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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
Open Letter to the U.S. and Iranian Leadership about the Iran Nuclear Deal
Open Letter to the U.S. and Iranian Leadership about the Iran Nuclear Deal
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

Open Letter to the U.S. and Iranian Leadership about the Iran Nuclear Deal

Negotiating parties are now within touching distance of reinstating the JCPOA, but a period of stasis threatens to undo the progress made. In this open letter, over 40 former top European officials urge the U.S. and Iranian leadership to see the negotiations through to a successful outcome.

This open letter has been signed by members of the European Leadership Network, Board members of the International Crisis Group and Council members from the European Council on Foreign Relations.

We write to express our growing concern that negotiations to restore Iranian compliance with, and U.S. return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) appear to have entered a period of stasis that threatens to undo the real and welcome progress made in recent months toward reinstating a non-proliferation achievement that is crucial for international peace and security.

At a time when transatlantic cooperation has become all the more critical to respond against Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, for U.S. and European leaders to let slip the opportunity to defuse a nuclear crisis in the Middle East would be a grave mistake.

The JCPOA was a success. Persistent multilateral diplomacy, in which several of the undersigned were personally engaged, secured an agreement that advanced our shared non-proliferation goals. Preserving the benefits of a deal limiting Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium, capping its levels of enrichment and extending the timeline for the accumulation of fissile material that could be used for a potential weapon, all under the watchful eyes of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is the reason why European governments rejected the Trump administration’s reckless decision to abandon the deal without a viable alternative and have worked hard to keep the deal alive following the 2018 U.S. withdrawal.

The strategy that the U.S. followed for more than two years after this withdrawal, based on “maximum pressure” alone, yielded little but nuclear escalation, dangerous regional sparring and economic deprivation for the Iranian people. The legacy of this strategic error can today be measured in the tons of enriched uranium Iran has since accumulated, including uranium enriched to near weapons-grade; in the thousands of advanced centrifuges it is spinning; and in the rapidly dwindling timeframe for Iran to reach a breakout capability. President Biden rightly identified a mutual return, by the U.S. and Iran, to their respective commitments under the 2015 deal as a necessary course correction.

Since April 2021, negotiations in Vienna have painstakingly but productively forged a draft document that will reverse Iran’s nuclear advances, in return for relief from U.S. sanctions imposed during the Trump administration that are inconsistent with the JCPOA. As the EU’s Josep Borrell put it over a month ago, “a final text is essentially ready and on the table”.

There are two possible scenarios ahead. In one, the U.S. swiftly shows decisive leadership and requisite flexibility to resolve remaining issues of political (not nuclear) disagreement with Tehran. In the other, the parties enter a state of corrosive stalemate, serving neither side’s interests, that risks devolving into a cycle of increased nuclear tension, inevitably countered by the further application of coercive tools.

We know that the politics of this issue are difficult, particularly on issues like the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, which is reportedly the last lingering issue of contention. While the details are of course for U.S. policymakers to determine, we believe that there are ways to provide the counter-terrorism benefits of the current designation while still accommodating Iran's specific request, and consider it imperative that these be fully explored. For its part, Iran should not expect a nuclear deal to address broader areas of disagreement between Tehran and Washington. Both sides must approach this final phase of negotiation with an understanding that the strategic implications of failure would be grave and profound.

Based on our long experience in diplomacy and statecraft, we see a deal as eminently possible. Having come within touching distance, we urge President Biden and the Iranian leadership to demonstrate flexibility in tackling an issue of vital significance to the global nonproliferation regime and regional stability, and see these negotiations through to a successful conclusion.

