The need for objective criteria in Iran’s nuclear negotiations
The need for objective criteria in Iran’s nuclear negotiations

The need for objective criteria in Iran’s nuclear negotiations

If you want to guarantee failure in any price negotiation – be it over bauble in a shop, your rent, or a pressing geopolitical issue with global ramifications -- pick a figure that seems about right virtually at random; peremptorily justify it and reject your interlocutor’s counteroffer with logic that makes sense only to you; and refuse to adjust your offer. This is a sure-fire recipe for failure, yet this is how Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) have conducted the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear crisis, one of the most important diplomatic ventures in a generation.

The two main sticking points in the talks, which began in January and must conclude by November 24, 2014, are how much dual-use enrichment capacity Iran could retain and how long restraints on its program should remain in place.

Iran contends that it will need an enrichment capacity of 190,000 SWU – Separative Work Units, a measure of centrifuge performance -- in order to take over fueling its sole power plant in Bushehr by 2021 when the reactor’s fuel supply contract with Russia expires. Such enrichment capacity, in the near-term, is a nonstarter for the world powers because it could enable a rapid dash towards nuclear weapons. The P5+1 argues that Iran has neither a compelling need for indigenous industrial-scale enrichment -- since Russia is prepared to supply the Bushehr reactor for its lifetime -- nor the technical knowhow and intellectual property licenses to safely and legally produce the proprietary fuel.

The P5+1, accordingly, demand that Iran scale back its enrichment capacity to around 1,500 SWU, which it asserts would be sufficient to meet the country’s modest short-term needs. But recalling its unpleasant memories of fuel denial, Tehran rejects relying on the international nuclear fuel market.

As disparate as these positions might appear, both sides agree that Iran’s enrichment program should be constrained for a period of time until trust is established in its purely civilian intentions. Then the cap will come off and Iran will be treated as any other member of the Non-proliferation Treaty. The question, then, is how to define that length of time.

But the parties’ approach to determining the duration of the agreement is marked by equally subjective criteria. Iran wants the deal to conclude in as little as three years, so that President Rouhani can deliver on his commitments and reap the benefits before the next Iranian presidential elections. The P5+1, meanwhile, seek to kick the nuclear can down the road for at least 20 years.

Neither side’s arguments bear scrutiny. It is as unrealistic for Tehran to expect to completely defuse a prolonged crisis of some two decades and restore its bona fides under President Rouhani’s watch as it is for the West to expect Iran to tolerate stifling constraints for a generation. What would establish trust in 20 years, an Iranian might ask, that could not in 15 or 10?

The answer to this stand-off might lie in identifying objective measures. For instance, the two parties are more likely to agree on the price of a bauble if they could compare it to similar baubles for sale, during the same time frame, on the same street.

In the case of Iran, the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) could provide one such standard. In order to fulfil its responsibility of ensuring the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities, the IAEA must confirm that outstanding questions relating to the Possible Military Dimension (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program have been resolved, and that the agency is in a position to draw its so-called “broader conclusions” that affirm all nuclear material and activities in Iran are in purely civilian use.

The IAEA has tremendous experience in this work and believes that resolving the PMD issue is feasible in 2 to 3 years, while drawing the broader conclusions would require 5 to 7 years. This would be a reasonable timeline for the parties to accept.

To facilitate the use of this standard, Iran should pledge to respond satisfactorily to all agencies’ questions and provide the necessary access; the IAEA in turn should pledge to limit its investigation to the twelve specific areas listed in its November 2011 report to alleviate Iranian concerns that its investigation will be endless; and the P5+1 should maintain the confidentiality of any information relating to these issues and vow not to use them to pressure Iran in the nuclear or any other arena.

Another objective measure could be the time needed to construct a new light-water power plant and its related fuel-manufacturing technology in Iran, as part of civilian nuclear cooperation between the parties. The industry standard for this process is between 10 and 15 years.

Such milestones could help set the duration of different phases of the agreement. They would give Iran an incentive to resolve its outstanding problems with the IAEA and disclose its past activities in order to be able to continue enhancing its enrichment capacity, while allowing the P5+1 to contend it set a positive non-proliferation precedent that countries can only advance their civilian nuclear agenda after receiving a clean bill of health from the UN’s nuclear watchdog. Constructing a nuclear power plant in Iran will create shared interests, as Iran will gain access to cutting-edge nuclear technology and the P5+1 will be able to defer Iran’s need for enrichment. These standards makes it easier to defend the deal, because the parties can argue that they conceded not to other sides’ whims, but rather to an externally defined standard.

A focus on objective measures rather than maximalist stances could be the key to unlocking the talks in this moment of truth for Iran and the P5+1. Should this moment be lost, it is unlikely to soon reappear.

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