A Doable Deal with Iran
A Doable Deal with Iran

A Doable Deal with Iran

In Tehran last week, I heard a number of senior officials tell me there soon would be no "Iran nuclear problem". The first report of International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei on unanswered questions from the past had, they felt, given them a pretty good pass.

Future reports over the next few months would clear them entirely, and present activity was being scrutinized with no treaty-breaches being claimed. So there was no reason why they should not go on exercising the right enjoyed by any other Non-Proliferation Treaty member in good standing to enrich uranium for industrial use.

But this is wishful thinking. Tehran clearly has a long road to travel before it can persuade the wider international community that there truly is no "Iran nuclear problem".

There is still strong international suspicion of Iran's intent, based on its long history of undeclared activity, the many disconcerting statements of its President, not least on the Holocaust, and its willingness to stare down UN Security Council resolutions demanding that it suspend its enrichment program. Israel cannot be blamed for thinking of a politically hostile Iran as an existential threat, when it is getting close to being technically able - if so minded, and unconstrained - to make enough fuel to build a nuclear weapon within a year or two.

So long as the world's concerns persist, Iran has plenty to lose. It is diplomatically isolated, and economically under severe stress from the sanctions already in place, and those still capable of being applied. And while its leaders publicly dismiss the idea, they know that they cannot entirely ignore the possibility of a preventive military strike by Israel or the US in the next twelve months.

Objectively, such military action may be a wholly disproportionate and inappropriate response to the evidence that now exists about Iran's capability, and certainly its intent, but the history of war is a history of miscalculation.

I came away from a series of meetings with high Iranian officials, including its chief nuclear negotiator, with the strong sense that all these dynamics are well understood, and that there is a doable deal to be done by Iran with the wider international community, provided that both sides moderate their rhetoric, focus more on strategy than meeting-by-meeting tactics, and concentrate on addressing the real issues at stake.

Until now, the international community, led by the US and EU, but with Russia and China cautiously supportive, has tried to draw the red-line short of Iran acquiring enrichment capability. But that enterprise has run its course. Iran strongly resists any limitation on the rights it claims are available to it under the NPT to acquire full fuel cycle peaceful nuclear capability, and I heard not an ounce of evidence in Tehran from any source that further sanctions - even significantly more burdensome ones - will undermine this determination.

Nor, for what it's worth, did I hear anything from any source to suggest that anyone in power thought that the benefits of a nuclear weapons program - for deterrence, or asserting regional authority or anything else - could possibly outweigh the costs. The economic arguments advanced for domestically producing, rather than buying in, the fuel for a civil nuclear program are not very persuasive, but the psychological ones are: this is a country seething with both national pride and resentment against past humiliations, and it does want to cut a regional and global figure by proving its sophisticated technological capability.

One might prefer that it had chosen a less sensitive talisman in this respect than enriched uranium - space technology, say - but that die is now cast.

Against this background, the only way forward seems to be to go back to basics, for the international community to draw a new red-line where it matters most - between civilian and military capability - and to enter into unconditional negotiations on that basis. If the objective is not "zero enrichment", but "delayed limited enrichment with maximum safeguards", an agreement is within reach that both Iran and even the most nervous members of the wider international community should be able to sign up to.

The necessary starting point is a time-out, a time-limited "freeze for a freeze" - in which Iran would build no more centrifuges and the international community would add no more sanctions - to enable serious negotiations to take place.

The broad scenario for those negotiations would need to be understood by both sides at the outset, and would involve three basic elements. First, Iran would accept highly intrusive monitoring and inspection regimes, involving not only the application of the NPT Additional Protocol, but some other specially agreed access arrangements.

Second, Iran would spread out over an extended period, in defined stages, its R&D activity and development of enrichment activity, with the end result being an industrial scale facility, but one run as consortium with Iran having international commercial partners.

Third, these arrangements would be accompanied by international incentives, including the staged lifting of sanctions, the normalisation of diplomatic relations and technical support. In addition, there would be equally clear disincentives, including renewed sanctions and potentially even stronger measures, that would apply if any evidence emerged that Iran was pursuing in any way at all a nuclear weapons program.

The advantages of such an outcome for the international community are clear. It could be much more confident that Iran will not pursue a nuclear weapons program of any kind. With a fully normalised relationship with the West, Iran could become a cooperative partner on regional issues of great concern, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon, Hizbollah and Hamas. And there would be many new business opportunities for European and North American companies.

Similarly for Iran. It would mean international acceptance of the position for which it has long argued - not only the right to produce peaceful nuclear energy but, so long at least as it remains in good standing under the Treaty, to enrich. It would avoid the risk of military attack, and of further sanctions - something concentrating the political mind of the President at the moment, though he will never admit it.

No one could underestimate the difficulty of the various parties, not least the US in an election year, getting out of the holes they have dug for themselves on this issue so far. But the EU could and should lead the way in exploring this negotiating scenario. It is much more likely than any alternative approach to earn the sustained buy-in of Russia and China. And it's much more likely to produce sustainable peace.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.