Toward a viable Iran nuclear deal
Oct 18, 2013
October 18, 2013
Number 10/13 #06
A round of talks in Geneva about Iran’s nuclear program Tuesday and Wednesday ended with the Western powers reporting some progress, and plans made for additional talks early next month after Iran gave a Powerpoint presentation whose exact content is unknown but which Iran described as a roadmap for resolving the nuclear issue. This Update looks at where the P5+1 powers (US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany) meeting with Iran should be looking to go from here.
First up is Israeli proliferation and arms control expert Emily Landau who looks at what is known about the Geneva meeting and finds little reason to believe that the Iranians did more than change the atmospherics, or are now prepared to offer the substantive concessions needed to get a viable agreement. She goes on to argue that to get a viable deal the international community must not lose sight of the reality of how the world got in this situation – this is not simply a dispute between Iran and others requiring a compromise, but a situation created by clear Iranian cheating on their Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations and a subsequent refusal to negotiate in earnest. She argues that any change in the Iranian approach is due to sanctions and these should not be lifted without clear evidence Iran is definitively reversing course. For her complete argument, CLICK HERE. Also arguing there is little sign in these talks of a substantive change in approach by Iran is Jonathan Tobin.
Next up is former chief of Israeli Defence Intelligence turned strategic studies academic Amos Yadlin, together with academic colleague Avner Golov. They identify four possible types of deals being considered with Iran – an ideal agreement, a reasonable agreement, a bad agreement and an agreement in phases. They argue that an agreement that dismantles Iran’s nuclear program, or limits it comprehensively enough that the West could be sure to detect an weapons-building efforts would be better than that the alternatives – bombing Iran’s nuclear program or accepting Iran with a nuclear weapon. However, any agreement which lifts sanctions without strongly limiting Iran’s enrichment capabilities, or as part of a long and gradual process of mutual “confidence-building” would not. For their detailed explanation why, CLICK HERE. Israeli officials are also reportedly concerned about an interim partial agreement that would lead to sanctions relief without ending Iran’s military nuclear capability.
Finally, Gary Samore – who served until January as the Obama White House’s coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction but now heads a group called “United against Nuclear Iran” – outlines the realities behind the current talks in an interview given just before they began. Like Yadlin and Golov, he explains the goal of the powers in talking to Iran must an agreement be to severely limit the size of Iran’s enrichment capabilities and thus rule out an undetected future nuclear breakout. He accurately predicted Iran would present a proposal but that it would have no substantive concessions in it, and warns that even if an agreement can be reached, both implementing it and then maintaining are going to be difficult. For this important view from a Washington insider expert on the Iranian nuclear file, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- More discussion of how to tell a good from a bad Iran nuclear deal from Israeli military expert Michael Herzog, academic expert Ray Takeyh, Canadian legal academic and parliamentarian Irwin Cotler, and columnist Bret Stephens.
- A longer blueprint for an Iran deal put together by a group senior American diplomats and politicians assembled as the ” Gemunder Center Iran Task Force.”
- Michael Rubin discusses the possibility that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards would act as spoilers to any potential nuclear deal.
- A report that Iran has launched a bloody crackdown on dissent of late, as the world focuses on the nuclear issues.
- Analysis of a reported Russian decision to sell the Iranians an advanced air-defence system similar to the S-300 that Israel convinced them not to sell to Teheran last year.
- The civilian death toll in Iraq reaches 6000 this year, which bodes poorly for that country’s future.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Sharyn Mittelman discusses the latest evidence about what “moderation” means for Hamas.
- Allon Lee notes how the media beat up a non-story about Yasser Arafat’s death, yet ignored a real one.
While over the past weeks expectations of a deal with Iran have been running high in many quarters, the first round of nuclear negotiations following the election of Hassan Rouhani has ended with no concrete progress save the promise of another meeting early next month where the Iranian proposal will undergo further scrutiny.
There were certainly some new features that characterized these talks: they were conducted in English, the Iranian proposal was presented in a PowerPoint presentation and reportedly included a serious and detailed proposal, the Iranians overall demonstrated a much more positive and direct attitude in the talks, and negotiations ended with a joint Iran-P5+1 statement noting that the Iranian proposal will be examined carefully.
Nevertheless, as far as concrete substance is concerned, Gary Samore, former White House coordinator for Arms Control and WMD, is quoted as saying that the Iranians have not offered the kind of concessions the US is looking for. In his view, “the Iranian proposal appears to be pretty much boiled over soup,” and is an offer that is not fundamentally different from what was proposed when Ahmadinejad was president.
