Fall/Winter 2014
Number 27

High Stakes With Tehran

J. Matthew McInnis

The international community’s search for a diplomatic solution to the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program has been an exercise in frustration. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China (the so-called P5+1) want an agreement that can assure the world that Iran is not and cannot pursue a nuclear weapon. Iran denies any such intention, but desperately wants relief from the crippling energy, financial and import sanctions the United Nations, the European Union and the United States have imposed over the past eight years. Since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election in June 2013, Washington and Tehran have conducted an unprecedented direct dialogue regarding the nuclear issue. On November 24, 2013, the parties met in Geneva to announce the Joint Plan of Action (JPoA), an initial step toward a potential final resolution of the nuclear issue.

This momentum has not been sufficient to overcome the serious obstacles to a deal on both sides however. The first JPoA deadline to complete an agreement passed on July 20, 2014, without a breakthrough. The parties agreed to keep talking until November 24, 2014, but still no success. Very significant impediments remain on limiting Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity, the sequencing of any sanctions removal, the duration of a new monitoring regime and compliance with outstanding concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about the possible military dimensions and weaponization of Iran’s program. As a result, the P5+1 and Iran have agreed to extend negotiations a further seven months, until July 2015. However, there are few signs of movement on Iran’s part that would be sufficient to satisfy Western demands of a reversal of Tehran’s nuclear capabilities.

Yet the eagerness for a deal on the part of the U.S. and its allies has not dimmed. The Obama administration’s keenness for a compromise has unsettled both domestic observers and many foreign allies. Congressional skeptics and U.S. partners in the Middle East have expressed fears that reaching an agreement in itself might take precedence over the objective to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. This would be a recipe for a bad deal.

Parameters of an acceptable deal

What would be the components of a good agreement, one that is truly in the interests of the U.S. and its allies? At their core, the parameters of an acceptable deal are quite simple: a reasonably verifiable regime administered by the IAEA that ensures Iran cannot pursue a nuclear weapon, with a clear mechanism to re-impose sanctions for non-compliance. Breaking it down further, the main components of a final agreement the U.S. should be insisting on include:

  • Extending the amount of time that Iran would need to produce weapons-grade uranium with existing stockpiles sufficient for one nuclear bomb (i.e., breakout) to between six and twelve months. With Iran’s existing technology, this has arguably meant reducing (by dismantling, rather than simply unplugging) the number of Iran’s existing centrifuges from their current total of approximately 19,000 installed devices to at least below 5,000, and ideally to below 2,000. But given that Iran’s centrifuge efficiency will improve as its infrastructure modernizes, we likely need to think in different metrics to ensure sufficient warning time for a breakout.
  • Reducing and capping Iran’s existing stockpiles of natural uranium and enriched uranium, especially those at 20 percent enrichment.
  • Ensuring that Iran has addressed all of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s concerns about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program prior to lifting all nuclear-related sanctions.
  • Guaranteeing that a plutonium pathway to a nuclear bomb is not feasible.
  • Maintaining and enforcing measures to block Iran’s illicit acquisition of nuclear and missile delivery technologies.
  • Ensuring that monitoring and compliance regimes for a final agreement are robust and have a long duration, ideally for 15-20 years.
  • Preventing nuclear-related sanctions relief from undermining terrorism and human rights-related sanctions on Iran.
  • Confirming to the greatest degree possible that restrictions imposed on Iran’s nuclear program are not easily reversible.

Iran’s calculus

All of these objectives should be easily achievable while preserving a civilian nuclear program more than adequate for Iran’s energy, medical and research needs if Tehran is sincere that it has no intention to pursue a nuclear weapon. However, the Islamic Republic has continued to blatantly resist the IAEA’s efforts to bring it into full compliance with United Nations resolutions and address substantial questions about the program’s likely weapons research-related activities.

