A Nuclear Deal With Iran Is Still Odds-On

by Peter Jenkins

The parties to the current negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program are being discreet about the details, as is sensible. Nonetheless, from the occasional statement or remark to journalists it is possible to form some impression of the issues that are causing the greatest difficulty.

These include restrictions on Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium during an interim period, the duration of that period, the phasing of sanctions relief, and, a late-comer to the agenda, restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program.

If, as the remarks imply, the gap between positions on such issues is still wide, it does not follow necessarily that the negotiating deadline of July 20 will be missed. It is all too common for negotiators to keep the most painful concessions in reserve until the 11th hour, in the hope that they will not be needed.

It will, however, be interesting to review some of the problems that have come to light and to imagine ways of handling them.

Duration of the interim period

Al Monitor’s Laura Rozen reported May 15 that an Iranian source said it is the Iranian team’s expectation that “after the signing of a comprehensive deal, there will be an interim period,” where there will be restrictions on Iran’s program “and the [possible military dimensions issue] will be resolved.”

But there has to be a “basis” for the duration of that interim period, according to the Iranian source. If the restrictions should last for 10, 15 or 20 years, the parties have to “examine” the basis. “Why 20 years?” he asked.

A solution to this problem would be to agree that the duration of the interim period will be determined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in the sense that it will be co-extensive with the time required by the Agency to affirm that there are no undeclared nuclear facilities or material in Iran and, in effect, that Iran’s nuclear program is as peaceful as that of any other Non-Nuclear-Weapon State (NNWS) party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The “basis” or rationale would be that requiring Iran to accept constraints on certain nuclear activities is logical for as long as it can reasonably be questioned whether Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful. Once the IAEA has found the same grounds for confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s program as exist in other NNWS, this rationale would no longer be logical.

A similar solution was proposed in January 2004, in relation to the duration of the suspension of uranium enrichment that had been agreed in Tehran on October 21, 2003. On that occasion it was rejected by Iran because Tehran hoped to be able to resume enrichment well before the Agency would be able to provide grounds for confidence — and rejected by the UK, France and Germany because they wanted the suspension to last indefinitely, if not forever.

Ten rather grim years later, can the parties bring themselves to accept this logic and bend it to the cause of an agreement?

The phasing of sanctions relief

Arash Karami reported May 21 that a spokesman for the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee told Iran’s Tasnim News that the P5+1 said after an agreement “we have to prove our goodwill. They will then remove sanctions one by one,” over a period of ten years.

It is not hard to imagine how unappealing such an offer must seem to an Iranian government that is banking on sanctions relief to improve the living standards of ordinary Iranians.

Iran will have understood long ago that the US administration will require many years to persuade Congress to repeal the nuclear-related sanctions that Congress has imposed. But Iran must surely be hoping that non-US and particularly EU firms will be free to trade and invest in Iran within months of agreement on a comprehensive solution.

“Iran would not mind front-loading the final deal,” another Iranian source told Rozen. “Iran would take all the measures [agreed] at the beginning of the deal, and expect its counterpart to do the same.”

It tends to be forgotten that when, on January 23, 2012, EU Ministers agreed to what Foreign Secretary William Hague described as an “unprecedented set of sanctions against Iran,” their aim was to coerce Iran into a nuclear negotiation.

“This is a major increase in the peaceful, legitimate pressure on Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program,” Hague told the House of Commons the next day.

If EU Ministers such as Hague are concerned about legitimacy, there is a chance that it would trouble their consciences to maintain such “unprecedented” (an euphemism for draconian) sanctions not just after Iran’s appearance at the negotiating table, but even after the conclusion of a comprehensive negotiation. And if legitimacy is not a concern, perhaps they can at least be persuaded to lift EU sanctions by all the EU firms that are hoping to resume normal business with Iran.

Iran’s ballistic missile program

“Iran also rejects that its ballistic missile program should be a subject for discussion with the P5+1, Iran’s negotiators have repeatedly said,” wrote Rozen May 21.