Signatories:

Czech Republic

  1. Jan Kavan, former Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, former President of the UNGA, and Chairman of the Board, Czech-Slovak-Iranian Chamber of Commerce (CSIOK)


Denmark

  1. Mogens Lykketoft, former Foreign Minister and President of the UN 70th General Assembly


France

  1. Gérard Araud, former Permanent Representative of France to the UN, former Director-General for Political and Security Affairs
  2. Michel Duclos, former Ambassador and Special Advisor, Institut Montaigne (Paris)
  3. Jean-David Levitte, former Permanent Representative of France to the UN
  4. Général d’armée aérienne (ret) Bernard Norlain, former Commander of Air Defence Command and Air Combat Command


Germany

  1. Wolfgang Ischinger, former Ambassador and Chairman of the Munich Security Conference
  2. Joschka Fischer, former Foreign Minister and former Vice-Chancellor
  3. Angela Kane, former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
  4. Karsten D. Voigt, former Chairman of the German-Russian parliamentary group in the Bundestag and former President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly
  5. General (ret) Klaus Naumann, former Chief of Defence Germany and former Chairman of the NATO Military Committee


Hungary

  1. Balázs Csuday, former Permanent Representative of Hungary to the UN (Vienna)


Italy

  1. Giancarlo Aragona, former Ambassador and former Secretary-General of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
  2. General (ret) Vincenzo Camporini, former Chief of Staff of the Air Force and Chief of Defence General Staff
  3. Admiral (ret) Giampaolo Di Paola, former Minister of Defence
  4. Dr Nathalie Tocci, Director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) and former Special Advisor to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borell
  5. Stefano Stefanini, former Ambassador and Executive Board of the European Leadership Network
  6. Carlo Trezza, former Ambassador for Disarmament and non-proliferation, Chairman of MTCR and UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board for Disarmament Affairs


Lithuania

  1. Vygaudas Usackas, former Foreign Minister and former EU Ambassador to Russia and Afghanistan


Netherlands

  1. Prof Klaas de Vries, former Minister of Home Affairs


Norway

  1. Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister and former Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Deputy Chair of The Elders


Poland

  1. Bogdan Klich, former Minister of National Defence
  2. Andrzej Olechowski, former Minister of Foreign Affairs
  3. Prof Adam D. Rotfeld, Warsaw University and former Minister of Foreign Affairs


Serbia

  1. Goran Svilanović, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and former Secretary-General of the Regional Cooperation Council


Spain

  1. Javier Solana, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, former High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and former NATO Secretary-General


Sweden

  1. Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and former Foreign Affairs Minister
  2. Dr Hans Blix, former Foreign Minister and former Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
  3. Rolf Ekéus, former Chairman of the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, SIPRI, and former Ambassador of Sweden to the United States


Turkey

  1. Hikmet Çetin, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Speaker of the Grand National Assembly
  2. Vahit Erdem, former Under Secretary of the Defence Industry and former Vice President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly
  3. Ahmet Üzümcü, former Permanent Representative of Turkey to NATO and former Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)
  4. Tacan Ildem, former Assistant Secretary-General, NATO and former Ambassador


United Kingdom

  1. The Rt Hon Bob Ainsworth, former Defence Secretary
  2. Sir Tony Brenton, former Ambassador to the Russian Federation
  3. Lord (Des) Browne of Ladyton, former Defence Secretary and Chairman of the European Leadership Network
  4. The Rt Hon Alistair Burt, former Minister of State for the Middle East at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
  5. Lord (David) Hannay of Chiswick, former Ambassador to the EU and to the UN
  6. The Rt. Hon Baroness (Pauline) Neville-Jones, former Minister for Security and Counter-Terrorism
  7. Sir Nick Harvey, former Member of Parliament and former Minister of State for the Armed Forces
  8. Lord (John) Kerr of Kinlochard, Independent member of the House of Lords
  9. Lord (Tom) King of Bridgwater, former Defence Secretary
  10. Lord (Mark) Malloch-Brown, President, Open Society Foundations, and former UN Deputy Secretary-General
  11. Madeleine Moon, former Member of Parliament and former President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly
  12. General the Lord (David) Ramsbotham, retired British Army officer, former Adjutant General and ADC General to Her Majesty the Queen
  13. The Rt Hon Jack Straw, former Foreign Secretary
  14. The Rt Hon Lord (David) Triesman, former Parliamentary Under Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and former General Secretary of the Labour Party