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A good deal: How both sides can sell the Iran nuclear agreement back home
A good deal: How both sides can sell the Iran nuclear agreement back home
Iran Navigates the World
Iran Navigates the World

A good deal: How both sides can sell the Iran nuclear agreement back home

Originally published in Reuters

The agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 (France, Britain, China, Russia, the United States and Germany) on the key parameters of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is an important step forward. Now that the parties have overcome major hurdles for sealing the deal, however, they need to worry about selling it to skeptics back home. This is particularly true for Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

They are right to be concerned. President Barack Obama faces an antagonistic Republican-controlled Congress and pushback from key members of his own party. Yet it is Congress that holds the key to removing the sanctions. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, meanwhile, faces a plethora of skeptical rival power centers and is haunted by the bitter memory of nuclear negotiations in 2005, when his concessions were reciprocated with broken European promises.

There is plenty in this deal that is not pretty. But no deal is. Negotiation, by nature, produces imperfect results when viewed through the lens of a single party. Iran is retaining a higher enrichment capacity than the United States and its allies would prefer, while sanctions relief appears slower and slimmer than Iran would desire. Opponents of an agreement will likely pounce on these weaknesses. That’s why a persuasive narrative of victory, for both sides, is essential for securing and sustaining a reasonable accord.

To help persuade domestic hawks to accept a compromise, here are some suggested talking points for Kerry and Zarif to use in their respective hearings before the U.S. Congress and Iran’s Majles.


Why is the enrichment capacity more/less than what you had promised?

The United States: It is wrong to evaluate this agreement on the basis of any one feature. It must be judged instead on its overall impact on reducing Iran’s nuclear capacity and on improving capabilities to detect any future weaponization attempts. This agreement means any Iranian “breakout time” — the time needed to make fissile material for a nuclear bomb —  would be extended from two to at least 12 months, which checks both of those boxes.

We have dramatically rolled back the number of installed centrifuges (used to enrich uranium) as well as uninstalled excess centrifuges and stored them under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s seal. We have capped uranium enrichment at below 5 percent, and reduced the size of Iran’s stockpile of enriched material by nearly 98 percent. This virtually eliminates the possibility of an undetected dash toward militarization along the uranium path. Under these circumstances, a few hundred — or even a few thousand — centrifuges more or less will not make a meaningful difference. Scientists from our national labs and Washington’s closest allies in Europe have validated this methodology.

It would have been preferable if Iran had agreed to destroy every last nut and bolt of its nuclear program. But this was patently unrealistic. Iran’s mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle can’t be bombed or wished away. We pursued the zero-enrichment goal for 10 years and the result was 20,000 Iranian centrifuges.

Dismantling Iran’s enrichment program was and remains unattainable, unless we are prepared to coerce the Iranians militarily. But the American people have no appetite for war with Iran, after the costs they have borne in the region over the past decade. Worse, a confrontation could spur Iran into a sprint for nuclear weapons, which could trigger a regional conflagration involving Israel. Worse, Washington would not have much support if it chose the military route. The international coalition that united for these negotiations isn’t going to hold together if the U.S. government imposes obviously unrealistic demands.

But without this deal, Iran could ramp up its enrichment program beyond restraint or delay. Its breakout time would be a scant two months.

Iran’s new centrifuges are three to five times as powerful as the original models. Tehran will soon master the manufacture of others eight to 20 times as powerful. With nearly 20,000 centrifuges already, and a stockpile of enriched uranium that, with further enrichment, would be sufficient for a half-dozen nuclear warheads, its breakout time would have decreased every day thereafter.

But make no mistake. Nothing in this deal takes away Washington’s ability or that of U.S. allies to react decisively to any transgression — which we are now in a far better position to detect and would have more time to react to.

Iran: Our negotiating strategy was based on the main principles of Iran’s foreign policy: dignity, wisdom and expediency. These guided us to dismiss Western demands aimed at diminishing our enrichment capacity to irrelevance, with a mere 500 or 1,500 centrifuges. The United States and its negotiating allies has recognized that our country’s enrichment activities are not symbolic. They are serious and must continue in a meaningful way to ensure our energy security. The agreement confirms our right to have the industrial-scale peaceful nuclear enrichment program we have fought for over many years.

In return, we are accepting some voluntary limits. But the reality is that we now have limited practical needs for enrichment. Our sole power plant in Bushehr is supplied by Russia, which has agreed to a several-year renewal once the contract expires in 2021. So the truth is that we don’t need to expand our enrichment capacity or maintain our stockpile of enriched material at this time.