For their part, US negotiators have justified the inclusion of this issue on the agenda, despite the absence of any reference to it in the November 24 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), by recalling the JPOA reference to “addressing the UN Security Resolutions” (the last of which, 1929 (2010), contains a brief missile-related provision).

As a justification this leaves a bit to be desired. The reference to UN resolutions is in the preamble of the JPOA, not in the final operative section, which itemizes the agenda for the current negotiation. It is uncommon to consider preambular wording as binding on the parties to an agreement.

Moreover, the relevant bit of operative paragraph 9 of resolution 1929 (2010) scarcely lends itself to the sort of restrictions that Israeli leaders and their Congressional supporters have been demanding that the administration obtain. It reads “[The Security Council] decides that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches…”

These words are clearly no basis for requiring Iran to surrender or destroy any of the ballistic missiles in its possession. At most they provide an opening for requesting that Iran refrain from testing some of its existing stock (those “capable of delivering nuclear weapons”), and from developing new models with that capability.

But even that request is contestable. Iran could deny that it possesses a nuclear weapons delivery capability. Since an internationally agreed definition of what constitutes that capability is lacking, and since that capability is contingent on being able to produce warheads of an appropriate diameter, US negotiators might end up wishing they had suggested, instead, a debate on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Such objections might sound semantic; but the US, which has long relied on semantics to deny that Iran has a right to enrich uranium, would be ill-placed to jib at a dose of its own medicine.

It’s the Politics!

Speaking to the press on May 16, a senior US administration official said: “We’re focused on how all of the elements fit together to ensure Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon.”

It must be hoped that the senior official meant to say “will not”, and not, “cannot.” Indeed, if these negotiations are about denying Iran the capability to produce nuclear weapons, they are doomed to fail.

It is in the nature of nuclear weapon technology that once a state has passed a certain threshold, as Iran has, it can produce nuclear weapons, sooner or later, if it makes that decision. It is not axiomatic, however, that states will choose to do so.

On the contrary, since 1970 the evidence is that very few weapon-capable states want nuclear weapons; most recognize that their security is better served by backing the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.

This perception has been well articulated by Scott Kemp, a former adviser on nuclear non-proliferation at the State Department. In an interview with the MIT News office Kemp said, “We need to get past the idea that we can control the destiny of nations by regulating access to technology. International security must ultimately resort to the difficult business of politics.”

The current negotiation can succeed if the West’s goal is political: denying Iran a rational basis for wanting nuclear weapons. Since President Hassan Rouhani’s words and deeds suggest that he recognizes Iran will be more secure, and more prosperous, as a fully compliant NPT-state without nuclear weapons, this is a realistic goal.

Photo Credit: FARS News/Majid Asgaripour

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. Another voice of reason on the subject, good analysis. The complexity is quite so, though others either don’t see it, or perhaps don’t want to, for what ever reasons they may have.

  2. Another sensible, logical and informed article on Iran’s nuclear program, only if other officials involved in the negotiations were as sensible or as sincere. The duration of the interim period and the sanctions relief are really other ways of postponing the lifting of sanctions. The sanctions were imposed allegedly to make sure that Iran was not pursuing a nuclear weapons’ program. Now that it is clear to all, including former MOSSAD officials, that Iran is not having nuclear weapons, logically those sanctions should be lifted. Only a couple of days ago, the IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said: “Iran has engaged with the Agency substantively, including in the clarification of issues related to the use of exploding bridge wire detonators.”

    The issue of missiles is another red herring, because realistically it has nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear program, unless the West wishes to disarm Iran and deny her any capability of defending herself. May be one way round this dilemma would be for international community to say that Iran and Israel are entitled to missiles of the same range, and any country that has more sophisticated missiles should be required to reduce her capabilities.

    As you point out, the whole issue depends on politics, especially on U.S. domestic politics. The only solution would be for the EU to lift the unilateral sanctions that it imposed on Iran, and allow the U.S. Administration to negotiate with Congress in keeping with U.S. laws. The problem is that there are two sides to the conflict and if President Ruhani cannot show tangible and reasonable progress in the negotiations his position will be greatly weakened and we will be back to repeating the past cycle of wasted opportunities.

