The Right Nuclear Red Line
The Right Nuclear Red Line
A Welcome Humanitarian Deal between the U.S. and Iran
A Welcome Humanitarian Deal between the U.S. and Iran
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

The Right Nuclear Red Line

By deflating so much of the hyperbole around the issue, the National Intelligence Estimate offers an opportunity to end the international stalemate with Tehran. Having just returned from a series of meetings with high-level Iranian officials, including their top nuclear negotiator, I think the outlines of a deal are clear.

Led by the United States and the European Union, with Russia and China cautiously supportive, the international community has until now been fixated on preventing Iran from acquiring any capacity to enrich uranium and thus to make nuclear fuel for civilian or military purposes. Iran argues that such a red line has no basis in the Non-Proliferation Treaty and is unjustifiably discriminatory. Tehran continues to stare down the U.N. Security Council, shrugs off sanctions and refuses to negotiate any intrusive inspection regime that would enable it to be trusted when it denies having intentions to create nuclear weapons.

The international community is entitled to stay nervous, given Iran's long history of undeclared activity and the many disturbing and provocative statements of its president. But all the signs are - and I heard nothing to the contrary in Tehran - that Iran will simply not budge on its "right to enrich." That means an indefinite continuation of the standoff, with minimal Iranian cooperation on regional issues of immense concern - including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the role of Hamas and Hezbollah - and minimal confidence internationally in Iran's ultimate nuclear intentions.

The new intelligence assessment gives us the chance to break out of this impasse. What the international community really wants is for Iran to never produce nuclear weapons. The red line that matters is the one at the heart of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, between civilian and military capability. If Iran's neighbors, including Israel, and the wider world could be confident that that line would hold, it would not matter whether Iran was capable of producing its own nuclear fuel.

That line will hold if we can get Iran to accept a highly intrusive monitoring, verification and inspection regime that goes well beyond basic Non-Proliferation Treaty safeguards, which already apply, and includes both the optional additional inspection measures available under that treaty as well as tough further measures. Iran would also need to build confidence by agreeing to stretch out over time the development of its enrichment capability and to have any industrial-scale activity conducted not by Iran alone but by an international consortium.

Although Iran will hold out for as much as it can get and for as long as it can, it is capable of being persuaded. This will require a mixture of incentives (including the lifting of sanctions and the normalization of relations with the United States) and disincentives (the threat of further sanctions and worse, if it crosses the military-program red line). But negotiations won't go anywhere if the United States and European Union continue to insist on zero enrichment.

In Iran two weeks ago, I heard nothing from anyone, in or out of government, to suggest that any member of the current power elite thought the benefits of a nuclear weapons program - including for deterrence or asserting regional authority - could possibly outweigh the costs. There was an acute awareness of the military, economic and further reputational risks that the country would run if it moved even a toe in that direction.

Iran's economic arguments for domestically producing, rather than buying, fuel for a civilian nuclear program have never been very persuasive, and they sounded no better on this occasion. But the psychological arguments I heard were a different story: This is a country seething with both national pride and resentment against past humiliations, and it wants to cut a regional and global figure by proving its sophisticated technological capability. One only wishes that something less sensitive than the nuclear fuel cycle had been chosen to make that point.

Unconditional negotiations aimed at achieving "delayed limited enrichment with maximum safeguards" rather than the failed policy of "zero enrichment" can produce a win-win outcome. Such negotiations won't be easy to start or conclude, given the parties' long-held public positions. But if the objective is to ensure that Iran won't backslide and be newly tempted to go down the nuclear weapons road, this is the only way to go.

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