Features | Security | Central Asia

Last Chance Saloon with Iran?

Iran still has it within its power to avoid military action. But it must show tangible signs that it’s changing positions.

Former top Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian’s article in the Boston Globe last month Real Solutions To Nuclear Deadlock With Iran” – presents an opportunity to begin a more focused debate over the question of what can be achieved at this stage in negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran regarding its nuclear ambitions. The situation is currently close to boiling point, and the upcoming talks – planned to take place at the end of this week in Istanbul – could be the last chance to defuse a critical situation.

In essence, what Mousavian suggests is a phased approach to the resolution of the conflict, where in each phase, concessions are made by both the Iranians and their counterparts with an eye on achieving the bottom line that would ultimately be acceptable to each. This approach seems reasonable, both in stressing the need to define acceptable bottom lines and because unfortunately, at this late stage, there’s little reason to expect an immediate reversal on the part of Iran. Cautious, incremental steps are therefore probably the best way to go. However, these steps must embody concrete achievements very early on, or a crisis could erupt.

The current dynamic between Iran and the international community has a long history, and the upcoming round of negotiations can’t be divorced from the experience of almost ten years of diplomatic efforts to get Iran to back away from its military nuclear ambitions. In every previous round, Iran has used a diplomatic setting to play for time, rather than to negotiate in earnest, and the haggling over the venue could be an indication this trend is likely to continue. Although Mousavian says that “since 2003 Iran has been looking for a viable and durable solution to the diplomatic standoff,” there’s little evidence to support such a conclusion.

Against this backdrop, a central question is what accounts for the fact that this time, there’s a greater sense of potential than in the past?

There can be little doubt that the demonstrated seriousness of the international community – the United States and EU in particular – with regard to sanctions is a major factor behind the change. Assessments are that the Iranians are feeling the heat of biting sanctions, and something has perhaps changed in terms of their willingness to seek a negotiated outcome. The increased threats of military consequences are another important component of the recent pressure on Iran. This pressure isn’t a separate track from diplomacy – it’s the necessary first stage of a potentially more effective negotiation. Without serious and ongoing pressure, Iran’s rational choice would be to proceed unilaterally to its goal of a military capability.

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Herein lies the major problem with Mousavian’s phased approach, which hinges not only on the reduction of sanctions, but doing so in reverse order of harshness. In other words, he suggests suspending the most crippling sanctions in the first stage, and then proceeding step-by-step to the least problematic sanctions from Iran’s point of view, namely, the U.N.-based sanctions. Iran’s interest in immediately getting the harshest sanctions suspended is obvious, but because of the central role of sanctions in getting Iran to be more serious, and the difficulty involved in getting them in place, it would be a poor negotiating strategy for the P5+1 to release this pressure before they have a firm indication that Iran has altered its approach and concrete progress has been made. This is the international community’s strongest card in a difficult and unbalanced bargaining situation. The ten year experience of not negotiating in good faith means that Iran must prove that it’s serious about reaching a deal that in essence will mean giving up on its goal of achieving a military capability in the nuclear realm.

Considering Mousavian’s approach, we agree with the imperative of both sides defining the bottom lines that they could live with. But if his overall four-phase plan were to be adopted, this would eventually leave Iran with the potential to produce nuclear weapons in short order, should its leadership decide to do so. Therefore, every step must reduce the probability of Iran being able to produce nuclear weapons while giving Iran something tangible in return. Rather than the immediate suspension of the most severe sanctions, what can be considered as far as P5+1 concessions include steps to release pressure with regard to civil aviation, allowing sales of equipment that is solely civilian, as well as creating opportunities for expanding the scope of discussion with Iran on regional issues in order to give it a greater stake in the negotiations.

Moreover, while the logic of a phased approach dictates reciprocal concessions, the situation is certainly not equal or symmetrical – Iran created the crisis with its NPT-violating behavior, and it has more work to do as far as defusing it is concerned. The critical issues that must be dealt with from the perspective of the international community include the installation of centrifuges and the operation of the Fordow underground enrichment facility; the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent; the installation of advanced centrifuges with a higher rate of enrichment; the construction of a heavy-water-natural uranium reactor, capable of producing plutonium; the military-related R&D work on the development of a nuclear explosive mechanism at secret facilities; and the development of  a nuclear-capable missile warhead. The issue as to whether to leave Iran with an enrichment capability and the ability to produce plutonium has to be resolved, but this doesn’t have to be done in the first phase. At the more general level, Iran’s expressed animosity towards the West must be reduced, and the rejectionist rhetoric and threats of action against Israel in particular must disappear.

What are the criteria for evaluating the success of the current round of negotiations?

After so many past disappointments, what will provide a clear indication that this time the Iranians mean it?

Iran has to show some tangible evidence as to its changed approach, such as halting 20 percent enrichment as Mousavian suggests. Probably more than that will be needed in the first stage, including shipping out the stock of uranium already enriched to 20 percent, and closing the Fordow facility. However, expectations that the most crippling sanctions be removed in the first stage can’t be accepted. The critical role of sanctions has been demonstrated; altering that will bring the international community back to square one.

The general attitude of Iran to its neighbors and to the region could strongly impact the ultimate fate of the negotiations. Should the Iranians decide to normalize regional relations, let go of expressed antagonisms and become again an acceptable member of the international community, this would help in resolving the issues to everyone’s satisfaction. On the other hand, these negotiations are seen by many as not only a test of the intentions of the Iranians, but perhaps the last chance to avert a crisis, the end result of which cannot be predicted. 

Emily B. Landau is director of the Arms Control and Regional Security program at the Institute for National Security Studies and author of 'Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation.' Dr. Ephraim Asculai is a Senior Research Fellow at INSS, having joined it following more than 40 years of service at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.