The West’s position in nuclear negotiations with Iran undervalues the importance of the nuclear program to the Islamic Republic. Reports last week of the kind of sanctions relief the P5+1 would be prepared to offer Iran in exchange for curbing its nuclear program indicate that the West views the issue as one of peripheral importance for Iran.
On Tuesday, the P5+1 met with Iran in Almaty to start yet another round of talks. Media reports suggested the West may propose to Iran a deal in which the West would suspend sanctions on gold and precious metals in exchange for Iran suspending enrichment activities at its underground Fordow facility.
If this is true (and this kind of valuation of Iran’s nuclear interests is consistent with the P5+1’s approach so far), it isn’t a great offer. Fordow houses Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium to 20%, and as a matter of conventional wisdom it is the only known nuclear facility buried deep enough to likely be immune to Israeli bombardment. It is also worth remembering that it was developed by Iran while under sanctions, and has become a symbol of national resistance and pride.
The closure of Fordow would mean that any further development which could lead to a weapon would either have a longer lead time (while Fordow was reactivated, or other facilities were configured for a higher level enrichment), and be vulnerable to air attack by Israel or others. But perhaps more importantly than that, it would be Iran giving up its much-vaunted policy of freely pursuing its nuclear ambitions.
The combination of practical and symbolic implications means that this is a big deal for Iran. As such, the global powers are in essence proposing that in exchange for Iran making a large concession on its nuclear program, they will suspend a comparatively unimportant part of the broader sanctions regime. That sort of price – because let’s be clear, this is a transaction and not straightforward coercion – looks more appropriate for a peripheral interest, not a core one.
Iran itself has a habit of making unrealistic opening offers in negotiations, more to calibrate the subsequent discussion than out of any genuine expectation that the offer will be accepted. Although it would do no harm for the West to pay more attention to this element of Iran’s negotiating style, there is no evidence to indicate that the P5+1 have themselves adopted this posture. The more likely scenario is that this offer, if the leak is genuine, is simply confirmation that the P5+1 under appreciates how important these issues are to Iran.
There are two things going on here. One is a misunderstanding of whether the P5+1 is the client (the party with something the vendor wants, i.e. capital) or the vendor (the party who wants something the client has), and the other is a failure to gauge the value Iran places on the Fordow enrichment plant.
The Falklands War is a good example of what happens when you undervalue your adversary’s interests. Against a background of colonial withdrawal globally, and British naval withdrawal from the South Atlantic, Argentina calculated that the British did not value maintaining control of the islands enough to pay the costs of retaining them. They also underestimated the capacity of Britain to defend its control.
After seizing the islands, however, Argentina found itself facing a Britain resolved and capable of using force to return the islands to British control. It was a failure to accurately gauge the value of the Falklands in the minds of Britain’s leaders.
The negotiating position of the P5+1 in relation to Iran’s nuclear program underestimates the value of the program to Tehran in a similar way; in the minds of the rulers of the Islamic Republic, the nuclear program is a core interest. The West is underestimating the pain that Tehran is prepared to undergo in order to keep all its options on the table.
Britain’s combination of military superiority and a willingness to accept the costs of military action casted it in the role of client, not vendor, in the case of the Falklands. That is, Britain had the power to assert or relinquish sovereignty over the islands, and the Argentines wanted them to give it up. By underestimating the UK’s resolve and capacity, Argentina mistakenly cast itself in the role of client.
Something similar is going on in the nuclear negotiations. The West’s calculation is that, structurally, the power lies with them – that is, Iran is the vendor because it wants relief from sanctions and is willing to sell others things it values in order to obtain this relief. ButTehran is the client; it is developing a nuclear program, and the West would like it to stop.
Sanctions are of course an effort to reverse this dynamic. And if the West were appropriately gauging the value of the nuclear program to Iran, perhaps they would have more luck bringing those efforts to bear. But as things stand, if a negotiated solution is not found, then (with or without air strikes on Iran’s facilities) Iran will eventually be in a position to build a nuclear weapon. It seems to be prepared to weather the effect of sanctions to keep that option open. The P5+1 must realize it’s the vender if it hopes to change Iran’s nuclear calculus.
Dina Esfandiary is a Research Associate in the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Harry White is strategic analyst based in Canberra, Australia.