America’s Iran policy is at a crossroads. Washington can abandon its counterproductive insistence on Middle Eastern hegemony, negotiate a nuclear deal grounded in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and get serious about working with Tehran to broker a settlement to the Syrian conflict. In the process, the United States would greatly improve its ability to shape important outcomes there. Alternatively, America can continue on its present path, leading ultimately to strategic irrelevance in one of the world’s most vital regions—with negative implications for its standing in Asia as well.
U.S. policy is at this juncture because the costs of Washington’s post-Cold War drive to dominate the Middle East have risen perilously high. President Obama’s self-inflicted debacle over his plan to attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there in August showed that America can no longer credibly threaten the effective use of force to impose its preferences in the region. While Obama still insists “all options are on the table” for Iran, the reality is that, if Washington is to deal efficaciously with the nuclear issue, it will be through diplomacy.
In this context, last month’s Geneva meeting between Iran and the P5+1 brought America’s political class to a strategic and political moment of truth. Can American elites turn away from a self-damaging quest for Middle Eastern hegemony by coming to terms with an independent regional power? Or are they so enthralled with an increasingly surreal notion of America as hegemon that, to preserve U.S. “leadership,” they will pursue a course further eviscerating its strategic position?
The proposal for resolving the nuclear issue that Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, presented in Geneva seeks answers to these questions. It operationalizes the approach advocated by Hassan Rohani and other Iranian leaders for over a decade: greater transparency on Iran’s nuclear activities in return for recognizing its rights as a sovereign NPT signatory—especially to enrich uranium under international safeguards—and removal of sanctions. For years, the Bush and Obama administrations rejected this approach. Now Obama must at least consider it.
The Iranian package provides greater transparency on Tehran’s nuclear activities in two crucial respects. First, it gives greater visibility on the conduct of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has reportedly offered to comply voluntarily for some months with the Additional Protocol (AP) to the NPT—which it has signed but not yet ratified and which authorizes more proactive and intrusive inspections—to encourage diplomatic progress. Tehran would ratify the AP—thereby committing to its permanent implementation—as part of a final deal.
Second, the package aims to validate Iran’s declarations that its enrichment infrastructure is not meant to produce weapons-grade fissile material. Iran would stop enriching at the near-20 percent level of fissile-isotope purity needed to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor and cap enrichment at levels suitable for fueling power reactors. Similarly, Iran is open to capping the number of centrifuges it would install—at least for some years—at its enrichment sites in Natanz and Fordo.
Based on conversations with Iranian officials and political figures in New York in September (during Rohani and Zarif’s visit to the UN General Assembly) and in Tehran last month, it is also possible to identify items that the Iranian proposal almost certainly does not include. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei has reportedly given President Rohani and his diplomats flexibility in negotiating a settlement—but he has also directed that they not compromise Iran’s sovereignty. Thus, the Islamic Republic will not acquiesce to American (and Israeli) demands to suspend enrichment, shut its enrichment site at Fordo, stop a heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak, and ship its current enriched uranium stockpile abroad.
On one level, the Iranian package is crafted to resolve the nuclear issue based on the NPT, within a year. Iran’s nuclear rights would be respected; transparency measures would reduce the proliferation risks of its enrichment activities below what Washington tolerates elsewhere. On another level, though, the package means to test America’s willingness and capability to resolve the issue on this basis. It tests this not just for Tehran’s edification, but also for that of other P5+1 states, especially China and Russia, and of rising powers like India and South Korea.
America can fail the Iranian test in two ways. First, the Obama administration—reflecting America’s political class more broadly—may prove unwilling to acknowledge Iran’s nuclear rights in a straightforward way, insisting on terms for a deal that effectively suborn these rights and violate Iranian sovereignty.