In assessing prospects for success down the road in this difficult negotiation, one aspect seems clear: for the international community to attain the deal it wants, it must not lose sight of the basic setup of the bargaining situation. Contrary to media portrayals of the past few months, these negotiations should not be regarded as a give and take between two parties that are working to realize a shared goal. This crisis was created by Iran when it began to cheat on its commitment to remain non-nuclear according to the terms of the NPT. For years Iran has been working on a military nuclear program, and the international community has been trying to stop it. Resolving the crisis is about one thing only: Iran withdrawing from its military ambitions in the nuclear realm.
For over a decade the international community has striven to fix a problematic situation created by Iran. The international community has sought a negotiated deal whereby Iran relinquishes its military nuclear ambitions, but Iran would like to continue on its own to a military nuclear capability while paying a minimum price. Negotiations have played no role in Iran’s basic game plan and over the years were regarded more as a nuisance (sometimes hurdle) to be overcome on the road to the ultimate goal. When Iran has come to the negotiations table, it has been in order to demonstrate a semblance of cooperation, for the purpose of warding off the prospect of harsher steps being imposed by the international community in response to its ongoing nuclear defiance. Being engaged in negotiations – which must be distinguished from negotiating in order to reach a deal – has sometimes proven useful to Iran as a means of not only avoiding international pressure and punishment, but gaining time to push its program forward.
The difference now is that Iran has a more concrete reason to bargain with the West. Iran is suffering from the impact of biting sanctions that were put in place over the course of 2012 in response to its indifference to international demands, so it currently seeks negotiations in order to have these sanctions lifted. This has resulted in negotiations appearing more like a give and take situation – the P5+1 demand that Iran make nuclear concessions, and Iran in turn demands that the P5+1 reciprocate by lifting sanctions. The fact that Iran brought sanctions upon itself through its nuclear defiance is pushed to the sidelines, and in the meantime, the Iranians demand respect, reciprocity, and recognition of their right to a civilian nuclear program.
But while a prospective deal might ostensibly draw on this new setup, there is in fact no indication that the basic dynamic has changed. The international community is still trying to compel Iran to abandon its military ambitions, and as of yet Iran has shown no indication of wanting to do so. If biting sanctions are lifted for less than a final deal, the international community will go back to square one, with no cards to play in the negotiations or means to coerce Iran to reverse course. Structurally, even though Iran suffers from economic sanctions, in the negotiations process it has always had the upper hand because it is not dependent on a negotiated deal, and can therefore abuse negotiations as it continues to enhance and diversify its nuclear program.
Until it becomes clear that Iran may be willing to reverse course in the nuclear realm, its offers of nuclear concessions should be regarded as bargaining chips – purposely created by Iran along the way, in case it should face a situation much like it faces today, when the pressure becomes too much to bear. But these bargaining chips do not endanger Iran’s ability to move toward nuclear weapons at a time of its choosing. The 20 percent enrichment issue is an excellent example of an issue that Iran created, and in which regard Iran can now afford to be flexible. However, the international community had demands of Iran before the 20 percent enrichment issue was put on the table; therefore taking it off the table cannot now be regarded as a solution.
It is difficult to remain firm and determined when your adversary is smiling. But if the smile is genuine, Iran should be able to readily address the problematic aspects of its nuclear program that support the assessment that Iran strives for a military nuclear capability. Continuing to resist that, while focusing all attention on sanctions relief, is what fuels the sense that the changed atmospherics are not indicative of a changed Iranian nuclear stance.
Finally, an interesting twist in the overall dynamic of confronting Iran is Rouhani’s recent move to introduce the prospect for a new and changed bilateral relationship with the United States. On the one hand, this has raised the stakes of the nuclear negotiation for the United States, because if the Obama administration remains steadfast as far as sanctions relief, it now risks losing more than a nuclear deal – namely, the enticing prospect of a changed relationship with Iran. On the other hand, the implications of this move by Iran may have significant consequences for other players in this dynamic as well, most importantly Russia. Russia’s surprisingly cool reception of the Geneva talks – which stands in stark contrast to the voices of optimism coming from Western capitals – raises the possibility that Russia is not happy with the prospect of thawed bilateral relations that could very well mean a parallel loss of Russian influence in Iran. Russia may be signaling to Iran that it could be the spoiler for Iran’s desire for a quick nuclear deal that would bring sanctions relief if Iran indeed moves closer to the United States.
Emily Landau is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, where she is also director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project.
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An ideal agreement would force Iran to stop all uranium enrichment. Most of the other alternatives are bad.
Hopes are running high in many quarters that the West and Iran could begin to work out a deal over the Iranian nuclear program this week in Geneva. As the Iranian deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, put it before the negotiations began on Tuesday: “We need to move towards a trust-building road map with the Westerners.” Such sweet talk—and the White House’s strong desire to avoid a confrontation with Tehran—could result in a dangerous deal that would lift international sanctions on Iran without ensuring an end to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear-weapons program.
This is not to say that any diplomatic solution would be a bad deal for the West. A diplomatic solution is welcome if it actually offers a better alternative than the two current options: bombing Iran’s nuclear program or accepting Iran with a nuclear weapon.
We see four types of potential deals that the six major powers currently gathered in Geneva could make with Iran: an ideal agreement, a reasonable agreement, a bad agreement and an agreement in phases.
The ideal agreement for the so-called P5+1 (the permanent United Nations Security Council members—the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K. and France—plus Germany) consists of an Iranian commitment to dismantle its nuclear program. Tehran would stop enrichment at all levels—even for nonmilitary purposes. It would close Fordow, its underground enrichment facility, and the Arak reactor, which is capable of producing plutonium for a bomb. Iran would also have to ship out its entire stockpile of enriched uranium, which today is enough to produce five to seven bombs.
Such an agreement would meet the stipulated demands of the Security Council, as well as prior demands by the U.S. and Israel. In exchange, the West would lift all sanctions on Iran.
A less good, but still reasonable, agreement would be a compromise that meticulously addresses the critical elements of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran would retain its right to enrich uranium, but only to a low 3.5%-5% nonmilitary grade.
This agreement would put clear limits on Iran’s centrifuges. The country, which currently has more than 19,000, would be allowed to keep a small, symbolic number to prove that Iran has the presumptive right to enrich for nonmilitary purposes. It would also cap the amount of enriched material, which the International Atomic Energy Agency would oversee. To ensure this, Iran would have to re-sign and implement the additional protocol, which would enable the IAEA to carry out much more thorough inspections. The Iranians would also have to guarantee that the Arak reactor is not functional. Fordow would be closed, and all Iranian nuclear activity would have to be carried out at Natanz. Last, the transformation to fuel rods would be done outside of Iran to ensure that the Iranians won’t ever be able to use the enriched uranium for a bomb in case they abandon the agreement in the future.
Although such an agreement does not meet the Security Council’s demand for Iran to dismantle its nuclear program, it would give the West enough time to detect any Iranian violation—and, critically, to stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons if necessary. This compromise would prolong the Iranian breakout capacity timeline to years rather than months, and it may well be preferable to bombing Iran’s nuclear program or accepting an Iranian nuclear weapon.
A bad agreement would have the West ease sanctions against Tehran in exchange for a partial dismantlement of its nuclear program. Such a deal could, for example, limit Iran’s uranium-enrichment level to a nonmilitary grade, but wouldn’t put a cap on Iran’s stockpile of centrifuges or wouldn’t force the regime to shut down the Arak reactor. This would be disastrous for Western interests, because it would allow Iran to manufacture a nuclear weapon rapidly and whenever it wants, under the cover of an agreement with the international community.
A fourth type of agreement would be a process of reciprocal, partial steps designed to build trust between the two sides. For example, Iran would agree not to continue to enrich to 20%, or would agree not to install new centrifuges, in exchange for sanction relief. This seems to be the type of agreement that the P5+1 is pursuing.
If the West is considering striking such a deal, maintaining current economic sanctions on Iran is critical. Sanctions are the very leverage that could be used to elicit a reasonable or even good deal at the end of the process. Only after Iran proves its resolve to abandon all the key elements in its military nuclear program should sanctions be lifted, and not a moment before.
Of the four possible agreements between the West and Iran, neither the bad deal nor the deal in phases can ensure the end of Iran’s nuclear program. They also don’t offer an alternative preferable to currently available options. On the contrary, they give cover to Iran’s nuclear program and place the decision-making power on the timing of nuclear-weapon breakout in the mullahs’ hands.
By the end of Tuesday’s negotiations, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif had offered a PowerPoint presentation, details publicly unknown but described as “very useful” by the spokesman for the European Union’s top foreign-policy official at the talks. According to several reports, the basic outline of the Iranian proposal has Tehran offering to limit enrichment in exchange for the West easing up on sanctions. So far, it sounds like the worst kind of reciprocal agreement—one in which the West would be forced to give up on its key leverage.
In a recent interview President Obama said that he would not take “a bad deal.” What he means by that isn’t clear. The U.S., Europe and Israel must privately come to an agreement on what a bad deal would look like—and, just as important, get on the same page about the parameters of a good deal, which would ensure that Iran is years away from the bomb.
Western diplomats in Geneva need to find their way to a reasonable deal if reaching an ideal agreement proves impossible. A bad deal or even a phased agreement would be a defeat. In dealing with Iran, this is the hour of truth for Western diplomacy.
Gen. Yadlin, who is retired from the military, is a former chief of Israeli defense intelligence and the director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, where Mr. Golov is a researcher.
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Gary Samore on what to expect from this week’s high-stakes talks in Geneva
America’s long showdown with Iran over its nuclear program could begin its endgame tomorrow when a new round of negotiations — the most promising since the West began cracking down on Iran about a decade ago — begins tomorrow in Geneva. Secretary of State John Kerry will lead a U.S. delegation that joins teams from China, Russia, France, Germany and the U.K. (a group shorthanded as the P5+1, because it includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany). They will meet with an Iranian delegation headed by Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.
On the eve of the talks, TIME spoke with Gary Samore, who served until January as the Obama White House’s coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction — making him the Administration’s point man on the Iran nuclear issue. Samore is now president of United Against Nuclear Iran.
Gary, what’s at the crux of these negotiations?
The single most important issue is whether Iran offers to accept limits on its overall enrichment capacity: limits as defined by the number of centrifuges, the type of centrifuges, the number of enrichment locations and the stockpile of enriched material they have on hand.
The goal of these limits is to prevent Iran from enriching large amounts of uranium quickly. If the Iranians had an industrial-scale enrichment facility, with tens of thousands of centrifuge machines enriching low-enriched uranium, they could pretty quickly convert that facility to producing large quantities of weapons-grade uranium. And that is called ‘breakout.’
The U.S. will try to trade sanctions relief for physical limits on the Iranian nuclear program, and the Iranians will try to get sanctions relief for as few limitations as possible
But without offering some kind of limits on capacity, any proposal Iran makes is not going to be taken seriously.
What’s going to happen in Geneva? Put us in the room.
You’ll have a big plenary session with all the delegations around a table. The expectation is that the Iranians will come to this meeting with a new proposal. Everyone will listen, and there will be some questions and discussion.
Then there would normally be a break for lunch and hopefully an opportunity for bilateral meetings. The only way to negotiate is to meet bilaterally — you can’t negotiate with seven delegations sitting around the table.
What will it mean if the Iranians meet with the Americans privately?
That will show they are taking the negotiations seriously.
Since 2009 the Iranians have completely refused to meet with the Americans bilaterally. We have tried over and over again, and they have always refused and said they don’t have authorization. It will be a very important development if Zarif or his delegation is authorized to meet with the head of the American delegation, [Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs] Wendy Sherman.
Are you hopeful we can reach a deal?
I imagine there’s a very intense debate going on in Tehran now between those who think they need to come up with something pretty dramatic and interesting, and the Supreme Leader, who thinks the Americans can’t be trusted and that whatever concessions Iran makes, the U.S. will simply pocket them and demand more.
I think the proposal they put forward in Geneva is going to be pretty modest — it will fall short of what we consider a dramatic breakthrough. But I think it will be enough for us to schedule another meeting. Even if the Iranians were prepared to make big concessions, they wouldn’t show it in the first meeting. That’s just not how you negotiate.
Do you have any doubt that Iran wants a nuclear bomb?
There’s some ambiguity about their intention. Almost all governments that are involved in this issue believe that at a minimum they want a nuclear-weapons capacity — the option to build nuclear weapons. Whether they have made a decision to build a nuclear weapon, when they think they can get away with it, that’s a matter of dispute.
My personal position is if they thought they could build nuclear weapons with impunity they would do so, and that what has held them back so far has been fear of an American or Israeli strike.
Israel isn’t a party to the talks, but obviously it’s a crucial actor. What role do the Israelis play?
The U.S. has always kept Israel and other interested countries, including Arab countries, very informed about these talks. That has included consultations before and after on tactics and substance. At the end of the day we have to come up with a deal that is acceptable not only to us but to our partners.
Say we reach a deal in the months ahead. Then what?
Then comes the question of sequence: Who goes first? The normal process for that is a step-by-step, phased approach. There’s so little trust between the two that neither side wants to give away its bargaining chips.
What’s going to be the hardest part of reaching a deal?
There’s a fundamental conflict of national interest between the U.S. and Iran. They want to have a nuclear-weapons capability. We’re not going to be able to persuade them that having a nuclear-weapons option is a bad idea. They’re deeply committed to that and have been for decades. The best we can use is coercive pressure.
We also need to realize that, down the road, the agreement could fall apart — the last one with the Europeans did, when Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment from 2003 to 2005.
So people shouldn’t view any deal as a comprehensive agreement that ends this once and for all. They should view it as a way to buy time, in the hopes that the next Iranian government has a different calculation of their national interest.