As for the research reactor in Tehran, we have sufficient 20-percent enriched fuel to operate it for several years, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has committed to providing its future needs. Since producing 20-percent enriched fuel is economically inefficient, this is a good deal for us.

No less important, our decision obviates any pretext for the United States or others to pressure us, and it gives us time to master fuel manufacturing technology –in cooperation with the United States and its negotiating partners, no less.

Safety concerns are also relevant. The director of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization has noted that if the enrichment program had continued at speed without a deal, we would have lacked the Post Irradiation Examination technology necessary to assess the safety of our domestically manufactured fuel. No one will sell this irradiation equipment to us under the sanctions, and it would be unwise to put untested fuel into our nuclear power plant.

But enrichment is only part of the story. Our nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and should not be reduced to this single element. By choosing to cooperate with the West, instead of confronting it, we will have access to cutting-edge nuclear power and research reactors in Europe; be able to engage in nuclear fusion research with France; cooperate with Russia to manufacture fuel, and be able to send our scientists to the atomic energy agency’s safety and security workshops.

Let’s be clear. This deal is not costing us anything that is irreplaceable. Our main asset is the knowledge in our heads — we are not going to unlearn what we have learned. The world has recognized our achievement. But should the West fail to deliver its end of the bargain, as happened in 2005, we can quickly reconstitute our program, just as we did then.

Why did you allow nuclear research and development to continue/concede that it could continue only with limitations?

The United States: Iran has accepted serious limits on its research and development. These activities will not take place on an industrial scale for a decade. Instead, they are to be conducted on a laboratory scale that makes monitoring easy and less costly. We have established a dedicated procurement channel for Iran’s nuclear program and the International Atomic Energy Agency monitors all the key nodes in centrifuge manufacture and production. It can quickly detect any abnormal activity.

Remember, Iranians are a proud people — as deeply attached to sovereignty and scientific progress as Americans are. If we had shuttered their research and development program, we could have forced hundreds of Iranian scientists underground, possibly into a covert military nuclear program. Without a deal, Iran could hone its more advanced centrifuges and continue its research and development without any constraints.

Iran: Our research and development activities continue. No one can limit the research that our scientists and students will conduct at our academic institutions. We have accepted some limits on development of our enrichment capacities, but these will not constrain the pursuit of our realistic needs. We cannot develop more powerful centrifuges for now, while at the same time alleviating international concerns — a prerequisite for normalizing and then eventually expanding our nuclear program.

We will focus for now on other aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, which, at any rate, we need to master before moving forward. But in 10 years, we will step up our research and development in enrichment and will have much more efficient centrifuges to ultimately take over the fueling of our reactors.

Why did you accept a shorter/longer duration for the agreement than the one that you had promised?  

The United States: We have always sought to lengthen the time in which Iran could break out and produce a bomb, to deter it from moving down that path and to provide enough time and space for the atomic energy agency to make sure that all nuclear material and activities in Iran are used exclusively for peaceful purposes. The agency says that the sunset period for this agreement’s limit on enrichment capacity provides enough time for it to meet that goal.

Different elements of the deal have different durations. Some measures will last for a decade; some will last 15 or even 25 years; and some will be in place permanently. However, the agreement will expire only after the International Atomic Energy Agency gives Iran a clean slate — and even then intrusive inspections will continue under the agency’s additional protocol monitoring procedures. There is another thing that will not end with the expiration of this agreement: our nation’s commitment to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

Sunset provisions are common practice in both international arms-control agreements and U.S. sanctions legislation on Iran. There is no possibility of a perfect deal, in which Iran would renounce its enrichment activities forever. Nor could this be accomplished by military action.

Even if the American people were willing to accept the consequences of military action, to say nothing of those for the region and beyond, an attack is a lethal and expensive way of kicking the can down the road. Lengthening the breakout time for at least another decade or longer is a safer, more durable achievement that protects the United States and our allies.

Iran: We will never accept to be treated as a second-class member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, so no restriction can be permanent. We accepted a timeline that is consistent with what the International Atomic Energy Agency needs in its work to resolve its outstanding issues and draw the so-called broader conclusions that will affirm the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.

