ICG: Getting to “Yes” on an Iran Nuclear Deal

September 5, 2014

            Both Iran and the world’s six major powers risk losing the opportunity to solve the nuclear dispute if they do not retreat from maximalist positions, according to a new brief by the International Crisis Group (ICG). Tehran, in particular, “should postpone plans for industrial-scale enrichment and accept greater constraints on the number of its centrifuges in return for P5+1 flexibility on the qualitative growth of its enrichment capacity through research and development,” according to the report. ICG offers amendments to its 40-point plan for a nuclear deal released in May, with a new emphasis on uranium enrichment, “which has emerged as the most contentious and complex issue” in negotiations. The following are excerpts.

            As in 2005, when now President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were last in charge of the nuclear portfolio, negotiators are bogged down in a worn-out debate over exactly why Iran insists on uranium enrichment; its economic logic or lack thereof; whether Iran should be subject to restrictions beyond those imposed on other members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); and how to calculate the time Iran would need to enrich enough uranium for one weapon –which, assuming other abilities are present, measures its “breakout capacity”.
            Neither side’s technical arguments bear scrutiny in this debate because its roots are fundamentally political. Negotiators are both driven and constrained by their respective domestic politics, especially the U.S. and Iran, where powerful constituencies remain sceptical of the negotiations. The struggle over the number of centrifuges is a surrogate for a more basic one: the Iranian revolution was predicated on rejecting outside powers’ dictates after a century of Western intervention in Iranian affairs; for the West, its concerns are founded on Iran’s behaviour as an anti-status quo, revolutionary power.
            While this power struggle cannot and will not be resolved within the framework of the nuclear talks, a workable and wise compromise is still possible. It can be achieved, however, neither by a contest of wills over maximalist positions nor by mechanically splitting differences. Instead, the parties should reverse engineer their underlying political concerns and legitimate interests to find common technical ground: for Iran this means a meaningful enrichment program, continued scientific advancement and tangible sanctions relief; and for the P5+1, a firewall between Iran’s civilian and potential military nuclear capabilities, ironclad monitoring mechanisms and sufficient time and Iranian cooperation to establish trust in the exclusively peaceful nature of the country’s nuclear program. If they resolve the key issue of enrichment, other pieces of the puzzle stand a better chance of falling into place.
Squaring the Circle
            Negotiators first should address the crucial issue of defining Iran’s enrichment capacity. Removing that obstacle would constitute real progress and, in so doing, increase the costs of ultimate failure; further, it could give the negotiators an incentive to compromise on other issues of more recent vintage, such as concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program.
            The minimum requirements for solving the enrichment conundrum would be:
• for Iran, to demonstrate that the immense investment in its enrichment program has not gone to waste, to ensure respect for what it sees as its rights and to establish a program that could grow and evolve over time to meet its peaceful needs, particularly by guarding against any fuel supply interruption; and
• for the P5+1, to ensure that the enrichment program is geared only toward civilian purposes and that Iran has been deterred from pursuing nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.
             These objectives are not incompatible but require both sides to demonstrate flexibility and find creative trade-offs between different components of the agreement. In fact, they agree on the need for an initial ceiling on the number and sophistication of Iran’s centrifuges and that these restrictions would be relaxed after a period of confidence building.
             To reconcile remaining differences, the parties should trade off the height of the ceiling against the length of the confidence building. Iran should accept a lower initial ceiling on its enrichment capacity than it desires, given that it has limited needs and that even in the best of circumstances it will not be able to take over fuelling Bushehr as early as 2021;40 in return, the P5+1 should agree to a shorter time frame and gradual increase in the technological sophistication of Iran’s enrichment program.
             This could be achieved by balancing three components of the deal:
Research & Development. Iran should accept more quantitative constraints on its centrifuges than it would prefer, in return for the P5+1 countenancing more qualitative advances in the enrichment program through research and development.
Practical guarantees. Iran and Russia should amend and renew their binding agreement for Moscow to supply the Bushehr reactor’s fuel for its entire lifespan. To allay Iran’s fuel security concerns, Russia should agree to provide Iran with a five year stockpile of fuel as a backup that could be used in the event of supply disruption. This assurance, coupled with the contingency enrichment program Iran would retain and its ongoing R&D activity, would allow it to dial up its enrichment capacity in case of disruption of the nuclear-fuel supply. The program, however, would be constrained in such a manner that any breakout push could be promptly detected and reacted to decisively. Also, to eliminate any sneak-out risk – that is, breaking out in a clandestine enrichment facility instead of a declared one – Iran should allow the IAEA to monitor all key nodes of centrifuge production and testing.
Objective Milestones. The duration of the final agreement as well as each of its component steps, by the end of which Iran’s nuclear program would be normalised, should not be based on selective criteria such Iran’s electoral calendar45 or arbitrary deadlines. As Crisis Group previously recommended:
             The final step should be broken down into phases of different durations that would be conducive to the multi-layered nature of both the nuclear program and the sanctions regime; their rollback would need to happen in stages, with significant preparation time followed by a series of measures in rapid success.
             The balanced, measured nature of this approach also would serve a political need: it would enable front-loading the agreement to rally support in the relevant capitals by quickly demonstrating tangible achievements while Presidents Obama and Rouhani are in office; signal regular progress throughout the duration of the final step; and postpone some difficult concessions until both sides have become accustomed to a new relationship.
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