BERLIN – On February 18, crucial negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program began in Vienna between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1). The alternative to the talks is a further nuclear buildup by Iran, followed by additional international sanctions and, eventually, another war in the Middle East, which no one believes can resolve the problem. So, can a comprehensive agreement that respects Iran’s right to civilian nuclear energy, while allaying the international community’s fears of weaponization, be achieved?
The interim agreement reached last November in Geneva reflected the West’s de facto acceptance that Iran is entitled to carry out limited low-grade uranium enrichment within the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The West released about $7 billion of frozen Iranian funds and relaxed some sanctions (in particular, on crude oil and auto parts), while Iran agreed to a quasi-freeze of its nuclear program. That created the basis for a lasting agreement. But realizing that potential will be difficult.
First and foremost, a mountain of mutual distrust will need to be overcome. The West and Israel do not believe that Iran’s nuclear program is meant to serve merely civilian aims. Otherwise, why would Iran invest billions of dollars in a program that is almost tailor-made for military purposes, including long-distance delivery systems?
The Iranian leadership, for its part, remains convinced that the United States still seeks to bring about regime change. From Iran’s perspective, accepting an American hand extended in a spirit of conciliation could turn it into a fist.
Moreover, any compromise would be fiercely contested within both camps, possibly leading to serious domestic political conflict. And even if both sides’ current leaderships are sincere, will this hold true for their successors?
The absence of trust between Iran and the West leads directly to the second obstacle to a comprehensive agreement: verification and monitoring. The central issue in these negotiations, around which everything else revolves, concerns Iran’s “breakout capability” – the time it would need, within the framework of any agreement with the West, to renege and build a nuclear weapon. How much supervision will be required not just to verify compliance but also to detect any possible attempt at a breakout?
The technical questions are complex, and the proverbial devil really is in the countless details. But prospects for a deal will hinge on resolving three broad issues.
The first two issues reflect the two paths toward the bomb: uranium enrichment and plutonium production. Any workable agreement will require Iran to renounce uranium enrichment above the 5% level needed for a civilian nuclear-power program; accept limits on enrichment volumes, the number of centrifuges, and technology; agree to forgo reprocessing; and address operations at the heavy-water reactor in Arak. The third issue concerns supervision and monitoring, which for quite some time would probably have to go beyond that agreed in the Additional Protocol to the NPT and include certain military installations.
Indeed, the duration the agreement will be of vital importance. The West wants it to be implemented for as long as possible, while Iran would prefer a very short timeframe within which to achieve its central objectives: a comprehensive and lasting repeal of international sanctions and recognition as an NPT non-military nuclear power.
That raises another important question: Does US President Barack Obama really have a domestic mandate for negotiating a comprehensive repeal of the sanctions?
Here, we are brought back to the central issue in this process: technical questions, though important, are still only an expression of the underlying political conflicts and animosities. These are the real factors driving the confrontation that the Vienna negotiations are meant to defuse over the next six months. And the current regional and sectarian confrontation in the Middle East affects the nuclear negotiations directly.
All of the relevant players – including those, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, that are not sitting at the table but whose presence is very much felt – are clinging to their initial positions. The US does not want Iran to become a military nuclear power or gain regional predominance; above all, the Americans do not want another Middle East war. Iran, however, wants to become a (non-military?) nuclear power and shape a region in which it is heavily involved militarily (in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq).
Europe shares the US position, but is more flexible. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni power, wants to stop Shia Iran from becoming an emerging or, worse still, a military nuclear power in the Gulf, and has taken the opposite side in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Israel opposes Iran’s becoming a military nuclear power – or even a nuclear-threshold state – and is willing to try to prevent this by military means.
To achieve a sustainable compromise that all sides accept (even if with gritted teeth), the negotiations must be accompanied by diplomatic steps aimed at building trust both in the region and beyond. Europe is very well versed in such processes and should put its experience to good use.
Iran must decide whether it wants to follow the North Korean route to international isolation, or some variation on the Chinese route to integration into the global economy. It must also understand that its relationship with both Israel and Saudi Arabia will affect the negotiations, either positive or negatively.
And the West – the US, Europe, and, more than any other country, Israel – will have to get used to the idea of living with an Iranian civilian nuclear-power program, while limiting Iran’s capacity to become an emerging military nuclear power. As the very different examples of the Soviet Union and China show, the Iranian regime might someday collapse or change fundamentally – probably when hardly anyone expects it. Until then, we must do our best to defuse the nuclear time bomb together.