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Iran: Is There a Way Out of the Nuclear Impasse?
Iran: Is There a Way Out of the Nuclear Impasse?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Will the Iran Nuclear Deal Survive and What Happens if Not?
Will the Iran Nuclear Deal Survive and What Happens if Not?
Report 51 / Middle East & North Africa

Iran: Is There a Way Out of the Nuclear Impasse?

There is no easy way out of the Iranian nuclear dilemma. Iran, emboldened by the situation in Iraq and soaring oil prices, and animated by a combination of insecurity and assertive nationalism, insists on its right to develop full nuclear fuel cycle capability, including the ability to enrich uranium.

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Executive Summary

There is no easy way out of the Iranian nuclear dilemma. Iran, emboldened by the situation in Iraq and soaring oil prices, and animated by a combination of insecurity and assertive nationalism, insists on its right to develop full nuclear fuel cycle capability, including the ability to enrich uranium. Most other countries, while acknowledging to varying extents Iran’s right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to acquire that capability for peaceful energy purposes, have a concern – reinforced by Iran’s lack of transparency in the past, continuing support for militant Middle East groups and incendiary presidential rhetoric – that once able to highly enrich uranium, it will be both able and tempted to build nuclear weapons.

But EU-led diplomacy so far has failed to persuade Iran to forego its fuel cycle ambitions; the UN Security Council seems unlikely to agree on sanctions strong enough to force it to do so; and preventive military force is both a dangerous and unproductive option.

Two possible scenarios remain, however, for a negotiated compromise. The first, and unquestionably more attractive for the international community, is a “zero enrichment” option: for Iran to agree to indefinitely relinquish its right to enrich uranium in return for guaranteed supply from an offshore source, along the lines proposed by Russia. Tehran, while not wholly rejecting offshore supply, has made clear its reluctance to embrace such a limitation as a long-term solution: for it to have any chance of acceptance, more incentives from the U.S. need to be on the table than at present.

If this option proves unachievable – as seems, regrettably, more likely than not – the only realistic remaining diplomatic option appears to be the “delayed limited enrichment” plan spelt out in this report. The wider international community, and the West in particular, would explicitly accept that Iran can not only produce peaceful nuclear energy but has the “right to enrich” domestically; in return, Iran would agree to a several-year delay in the commencement of its enrichment program, major limitations on its initial size and scope, and a highly intrusive inspections regime.

Both sides inevitably will protest that this plan goes too far – the West because it permits Tehran to eventually achieve full nuclear fuel cycle capability, with the risk in turn of breakout from the NPT and weapons acquisition, and Iran because it significantly delays and limits the development of that fuel cycle capability. But with significant carrots (particularly from the U.S.) and sticks (particularly from the EU) on the table – involving the appropriate application of sequenced incentives, backed by the prospect of strong and intelligently targeted sanctions – it is not impossible to envisage such a negotiation succeeding.

This proposed compromise should be compared neither to the fragile and unsustainable status quo, nor to some idealised end-state with which all sides might be totally comfortable. The more likely scenarios, if diplomacy fails, are for a rapid descent into an extremely unhealthy North Korea-like situation, with a wholly unsupervised nuclear program leading to the production of nuclear weapons and all the dangerously unpredictable regional consequences that might flow from that; or a perilous move to an Iraq-like preventive military strike, with even more far-reaching and alarming consequences both regionally and world-wide.

Brussels/Washington/Tehran, 23 February 2006

Will the Iran Nuclear Deal Survive and What Happens if Not?

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to Crisis Group expert Ali Vaez about Iran’s nuclear program, the fate of the Iran nuclear deal and the risk of a military escalation between the U.S. and Iran if it collapses.

It’s crunch time for negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal. That deal, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), curtailed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for substantial sanctions relief. In 2018, President Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the agreement. Four years later, Iran is closer than ever to being able to develop a nuclear weapon. While President Biden came to office vowing to rejoin the deal, months of sustained indirect talks in Vienna this year have made only slow headway. There is a real danger that talks collapse, Iran’s nuclear development continues and the U.S. faces a hard choice between accepting Iran as a nuclear threshold state – able to build a bomb even if not yet having done so – or trying to stop that happening, which could mean military strikes on Iran. 

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Crisis Group’s Iran Project Director Ali Vaez. They discuss the current state of negotiations in Vienna, impediments to the U.S. and Iran getting back to compliance with the deal, and strategic calculations in Tehran and Washington, as well as in Europe, China, Russia and the Middle East. They talk about where Iran’s nuclear program stands and what options exist if talks collapse. They also discuss what a potential military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities could look like and what risks it might entail. Ali also lays out how the parties could yet salvage the deal in a way that gives them enough of what they need even if not all of what they want.  

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Iran regional page. Make sure to look out for our report coming out on Monday, ‘The Iran Nuclear Deal at Six: Now or Never’.

Contributors

Executive Vice President
atwoodr
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Senior Adviser to the President & Project Director, Iran
AliVaez