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Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube
Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Iran Navigates the World
Iran Navigates the World
Table of Contents
  1. Foreword

Iran and the P5+1: Solving the Nuclear Rubik’s Cube

A comprehensive nuclear accord may be in reach if both sides – Iran and the Security Council permanent members plus Germany – show determination to settle on a technical agreement and isolate the deal from its complex regional context.

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Executive Summary

In a region of troubles, the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program stand out. The first-step agreement, signed in November 2013, broke a decade of futile diplomatic forays punctuated by mutual escalation. The product of a rare confluence of political calendars and actors, it set a framework for a balanced arms-control agreement that could form the basis of a comprehensive nuclear accord. But reasons for caution abound. It is easier to pause than to reverse the escalation pitting centrifuges against sanctions. Mistrust remains deep, time is short, and the process remains vulnerable to pressure from domestic and regional detractors. In bringing the sides together, the accord revealed the chasm that separates them. Success is possible only with political will to isolate the deal – at least for now – from its complex regional context. It will ultimately be sustainable only if the parties, building on its momentum, recognise that their rival’s legitimate interests need to be respected. But a far-reaching resolution of differences will be possible only after a relatively narrow, technical nuclear agreement.

Iran's Nuclear Crisis: A Real Breakthrough

Senior Analyst Ali Vaez explains the recent progress in nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. CRISIS GROUP

The main objective of the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) is to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. In Geneva, where the agreement – officially known as the Joint Plan of Action – was signed, the group for the first time agreed to Iran maintaining some enrichment capacity. But it has demanded that Tehran significantly roll back its enrichment capabilities, close the bunkered enrichment facility in Fordow and heavy-water plant in Arak; and demonstrate the peaceful nature of its nuclear program by detailing past activities and allowing, for an extended period, intrusive monitoring. Fearing that it would be easier for Iran to reverse its nuclear concessions than for the West to renew its isolation, the group insists on retaining sanctions leverage, even through implementation of the final step of a comprehensive agreement.

Iran's Nuclear Crisis: How Sanctions Work

Senior Analyst Ali Vaez explains the real power behind sanctions. Crisis Group

Iran believes that the P5+1’s objective is to contain not simply its nuclear program, but also the Islamic Republic itself. It contends that it has been singled out, uniquely among signatories of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), to prove a negative, that its nuclear program does not aim at weaponisation. Tehran insists on preserving a substantial part of its nuclear infrastructure, in view of the enormous cost it has paid for it. While willing to accept heightened verification measures in order to enable the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to establish the peaceful nature of its program, it insists that they be temporary and respectful of its national security requirements. It also demands significant and immediate Western reciprocation of any nuclear concession.

From these starting points, it would appear that the P5+1’s maximum – in terms of both what it considers a tolerable residual Iranian nuclear capability and the sanctions relief it is willing to provide – falls short of Iran’s minimum. Nevertheless, it is still possible to reach a comprehensive agreement on a limited nuclear program – though an uncomfortable one for sceptics like Saudi Arabia and Israel that object on principle to Iran retaining any enrichment capacity. Negotiators will not get far, however, by trying to define Iran’s “practical needs” for enriched uranium (an approach endorsed in Geneva), since needs are a matter of interpretation about which Iran and the P5+1 differ. Focusing on “breakout time” – the time required to enrich enough uranium for one weapon – will not stand them in better stead, as it is based on theoretical, unpredictable and plastic calculations.

Iran's Nuclear Crisis: The Way Forward

Senior Analyst Ali Vaez looks at the way forward in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. SHOW MORE CRISIS GROUP

What is needed, rather, is a compromise that satisfies both sides’ irreducible, bottom-line requirements: for Iran a meaningful enrichment program, continued scientific advancement and tangible sanctions relief; and for the P5+1, a firewall between Iran’s civilian and potential military nuclear capabilities, airtight monitoring mechanisms and sufficient time and Iranian cooperation to establish trust in the exclusively peaceful nature of the country’s nuclear program. Such a solution would enable them to sell the deal at home and serve as a springboard for developing a different kind of relationship.

This report presents a blueprint for achieving that agreement. It is guided by four objectives: building a firewall between Iran’s civilian and potential military nuclear capabilities by constraining the most proliferation-prone aspects of its nuclear program; enhancing transparency by establishing rigorous monitoring and verification mechanisms; ensuring implementation and deterring non-compliance by establishing objective and compulsory monitoring and arbitration mechanisms, as well as by devising, in advance, potential responses to breaches by either party; and bolstering the parties’ incentives to remain faithful to the agreement by introducing positive inducements rather than purely negative ones.

A comprehensive agreement based on these principles should be implemented in three phases, the first of which would start with steps that clearly demonstrate the parties’ commitment to the process and provide them with immediate tangible benefits, while delaying the heavy lifting until their investment in the process is greater, the costs for withdrawing higher and at least some sceptics have bought into the process.

The basic elements of the approach include:

  • permitting Iran a contingency enrichment program that could be dialled up in the event of nuclear fuel denial, though constrained enough that any breakout could be promptly detected and, through a defined response, thwarted;
     
  • converting the heavy-water research reactor in Arak to diminish the amount of plutonium it produces;
     
  • transforming the bunkered facility in Fordow into a proliferation-resistant research and development centre;
     
  • introducing transparency measures that exceed Iran’s existing obligations but conform with its legitimate security and dignity concerns and that the P5+1 should acknowledge will be temporary;
     
  • providing Iran significant but reversible sanctions relief in the early stages of the comprehensive agreement, followed by escalating further relaxation, including open-ended suspension or termination of restrictions in accordance with progress on the nuclear front;
     
  • establishing positive incentives by strengthening trade ties, and increasing civilian nuclear and renewable energy cooperation between the parties; and
     
  • coordinating messages to reassure both sides’ regional allies and rivals, and to avoid inciting hardliners as leaders sell the agreement at home.

The detailed recommendations that follow lay out this path in 40 actions. It is a path that carries risks for both sides. There is no guarantee that Iran will remain faithful to its commitments after international attention shifts. Nor is there certainty that the U.S. Congress will accept the deal and provide the president with the necessary authority on sanctions.

These risks notwithstanding, the alternatives are less attractive. A series of partial, interim deals would lessen the chances of reaching a final agreement, fall short of satisfying either party and strengthen hardline critics. A return to the status quo ante, with each side ratcheting up its leverage in the hope of forcing the other to capitulate, would very possibly lay the tracks for a scenario in which Iran attains a nuclear bomb while sanctions cause it grave harm. Most dangerous would be a military strike, which could set back Iran’s nuclear march temporarily, but at the cost of spurring it to rush toward the ultimate deterrent, while retaliating in a variety of asymmetric or non-conventional ways, with unpredictable but certainly tragic regional ramifications.

If odds of the talks collapsing are high, the stakes of failure are higher. At the very least, a breakdown would reduce the possibility of success later, as it would erode trust and stiffen positions. The region and the world will be a safer place for a compromise that protects everyone’s core interests, contains Iran’s nuclear program and rehabilitates the country’s economy and international standing.

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.

Foreword

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.