International

US and Iran: The art of the nuclear deal

Analysis: Diplomatic solution requires concessions from both parties, but making them may be tougher for Obama

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President Barack Obama.
L. to R.: Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti via Reuters; Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

In the decade-plus since Iran's plans to enrich uranium became public, all diplomatic efforts to address Western concerns over the program have failed. Instead, escalating sanctions have piled pressure on Iran's economy, while talk of "closing diplomatic windows" has created a sense of imminent crisis over Tehran acquiring the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons. But new hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough have been raised by the inauguration in August of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who has been given the green light by Iran's clerical Supreme Leader to negotiate with Western powers. Still, while Rouhani is an engaging and conciliatory figure, a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff would require a formula that accommodates the key concerns of each side.

For the West, that key concern is Iran's capacity to build nuclear weapons: U.S. intelligence maintains that Tehran is not currently building nuclear weapons and has not taken a decision to pursue that option, but it is steadily accumulating technological infrastructure that would allow it to build a bomb. Western powers are skeptical of Iran's insistence that its nuclear work has exclusively civilian purposes, while Israel -- which has constantly pressed for a tougher U.S. line -- believes Tehran is racing to acquire weapons that would, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says, pose an "existential threat" to his country.

Iran's key concerns boil down to recognition of its rights as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- which allows peaceful use of the full nuclear fuel-cycle, including enriching uranium -- and to have its regime and its regional role acknowledged. Rouhani, in a recent Washington Post opinion piece expressed this as a "demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world." And in an NBC interview, Iran's president called for an end to "threats and sanctions and (the) use the language of insult and intimidation."

Despite their differences, each side has clear motivation to seek a deal: Iran's economy has suffered considerable pain under Western sanctions, and its need to break out of its isolation and reintegrate into the global community can only be realized by resolving the nuclear dispute. For the U.S., the failure of seven years of sanctions to force Iranian capitulation has raised the prospect of the standoff escalating toward a potentially disastrous confrontation.

Iran's secret construction of the infrastructure to enrich uranium was revealed in 2002, but it began enrichment -- under monitoring by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors -- in 2005 following a breakdown in talks with European powers. Although Iran initially confined its enrichment to less than 5 percent purity (the level necessary to power a civilian nuclear reactor), Western powers and Israel feared that such infrastructure would enable Tehran to enrich uranium to weapons grade (more than 90 percent) if it expelled inspectors.

Iran amplified Western alarm bells when it began enriching small amounts of uranium to 20 percent purity on the grounds that this material was needed to fuel a medical research reactor in Tehran. The time-frame and technical chops required to re-enrich uranium from 20 percent purity to weapons-grade are considerably less than if the process started from a stockpile of material enriched to less than 5 percent.

Tehran's failure to comply with all the transparency requirements of the NPT prompted a 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment until outstanding issues were settled with the IAEA. At the time, President George W. Bush insisted that Iran be prevented from mastering enrichment, and that Tehran could not be allowed to enrich uranium on its own soil.

Iran simply ignored the Security Council and Bush, absorbing ever-harsher rounds of sanctions over the years as its technological achievements rendered passé Bush's position. Though Bush refused to directly negotiate with Iran while it enriched, the E.U.-led P5+1 group -- France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and, notably, the U.S. -- held sporadic negotiations with Iran. The Obama administration abandoned Bush's preconditions for talks, and international focus shifted from the U.N. suspension demands to finding agreement on "confidence-building" measures that would limit, but not entirely halt Iran's enrichment.

Even the U.S. demand -- strongly backed by Israel and France, and flatly rejected by Tehran -- that Iran forego its right to any enrichment appears to no longer be an article of faith in Washington. As early as 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. could accept Iran enriching uranium "once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations." More recent media comments by U.S. officials acknowledge that Iran's leadership could not accept a zero-enrichment deal, and that a compromise would have to be found that walked the Iranian program further back from the weapons threshold.

Israel, however, which has used the threat of launching unilateral military action to press the U.S. to escalate pressure on Iran, continues to insist -- at least publicly -- that Iran's enrichment capacity must be entirely dismantled and shipped out of the country.

The outline of a deal Tehran may accept has been outlined as follows by some Iranian analysts. Iran would agree to:

  • More intrusive monitoring of its nuclear work, voluntarily adopting at least the Additional Protocol of the NPT (which allows a more stringent inspection regime).
  • Capping its levels of enrichment and its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium. 
  • End work on a heavy-water reactor that would produce plutonium, a potential bomb material.  
  • Answer the outstanding questions from the IAEA over "possible military dimensions" of Iran's nuclear research work before 2003. 

Western powers and Israel have also focused on the military installation known as Fordow, buried deep in a mountain near the holy city of Qom and considered impenetrable to Israeli attack. Iran shifted production of medium-enriched uranium there in 2011, from the above-ground facility at Natanz. A year later, the P5+1 proposed that the Fordow plant be shut down, but Iran refused. The demand was subsequently softened to require a suspension of enrichment at Fordow. Iran, too, appeared interested in compromise, proposing this year a freeze on expansion of the relatively small enrichment capacity at Fordow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has suggested that Iran remains open to entirely freezing enrichment to 20 percent purity. And the most recent IAEA report (PDF) into Iran's nuclear work finds that Tehran has either deliberately, or because of technical shortcomings, failed to cross important thresholds. Its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium, for example, remains at a level below the estimated 240 to 250 pounds that would, if reprocessed to weapons-grade, be sufficient to create a single bomb. Progress on construction of the Arak reactor has fallen well behind schedule. But Iran's interlocutors are likely to demand more -- at a minimum the capping of its stockpiles of both medium- and low-enriched uranium at levels below those required for Iran's immediate civilian needs.

President Barack Obama may, in fact, find it harder to meet Iran’s key demand -- the easing and eventual lifting of sanctions. As the International Crisis Group points out, only eight of the 31 U.S. and international sanctions against Iran can be reversed by order of the White House; the rest would require votes by, variously, the U.N., the European Union and Congress. "To get to 'yes,' the P5+1 must be prepared to phase out hard-hitting sanctions against Iran's banking sector and oil exports," wrote the executive director of the Arms Control Association Daryl Kimball. And movement would have to be swift.

That may be a tough sell on Capitol Hill. At a recent forum in Washington D.C., former Pentagon official Colin Kahl said, "I don't see any prospect of Congress dialing back on sanctions unless there's a big, big deal that can be sold as a substantial limitation on the Iranian nuclear program." Having framed sanctions as a means of gaining leverage over the Iranians, the U.S. now runs a risk that they're not easily reversed in exchange for Iranian concessions.

Iran would also expect the U.S. to signal that it won't attack Iran or foment regime change there, and for recognition of a role in the region beyond its borders in areas of influence such as Syria and Afghanistan. And that, of course, would require that Iran also recognize a de facto U.S. regional role.

And then there's the question of Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of his skepticism over U.S.-Iran diplomatic engagement, particularly if it involves any easing of pressure on the Islamic Republic. The Israelis don't trust Tehran's intentions, and their hostility to compromise that leaves Iran with the technological capability to make nuclear weapons is likely to find plenty of resonance on Capitol Hill.

So, to get to New York, Rouhani will travel more than 6,000 miles; Obama needs only go about 225. But, to paraphrase 18th century British nobleman Henry Boyle, the most difficult part of their respective trips will be meeting halfway.

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