Washington’s greatest concern during the negotiations should be that Tehran has not actually changed its core nuclear program policies. Certainly since the election of President Rouhani last year, the Iranian regime has demonstrated its desire to find a way out from under the economically crippling sanctions and de-escalate the confrontation with the West over the nuclear issue. Iran, in other words, has made the strategic decision to seriously talk to the United States. It has not, however, made the strategic decision to normalize its nuclear effort to reflect what a purely civilian program would look like. Otherwise, for example, rather than stonewalling the IAEA, Tehran would be welcoming the agency’s inspectors to visit the Parchin Military Complex outside Tehran as well as other sites widely suspected of being involved in nuclear weapons-related research.

This is also why there are few, if any, useful analogies to compare the current negotiations with Iran to earlier diplomatic resolutions of nuclear programs in countries like Libya and South Africa. In those two insistences, the respective regimes had made clear breaks in their national policies toward nuclear acquisition. This is not the case today with Iran. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the rest of the Iranian leadership have made it very clear that the regime will not fundamentally reverse the achievements of Iran’s program, that they are committed to the Islamic Republic ultimately becoming a nuclear state, and that they will continue to advance their regime’s technological capabilities.

Whether the parties to the current negotiations ultimately reach a good deal, a bad one, or none at all, it is useful to consider why Iran decided to come to the table in the first place. Understanding these drivers is essential as we evaluate potential next steps in the process and anticipate Tehran’s next moves.

Though President Rouhani’s 2013 campaign platform was largely based on seeking a less confrontational relationship with the West and obtaining relief from economic sanctions, it surprised many observers that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, largely agreed with him on the need for direct talks with the United States. Why was Khamenei ready to seriously engage the West?

Several reasons for Khamenei’s support are discernible. The first was the economic pressures resulting from the harsh sanctions imposed by Western powers a year earlier (the European oil embargo, for example). The second was that Khamenei and Rouhani had a long association over the management of and diplomacy for Iran’s nuclear program during the Presidencies of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. The Supreme Leader had learned to trust the new president and had faith in him following his previous role as a lead Iranian negotiator. Third, Iran’s leaders had realized long before the breakout of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) that rising Sunni extremism and the deepening sectarian conflict emanating from Syria were becoming an even more urgent priority for their regime than was the need for a potential nuclear deterrent against the United States and Israel. Defending against the growing regional instability would require greater focus and resources—resources Iran would not have if its economy continued to languish under sanctions.

Fourth, the Iranian leadership perceived President Obama’s strong desire to break the impasse on the nuclear program, including his willingness to move away from demands for zero uranium enrichment. Fifth, the relative strategic value of a possible nuclear weapon declined for Iran as its conventional deterrence capabilities improved, especially as Iran’s maritime defenses and ballistic missiles were progressively enhanced and upgraded. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the nuclear negotiations themselves, Iran’s nuclear program had finally reached a level of technical competency that could no longer be reversed.

As a result of these factors, Iran found itself with negotiating room. As long as the Islamic Republic is able to produce easily and rapidly more highly enriched uranium, it can give up some of its supply with relative ease.

This is also why the negotiations continue to hit major obstacles. Real reversals in the nuclear program’s capability to produce enriched uranium would undermine one of the main motives of the Iranian regime to engage in talks. But reducing Iran’s capability to produce enriched uranium is exactly what the U.S. and other P5+1 countries have been seeking as the best way to ensure Iran cannot break out undetected.

When the talks under the JPoA hit their initial July 20, 2014 deadline, the decision to extend negotiations into November was an easy one for Iran. All the incentives remained in place for Iran to work toward a deal, and the Supreme Leader consequently has continued to express his support for Rouhani’s efforts. Above all, Tehran did not want to go backward in the process and face the return of full sanctions.

Since July, we have arguably seen increasing anxiousness on the part of the Iranians to get a deal, even if Tehran has yet to make real concessions. The recent substantial drop in oil prices may have convinced Rouhani and the rest of Iran’s senior leadership that their critical domestic economic reform programs are potentially in serious jeopardy if sanctions relief does not happen soon. The conflict with ISIS and the ongoing chaos in Syria continues to bleed valuable Iranian resources. Fears of the Israelis starting a covert campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities also may have recently spooked the regime’s leaders.

