The details of the proposal made by the US and other leading powers negotiating with Iran (the P5+1) at the recent Geneva talks are still unclear, but were designed to freeze the nuclear program so that Iran would not be able to continue development during the negotiations for a final agreement, expected to take six months or longer.
The limited information available, however, appears to substantiate the charges that the proposal fell far short of a true freeze and that the P5+1 were far too eager to reach a deal. Iran’s rejection of the proposal, apparently because it did not recognize its “right” to enrich uranium, now provides an opportunity to reach a better deal at the next round, on November 20. The Obama administration, which is justifiably seeking a breakthrough with Iran, but which has mishandled events in Egypt, the peace process and especially Syria, must now show that its total aversion to further military action in the Middle East did not in fact lead to precipitate concessions.
The proposal appears to have included the following; cessation of uranium enrichment at the dangerous 20% level and conversion of Iran’s existing stockpile to uses suitable for nuclear fuel; a cap on the number of centrifuges enriching uranium at 3.5% and ban on the use of Iran’s new high speed centrifuges, but not a complete end to enrichment at this level, or a reduction or elimination of the existing stockpile, and as such limited impact on the timeline to a first Iranian bomb (Iran already has enough material at this level for several nuclear bombs, if further enriched); no operation of the plutonium reactor at Arak during negotiations, but no limits on construction, and thus no bearing on it since the reactor will not be completed before late 2014 anyway; unspecified Iranian willingness to accede to truly intrusive inspections.
The Obama administration maintains that the sanctions relief offered in exchange was limited and would not have undermined the basic sanctions regime, which has had a devastating effect on Iran’s oil exports and access to the international financial system. It also argues, correctly, that a negotiated deal is preferable to the alternatives and the best outcome for all parties concerned, Israel and Saudi Arabia included.
No one has a greater interest in a diplomatic resolution than Israel, which will be left to face a nuclear Iran largely on its own if negotiations fail. Given that even an entirely successful military strike may only postpone the nuclear program by 2-3 years, but incur a heavy response against Israel, this is not an option Israel is avid to adopt, as long as there is any choice. Conversely, living with a nuclear Iran through a policy of deterrence and containment is an even less attractive option for Israel, as well as the Saudis and other regional players.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has unfortunately allowed his justifiably hard-line on Iran’s nuclear program to create the impression that he opposes any deal, not just a bad one, which is patently incorrect. If, however, the details of the proposal presented above prove accurate, his fears will have been substantiated. Conversely, his all-or-nothing approach, justified in its own right, that only complete dismantlement of the Iranian nuclear program is acceptable, does not appear achievable. The question then is whether a compromise agreement might be the least the bad option, with Iran allowed to retain a limited enrichment capability at the civil level.
For a final agreement to be acceptable not only to the P5+1, but Israel and the Arab states, it would have to limit Iran’s nuclear program so that it remains at least 2-3 years from a breakout capability, hopefully giving the international community sufficient time to respond to a renewed Iranian effort; cap enrichment at the 20% level, end or drastically reduce 3.5% enrichment, and transfer the existing stockpiles at both levels to international control; mothball the Arak plutonium reactor, or convert it to some less dangerous use (such as a light water reactor); and highly intrusive inspections. Ideally, a Security Council resolution, setting out clear and immediate consequences, should Iran violates the agreement, would also be adopted.
Just sixteen months after the international community imposed sanctions on Iran, they are having a dramatic effect and holding out just a while longer, for a better deal, would appear to be the appropriate course of action. The administration argues that the primary sanctions will not be undermined by the limited relief offered, but they are likely to at least partially unravel over time. If true, we will face a dual danger – that the sides will not reach a final agreement in the end, leaving Iran both with its basic nuclear-breakout capability intact and ultimately without an effective sanctions regime.
Iran may be on the ropes, but it is still unclear whether it is truly willing to make the concessions necessary to reach an agreement. It is certainly worth trying. Pending a satisfactory final agreement, however, the primary sanctions regime must be fully enforced and it must be clear that they will be further strengthened if the talks fail, or an agreement is violated.