  3. Mr. Jenkins has had a long and distinguished career, but it’s been that same career experience that has trapped him in the traditional diplomatic orthodoxy that got us here in the first place, which is the belief that you trust the person you are bargaining with. Unfortunately, history has shown us a harsh lesson about unilateral trust in any international agreement.

    There are two specific issues that he gets wrong in this piece. He is correct that once a state crosses the nuclear capable threshold it is a question of “when” and not “if” bomb is produced. He is also correct that the calculus for such a decision is a political one. In Iran’s case though he is incorrect when he assumes Iran will seek a non-nuclear solution.

    Three things went into Iran’s decision to seek out nuclear capability:

    1) Israel. It is anathema to Iran that it’s most hated enemy possesses nukes and it doesn’t. It also knows Israel will never give up its nukes and Iran will never feel secure unless it has its own capability.
    2) Saudi Arabia. Iran’s next most significant threat on economic, political and religious grounds. With the US backing Saudi Arabia, Iran believes it needs a counterweight to keep its neighbor at bay.
    3) Gulf States. Iran needs the muscle a nuke gives it to thwart any effort to bring political liberalization into the region and keep its other oil rich neighbors compliant. It also needs a nuke to bolster the many shaky regimes its supports such as Syria, Yemen and increasingly Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Lastly, Mr. Jenkins is off the mark on his assessment in Rouhani’s wishes. He does not appreciate Iran’s governmental structure which vests Khamenei with final authority on all foreign policy matters. There is no higher authority.

    In Khamenei’s recent statements on state-run news, he has clearly and explicitly said Iran would not relinquish its nuclear capability in any negotiation and it still viewed its relationship with the US as an ongoing jihad that will not abate regardless of any discussions Iran is having.

    At its core, Iran does not trust the West and acts accordingly. Mr. Jenkins is as blind as Neville Chamberlain was in Munich if he thinks we can trust Iran.

  4. Mike! Your rude comments about Mr. Jenkins and about Iranian policies are either the result of your ignorance of Iranian political scene or your deliberate misrepresentation of facts. It is true that Iran justifiably regards Israel as her implacable foe. Given the repeated Israeli threats to bomb Iran or calling on the United States to do it on her behalf must alert Iran to the possible threat that she faces from Israel. However, there have been numerous academic studies, the latest by Gareth Porter and before him by Seyyed Hossein Mousavian, Peter Oborne and David Morrison among others, which have conclusively proved that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons’ policy. Even the NIE, which alleged that Iran had experimented with a weapons’ program, stated that Iran had stopped those programs in 2003. It is true that an Iran with nuclear weapons would force Israel to think twice before attacking her, but Iranian leaders have concluded like many other countries that nuclear weapons would increase their vulnerability, especially as the United States has for long stated that it would not tolerate an Iran with nuclear weapons.

    As far as Saudi Arabia and other GCC states are concerned, they do not pose a substantial threat to Iran. For a start, Iran’s population is more than twice their combined population, and furthermore all of them have resumed friendly relations with Iran. The Emir of Kuwait was the latest GCC leader to visit Iran earlier this week and to sign many economic and political agreements. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif has been invited to visit Saudi Arabia. So the issue of GCC hostility towards Iran has been hyped to some extent.

    As to the issue of Khamene’i having the final authority on all foreign policy issues, it is strange that under President Ahmadinejad his extremist statements were regarded to represent the views of the entire government, but when President Rouhani tries to negotiate with the West we are told that it is Khamene’i who has the last word. The fact is that different presidents in Iran have a large margin of authority and autonomy, and you can see this in great differences in the approaches of a reformist such as President Khatami, a centrist such as Rouhani and a hardliner such as Ahmadinejad. Iran has decided to negotiate with the West in good faith and it is time that the West reciprocated and put an end to decades of unnecessary hostility.

  5. hehe IAEA is an obeisant slave of USA and can’t be used as a third-party judge

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