This process has taken several years even for less politicized cases like Japan and Canada. Iran also needs time to construct new nuclear power plants and master fuel-manufacturing technology. Finally, the difference between our ideal timeline for ramping up an enrichment program and the one in this deal is seven years. What is seven years for a nation with seven millennia of history?

Why did you accept that the heavy-water reactor in Arak remain open/be modified?  

The United States: This deal will significantly reduce the amount of plutonium that the Arak reactor produces. The reactor’s original design would have produced one bomb’s worth of plutonium every year, under this deal, it will not produce weapons-grade plutonium.

To extract any plutonium, however, Iran would need to reprocess Arak’s spent fuel. Under this deal, Tehran has committed not only to refrain from reprocessing, but also to ship spent fuel out of the country for the reactor’s lifetime and to accept stringent monitoring. Without diplomacy, the Arak reactor would have been online by now, making possible a plutonium nuclear weapon every year. Now these measures can effectively block any plutonium path to a nuclear weapon.

Iran: Not only were we successful in preserving the Arak reactor, we were also able to redesign it in a way that will produce no weapons-grade plutonium and more medical isotopes that we need for our cancer patients. Shipping out the spent fuel and refraining from reprocessing are in our interest, because spent fuel is an environmental burden, and reprocessing is uneconomic. So we have safeguarded our scientists’ hard-earned achievements, neutralized international concerns and made Arak more useful for research and our hospitals.

Why did you accept that the bunkered facility in Fordow remains open/be modified?  

The United States: Fordow was designed to be an enrichment facility impervious to air-strikes and with 3,000 centrifuges spinning day in, day out. Under this deal, two-thirds of those centrifuges will be removed, and the remaining will not enrich uranium. Fordow will become a nuclear physics and technology research facility subjected to thorough monitoring and safeguards. No enrichment will take place there for 15 years. Closing Fordow would have been best, but we will have daily monitoring to ensure it cannot be used for military purposes.

Iran: Fordow was built as an insurance policy against the repeated threat that our enrichment facilities would be the targets of military strikes. This agreement eliminates that threat. But we have still retained some of our infrastructure there. Going forward, we will focus our enrichment activities at our main site in Natanz, but keep Fordow open as a research and development center.

Why did you allow issues related to the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program to remain unresolved/under investigation?  

The United States: We are still working on finalizing a set of measures that Iran will implement to address the energy agency’s concerns about Iran’s past activities, but we cannot interfere with the agency’s probe. That investigation will take a long time to complete.

Were we to wait for it to be completed, the window for the deal would have closed. What is important is that none of those activities continue or could be restarted. We have put in place the most rigorous verification mechanism in the world, to make sure that any possible military activities have stopped. Obviously, in the absence of a deal, Iran would not only avoid answering for past violations, but could also secretly renew them.

Iran: For the past decade, the West has used the issue of alleged military dimensions of our program to discredit all our nuclear activities. We must prove that our program is exclusively peaceful; otherwise it will never be treated as normal. Without a deal, the West would continue to fan suspicions about our nuclear program, but this agreement guarantees that it will be unable to fabricate evidence to prolong the investigation.

Why is sanctions relief more/less than what you had sought?  

The United States: Our national security priority is to solve the nuclear issue with Iran and our nuclear sanctions were designed and imposed as the means to this end — the means we use to curb Iran’s nuclear activities until trust is built in their purely civilian nature. We cannot achieve this goal without offering Iran relief from these sanctions. By refusing to roll sanctions back, we would isolate ourselves and risk the break-up of the united international front that has enforced the sanctions so effectively.

We still have other significant problems with Iran — which is why our human-rights and terrorism-related sanctions are not affected by this agreement. By reintegrating Iran into the global economy, a sustainable deal will decrease its incentives to pursue nuclear weapons. If Iran establishes its bona fides and fulfills its commitments, we will eventually come to Congress and ask for termination of nuclear-related sanctions. This underlines Congress’s important role in monitoring the agreement’s implementation and eventually deciding the fate of the sanctions.

Also note that we will keep the United Nations Security Council restrictions that deal with the transfer of sensitive technologies, conventional arms and material related to Iran’s ballistic missiles program.

Iran: This agreement will lead to termination of all sanctions resulting from the nuclear crisis. Naturally, we cannot implement many years of commitments overnight, so sanctions relief will also be pegged to the measures that we undertake. This is a reciprocal and pragmatic step-by-step agreement. The sanctions regime’s chilling effect on our contacts with the world will dissipate when the United Nations Security Council endorses the nuclear agreement and lifts its economic restrictions.