Today, Iran is still publicly defiant about making any meaningful concessions over its “rights” or technical capabilities to enrich uranium. The regime remains unified in its support of the talks, with the Supreme Leader expressing his endorsement of the latest extension, just he has done since the start of negotiations in 2013. The threats of new sanctions from the incoming U.S. Congress could create some diplomatic backlash, but are unlikely to change Tehran’s fundamental desire for a deal, especially as economic and security pressures continue to mount. However, Iran is unlikely to make significant compromises on the technological progress of its nuclear program. Prospects for a good deal remain slim, but neither party will want to return to the pre-JPoA status. 

The dangers of a bad deal

What if we get a bad deal, one that removes the most important sanctions but does not extend Iran’s breakout scenario to at least six months; that does not address the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear work; that does not allow for rigorous monitoring and transparency; that places only short duration constraints that are easily reversible; and that unravels sanctions against Iran’s support for terrorism and gross human rights violations as well?

Most critically, a bad deal leaves everyone in the region uncertain about Iran’s intentions and potential nuclear weapons capabilities. Our commitment to effectively detect, respond to and deter Tehran should they secretly pursue a nuclear weapon will also be more suspect to our partners. Uncertainty and insecurity will breed potentially dangerous decisions by our allies, including the pursuit of nuclear weapons by Saudi Arabia and Turkey or new security relationships that could oppose our interests, such as the Gulf States making strategic accommodation with Iran.

A bad deal will also leave Iran flush with cash to pursue its objectives in Iraq, the Levant, Yemen, Afghanistan, Africa and elsewhere—objectives which in the long-term almost always oppose ours. We will have much reduced leverage to push back against these activities.

In the worst-case scenario, we could eventually face a nuclear Iran, for whom classic containment and deterrence approaches are unlikely to be effective. Such a strategy would require the U.S. to sustain a much larger security posture in the region than at present—a difficult proposition under foreseeable budgetary constraints. The U.S. would also need to deter and contain Iran’s militant and terrorist proxies throughout the region, and simultaneously be capable of thwarting its conventional military forces. Such a complex approach would require an unprecedented level of consistent and sophisticated policy development and coordination within the U.S. government and between the United States and our regional allies.

Getting to yes… prudently

Aside from ensuring the United States actually gets a good deal, how can the Administration and Congress avoid a bad deal? We should:

  • Recognize that Iran needs this deal far more than we do, and act like it. Western negotiators should be playing tough, understanding that they, rather than the Iranians, have had the stronger position all along.
  • Communicate clearly that any deal containing significant suspension or removal of sanctions should have ‘snap back’ penalties if Iran violates the agreement. The U.S. should reinforce Iran’s fears of returning to the status quo ante, prior to the JPoA, with full sanctions and even a credible military option on the table.
  • Discuss thoroughly and publicly what sanctions will remain on Iran if a nuclear deal is fully implemented. In particular, too liberal relief of the nuclear-related financial sanctions could provide an unwanted boon to the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its paramilitary arm, the Quds Force. Congress and the Administration should also reinforce that any relaxation of sanctions against Iran for its support for terrorism and gross human rights violations are dependent on separate measurable changes in those areas and will not be connected to a potential nuclear deal.
  • Diligently reassure our allies that we are committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, lest we trigger a dangerous realignment of security relationships in the region and a potential nuclear arms race.
  • Work to ensure our diplomatic missions, foreign partners and intelligence community will be able to provide a robust monitoring capability if a new agreement is implemented. Ongoing, intensive verification of Iran’s nuclear activities and compliance is the only way that an agreement will hold.

Finally, U.S. policymakers and negotiators need to have a sober understanding that Iran is only demonstrating it wants to de-escalate its confrontation with the West by coming to the table over the nuclear issue and engaging tactically on issues like the Islamic State because it benefits Tehran’s own near-term interests. Iran has shown no signs of an actual strategic shift in its core ideology away from opposing U.S. interests in the region. President Rouhani is still a creature of the Islamic Republic and, so far at least, pursues policies intended to preserve the regime rather than fundamentally change it. The Revolution is not over.

J. Matthew McInnis is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. This article is derived from his November 18, 2014, testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade.