultimately, regime change.

Joe Cirincione

Carnegie Endowment

Joe Cirincione is the president of the Ploughshares Fund and the author of the new book "Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late."

Half the people in the United States had not been born the last time a U.S. president met a leader of Iran. But that may change this week if President Barack Obama takes the opportunity to meet -- however briefly -- with newly elected President Hassan Rouhani of Iran when both speak at the United Nations on Tuesday.

The last time the leaders of the two countries met was 1977, when President Jimmy Carter dined with the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. That was 36 years ago, and 36 is just about the median age of the U.S. population. If Obama and Rouhani meet, the picture of the historic moment will flash around the world, sending a powerful message that the diplomatic doors are once again open and jolting the national-security bureaucracies of both countries into action.

A deal on Iran's nuclear program is very possible -- if the two sides can find the right first step. Rouhani has spent the past few weeks signaling that he is ready to deal, purging the national-security apparatus of hard-line ideologues and replacing them with moderates and pragmatists. It is not clear that Obama's team is as ready as Rouhani's or has fully grasped the historic opportunity.

The broad outlines of the deal are known: Iran reduces its ability to quickly build material for nuclear weapons, the West drops some of the sanctions strangling Iran's economy. Further actions would lead to verifiable limits on Iran's ability to enrich uranium, an end to all sanctions and the restoration of diplomatic relations. The trick is in the sequencing -- and overcoming the resistance of conservatives in both nations opposed to any deal. 

Even if the two presidents do not meet, there is a chance for a breakthrough on Thursday, when Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif will convene as part of the nuclear negotiations known as the P5+1. This will be the first meeting at that level since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Rouhani and Zarif must be able to return to Tehran with some tangible sign that their diplomatic overture is working or risk a conservative backlash that could close the diplomatic window prematurely. And Obama and Kerry must have some further proof that Iran's new leadership is genuinely set on a new course. Iran could, for example, order the release of more political prisoners, and the U.S. could announce the suspension of some sanctions. That could be followed by a more detailed agreement in principle at the P5+1 meeting.

It is not often that the world gets to see the hinge of history move in real time. But it could happen this week if the leaders of these two critical nations can grasp the moment.

Mark Fitzpatrick

Mark Fitzpatrick is the director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He is also a founding member of the E.U. Non-Proliferation Consortium.

If Iran's nuclear program were entirely for peaceful purposes, then it would not be hard to find a solution. But unfortunately, that is not the case. The nuclear problem involves a fundamental clash of goals: Iran wants nuclear weapons capability, and the U.S. and its allies don't want Iran to have it. Neither side will totally capitulate, so the best that can be done is to strike a deal under which Iran maintains part of the capability it already possesses but accepts transparency measures and limitations sufficient to provide confidence that it could not quickly build a nuclear weapon. 

Just how quickly or slowly this should be is the area for negotiation. Iran will have to provide far more transparency, including 24/7 remote video monitoring of key nuclear facilities and adherence to international norms, including the Additional Protocol safeguards and rules about early notification of nuclear facilities. On the basis of Rouhani's election-campaign statements about transparency, there is reason to believe that Iran will be willing to go along with such measures.

But a deal will also require significant limits on the sensitive aspects of its nuclear program, which will be harder for him to sell domestically. At a minimum, the program should be frozen at its current status in terms of both quantity and quality of the operating centrifuges. The stockpile of enriched uranium, which is sufficient for at least six weapons if further enriched, will need to be shipped out of the country, as part of a trade deal, for example, or parts of it converted to forms that cannot easily be used for weapons. Iran will also have to forestall starting up its Arak reactor so it would not be able to make weapons-grade plutonium.

In exchange, Iran's six negotiating partners will have to offer significant sanction relief, particularly in the oil and financial sectors that are squeezing the nation most. The six powers will also have to address Iran's insistence on recognizing its so-called right to enrichment. In fact, the offers already tabled give an implicit recognition of this right, conditional on Iran's satisfying international concerns. The six will need to make this recognition explicit and specify what is required to restore international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program. The most objective criteria would be faithful implementation of the Additional Protocol, which would enable the IAEA to draw conclusions about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities.

Karim Sadjadpour

Carnegie Endowment

Karim Sadjadpour is a leading Iran analyst and a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Whether or not President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani shake hands, there has never been a more opportune moment to attempt to defuse the Iranian nuclear conflict. As long as Iran is an Islamic Republic led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the United States will never find more reasonable diplomatic interlocutors in Tehran than Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Likewise, Iranians will likely never see a U.S. leadership more amenable to diplomacy than Obama and his team of three former senators -- Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry -- who have been longtime advocates of Iran engagement.

For diplomatic success, however, the consent of the above actors alone is insufficient. Rouhani must sell any deal to Khamenei, a hardened cynic when it comes to U.S. intentions, while Obama requires the cooperation of the U.S. Congress and the acquiescence of allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, longtime cynics when it comes to Iranian intentions.

In theory, the broad contours of a nuclear agreement are fairly clear. Iran would limit its production and enrichment of uranium and exhibit greater transparency in order to reassure the world that it remains a safe distance from a nuclear weapon. The U.S., E.U. and U.N. would ease the draconian international sanctions that have debilitated the Iranian economy.

In practice, however, bedeviling details are numerous. Which side makes the first move? Will Congress show flexibility on sanctions?

Distilled to its essence, the U.S.-Iran nuclear standoff derives from a deep-seated mutual mistrust that can be temporarily defused with technical creativity but will never be fully resolved absent a broader political accommodation. Pursuing the former, however, is the best path to achieving the latter.

Reza Marashi

Reza Marashi is the research director for the National Iranian American Council. He previously served in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Prospects for a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear standoff look more realistic now than they have in years. Relative moderates occupy the executive branch in Washington and Tehran, and they both enjoy important institutional support at home. This helps empower leaders to take the kind of risks for peace that are necessary to break the deadlock. There's still much work to be done, but having two leaders who believe in the power of diplomacy is the most critical step toward turning hopes for peace into reality.

With both sides now willing to budge, finding the middle ground will be key. Following through on a step-by-step process based on reciprocity provides a framework for the least bad option: Both sides agree to take steps of equal value, each of which is reversible if Washington or Tehran violates the agreement.

By halting enrichment at the 20 percent level, converting its corresponding stockpile to fuel rods and limiting the operability of its underground nuclear facility in Qom, Tehran would take three important steps that reduce its breakout capability. By providing medical isotopes, providing sanction relief and acknowledging Iran's right to enrich on its own soil under the Additional Protocol, Washington would take three important steps that demonstrate its goal is to change what Iran does rather than what it is. 

Under this arrangement, both sides trade an equal number of concessions, which in turn builds trust, buys more time for negotiations to continue and helps disarms spoilers in Washington, Tehran, Tel Aviv, Brussels and Riyadh.

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