But make no mistake! We are not losing our leverage. If the West cheats and fails to roll back sanctions, we will remove all restrictions and expand our program.

Why are transparency measures less/more rigorous than what you had promised?  

The United States: The safeguards in this agreement are unprecedented and the world’s most stringent. Iran’s acceptance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol grants U.N. inspectors much better access to declared and undeclared facilities.

No sovereign state would allow inspectors to go anywhere anytime, but this deal will ensure that Iran doesn’t have a clandestine weaponization program. Without this deal, daily inspections of enrichment facilities would cease and revert, at best, to every other week. We would lose insight into many aspects of the program, such as mines, mills, centrifuge production facilities and nuclear-waste management areas. Some of these measures will stay in place for 20 or 25 years, others will remain in place permanently.

Iran: As the Persian proverb puts it, “speak the truth and shame the devil.” Since we have nothing to hide, we agreed to open our program with maximum transparency. Of course, we would never give inspectors carte blanche to wander around our military facilities. The “managed access” mechanism that we have put in place for inspection of non-declared sites preserves and protects our national security and dignity.

In implementing the additional protocol, we are joining the 124 other states that have put it into force. But we will not ratify the additional protocol or any binding international verification convention until and unless the West proves its bona fides by terminating its nuclear sanctions. By choosing this path, we prove to the world that our nuclear program is peaceful. Had the negotiations fallen apart, we would not implement the additional protocol — but then the International Atomic Energy Agency would never give us a clean slate. That would have been a formula for perpetual crisis.


These talking points are neither comprehensive nor detailed. Many of the specifics are still being negotiated. Many will have to be explained in confidential briefings. But this is the kind of exercise that public-relations experts on both sides need to engage in post-haste. They should coordinate their messages, or at least calibrate them to take account of the other’s sensitivities. Crowing too much about one’s achievements would provide ammunition for critics on the other side, breeding rancor, mistrust and even the agreement’s collapse.

Some critics will oppose any nuclear agreement, regardless of its terms. They will reject it because it is Obama’s or Rouhani’s deal, or because they have vested interests in the continuation of the status quo for ideological, geo-strategic or even financial reasons. It is pointless to try to persuade them. It is also risky, however, to ignore their objections. If left unaddressed, they may poison the atmosphere and derail the deal’s proper implementation. It is important to isolate the spoilers and highlight that they offer no realistic alternative while irresponsibly putting politics ahead of national interests.

It is equally important for both sides to clearly explain to their domestic audiences that only a deal reached willingly and supported knowledgeably is sustainable. Unfair deals beget unfaithful deal-makers.

Iran Navigates the World

In his prologue to The Geopolitics of Iran, edited by Francisco José B. S. Leandro, Carlos Branco, and Flavius Caba-Maria, our Middle East expert Joost Hiltermann says policymakers should come to grips with the country's lived experience to understand why dialogue and diplomacy are the best way to deal with the Islamic Republic.


Imagine the view from Tehran. It is early 2021. You are an Iranian, with inherited memories of empire and conquest, yet also of foreign invasions and defeat; a citizen of a country isolated in the world, yet also a rising power accused of hegemonic ambitions, one that may be poorly managed but also has accumulated and deployed remarkable technical brainpower; you’re part of a population kept down by harsh economic sanctions but that has proved doggedly resilient; you’re saddled with a leadership that champions a revolutionary ideology, now fading, even as it projects its power across the region; and you belong to a society that veers between forbearance and protest, but is kept in check by a security apparatus that uses an effective blend of co-optation and naked repression to stay in power. 

This is Iran today – located on a geopolitical junction between the Asian and European continents, hemmed in between former Soviet republics, Turkey, Afghanistan and the Arab world, and commanding a strategic chokepoint – the Strait of Hormuz – through which flow one fifth of the world’s global oil consumption and a quarter of its LNG trade. The country is a magnet for foreign interests as it strives to escape its containment and attain its full potential, which it deems an entitlement after four decades of isolation.

For centuries, Iran has fought for its security and survival by warding off outside threats. For the same length of time it also has forged critical alliances with external powers to better insulate itself against such threats. It has had experience of foreign powers vying to partition the country into spheres of influence. Yet in the process it has perfected the art of divide and rule in confronting both internal and external challenges. Ever since its Islamic revolution, it has attempted to project its power into its neighbourhood, initially in Lebanon but also, in the more recent past, in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where it succeeded by capitalising on the weakness and mistakes of its adversaries. The 2011 Arab uprisings, and their destructive aftermath, proved a turning point as Arab states collapsed, creating a vacuum into which Iran, among others, was keen to step before one of its rivals would. It thus spread or deepened its influence partly by design but mainly by default, either way terrifying its enemies.

