Joby Warrick and Greg Miller reported in the Washington Post on 8 April that White House officials are confident that Iran is not engaged in making nuclear weapons.
To those who follow closely the Iranian nuclear controversy this came as no surprise: it’s what the Director of National Intelligence has been saying since late 2007. What struck was that the administration is now spreading this good news. Only a few months ago it was leading the American public to believe that the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) had found proof of an Iranian nuclear weapons program (which it hadn’t).
The contrast is stark, and encouraging for those who think that war with Iran to destroy its uranium enrichment plants would be a disaster. It suggests the administration has understood that negotiating a deal based on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is now the West’s wisest option, and that the upcoming talks in Istanbul offer an opportunity to launch a negotiation. An NPT deal would allow Iran to pursue a peaceful nuclear program unmolested, in return for its offering the best possible guarantees that all its nuclear material will remain in non-military use.
So for the first time in more than two years there can be hope that this ongoing conflict will have a peaceful outcome.
The timing looks good. Last month’s parliamentary elections have left Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stronger politically than at any time since 1989. His power is comparable to that of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in August 1980 when he authorised the opening of negotiations for the release of the US embassy hostages.
Even though the Iranians have shown no sign of buckling under the pressure of ever tighter sanctions and know that the West’s military option is deeply unattractive to any of sane mind, the West has good cards in its hand. Sanctions are hurting Iran and Iran has an interest in getting them lifted, provided the price is right.
It’s now become apparent that the closure of one of Iran’s two enrichment plants, the small underground facility at Fordo, will be a Western objective. If it’s a pre-condition for moving beyond initial talks into a negotiation, as suspension of all enrichment has sometimes been, the game will soon be over. If it’s left for discussion at a much later stage, Iran will jib at closure, but perhaps some alternative to closure can be found: a permanent on-site IAEA inspector presence, for instance.
The West will also be targeting Iran’s small stock of 20% enriched uranium, according to David Sanger and Steven Erlanger in the New York Times (8 April). This looks less likely to raise Iranian hackles than plant closures. But Iran will be looking for assurances of access to the stock to produce fuel plates for the US-supplied Tehran Research Reactor.
Capping future enriched uranium production at below 5% is also likely to be negotiable, provided Iran is allowed to feel confident that the West will meet any future needs for 20% fuel without fuss.
So if the parties can find some way of moving beyond opening positions into a search for ways of giving expression to common interests, a negotiated outcome looks feasible.
That said, the scope for a negotiation to founder on cultural misunderstandings, negative prejudices born of past clashes, political in-fighting, and the interests of the West’s Middle East “allies” cannot be discounted.
In 2007, a promising opening evaporated when Iran’s chief negotiator clashed with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was the President’s turn to be thwarted by domestic rivals in 2009. Then, in 2010, the timing of Iranian assent to a confidence-building proposal brokered by Turkey and Brazil cast doubt in Western minds about Iran’s sincerity.
The US negotiators must guard against a tendency to blind self-righteousness where international obligations are concerned. Although the US approach to international law has often been selective, Americans tend to treat non-Americans as miscreants when the latter err. It would be counterproductive to make Iran’s negotiators, who crave mutual respect and equality, feel like criminal suspects engaged in plea-bargaining.
However, the greatest threat to a successful outcome is likely to come from Middle East “allies”.
Since 1992, both leading Israeli parties have strived to convince Washington of Israel’s value to the US as an ally in a post-Cold War Middle East. For these Israelis, Iran’s nuclear programme has been manna from heaven—just what’s needed to persuade Americans that Iran is an evil state bent on destroying Israel, and that Iran’s programme, if left unchecked, will precipitate nuclear proliferation in an unstable region.
US neoconservatives, in thrall to dreams of reshaping the Middle East, have provided a ready echo chamber for these (highly questionable) propositions. These constituencies, Israeli and American, have no interest in the normalisation of the Iranian nuclear case through an NPT deal.
Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, though it appears to have refrained from poisoning the wells of American opinion, has been implying that it will ignore its NPT obligations if Iran is allowed to enjoy nuclear technology that the Saudis themselves are decades away from mastering. So any prospective deal that leaves Iran in possession of enrichment plants may well provoke Saudi protests.
Will President Obama be strong enough to resist pressure from these quarters? Has the administration understood that Iran’s nuclear programme is a symbol of a geostrategic shift–Iran is slowly returning to the ranks of Asia’s greater powers–and that wisdom lies in accommodating a shift that can only be prevented at the cost of hardship to much of mankind? Time will tell.
– Peter Jenkins was the UK’s Permanent Representative to the IAEA for 2001-06 and is now a partner in ADRg Ambassadors.