Its main strategy in the region, from the days it established Hezbollah in the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, has been to court local non-state allies, and to arm and train them. For this it used the Qods Force, an expeditionary arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Pasdaran, commanded by Qasem Soleimani until his killing in an American drone strike in January 2020. 

That attack was part of an unremitting U.S. effort to keep Iran leashed, which started with the Islamic revolution and hostage crisis more than 40 years ago. Even the Obama administration, which sought to overcome the bitter legacy of the 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup that overthrew the elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the embassy hostage-taking, and ongoing sparring in the Middle East and beyond, remained intent on keeping Iran contained. 

The next administration, led by Donald Trump, went back to the old way, throwing the nuclear accord President Obama had negotiated out of the window, re-imposing sanctions, and endeavouring to clip Iran’s regional power projection through economic coercion and military deterrence. This campaign, dubbed “maximum pressure”, further impoverished a population already stressed by a badly run economy while failing to achieve any of its stated objectives: further limiting Iran’s nuclear program, reducing its footprint in the region, destabilising the country, and forcing its leadership back to the negotiating table on far less favourable terms.

To the contrary, Iran appeared undeterred, if perturbed, by sanctions and setbacks, which merely re-empowered the hard-line elements of its political class. It lashed out at the U.S. and its allies in the region, displaying an astute sense of how close to the limit it could take an escalation short of precipitating a full-throated U.S. military response. On the nuclear front, it countered new U.S. sanctions by incrementally violating the nuclear deal, but it made clear its steps were reversible and that indeed it would reverse them should the Trump administration or its successor come around or the Europeans decide to compensate Iran. The arrival of the Biden administration seemed to offer a new opening. 

The experience of both the Obama and Trump years shows that the Islamic Republic is here to stay unless one of two things happens: a violent overthrow by the United States and its allies, or its collapse in a popular uprising. Neither scenario appears likely. The 2003 Iraq invasion showed the limits of U.S. power in the region, and even laid bare its vulnerabilities through the consequences it unintentionally unleashed: the empowerment of jihadist groups. The U.S. learned an important lesson, which it heeded in subsequent discussions about the wisdom of using American power in the pursuit of regime change and state rebuilding in Libya and Syria. And while a significant segment of the Iranian population may be thoroughly fed up with the clerical leadership – there is every indication many people are – they appear to have neither the means to effectively counter a deeply entrenched repressive security apparatus nor a viable alternative.

It is an axiom of international relations that one negotiates with one’s enemy. As long as the notion that the Islamic Republic will somehow disappear remains as fanciful as it is today, Iran and its adversaries will have to find ways to accommodate one another. This requires dialogue and diplomacy. From their side, the Iranians have proved to be as capable as diplomats as they have been in military affairs, and have shown they can effectively combine the two. The United States, by contrast, has shown inconsistency and, at least in the last four years, an unhealthy resort to coercion as the only way of dealing with Iran. A return to such an approach, during the Biden administration or the one succeeding it, might well deliver a self-fulfilling prophecy: the further rise of a vengeful power, nurtured by the resourcefulness that its long isolation forced it to develop, now with explicitly hegemonic ambitions and an ability to disrupt an oil-dependent global economy.

There is much to recommend the volume in front of you. Its main objective is to show why and how Iran has been and remains a relevant actor in the international order, and particularly in the context of the Middle East – a regional power we ignore at our peril. To accomplish this, this volume: addresses Iran’s intertwined interests and perceptions, basing the country’s foreign policy-making on its religion-inspired ideology and four-decade enmity with the United States; examines Iran’s relations with states in its wider neighbourhood, as well as with world powers – China, the European Union and Russia, in addition to the United States; and offers an array of scholarly views on the many and various aspects of Iran’s durability in an unsparing world. 

In doing so, this volume offers a window on Iran looking in, providing a glimpse of a nation’s lived experience. It is as close as we can come to a firm grasp of how such an experience can be lived in the first place. May it serve a global audience that values the importance of reciprocal understanding as the foundation for sound decision-making in the management of inter-state relations.