For the first time in several years, some sparks of hope flew in negotiations between the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – and Iran over its nuclear program. Whether these sparks are quickly extinguished or grow into a self-sustaining flame of ongoing cooperation depends delicately on decisions the world powers make in the coming weeks.
Another round of formal negotiations are scheduled for April. To build trust, a small – but important – deal that addresses just the very top concerns of both sides should be attempted first. Less important factors should be shelved for later discussions.
In the eyes of the West, the most pressing issue about Iran’s nuclear program is the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent. Building up this stockpile goes a long way toward having the fuel needed for a nuclear bomb, should Tehran decide to kick off a weaponization effort in the future. This is not to say that this is what Iran is intending to do. And, of course, there are many additional steps needed to make a viable, deliverable nuclear device. But gathering the required fuel is one of the big hurdles in gaining a latent nuclear weapons capability.
Every missed opportunity in striking a deal with Iran allows it to continue enriching more 20 percent uranium. The P5+1 should not miss another opportunity to curb Iran’s 20 percent enrichment.
If the P5+1 are really as worried as they claim to be, these nations should do what it takes to get Iran to agree to curb its enrichment. And if it means putting serious sanctions relief on the table – as the Iranians have been asking for – then so be it.
Oddly, despite statements proclaiming the threat from a possible future Iranian nuclear weapons capability, it appears that Washington is not very worried about Iran's 20 percent uranium stockpile. The New York Times recently reported that “Mr. Obama’s aides seem content with stalemate.” If the alleged threat from Iran’s nuclear program is so urgent that the US – or Israel – would even consider military action, stalemate in negotiations should be unacceptable.
There is no evidence to indicate that Iran is currently developing nuclear weapons. In fact, the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, testified in March 2011 that he has a high level of confidence that Iran has not even made such a decision. And just yesterday, Hans Blix, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said, “So far Iran has not violated NPT [the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and there is no evidence right now that suggests that Iran is producing nuclear weapons.” Yet there is no reason not to strike a deal with Iran on suspending its 20 percent uranium enrichment, especially since leaders have expressed openness to such deals in the past.
Instead, the world powers are making extraneous demands that may derail the negotiations over the core concern of Iran's ongoing 20 percent enrichment. For instance, in the latest talks, the P5+1 asked that Iran export its stockpile of 20 percent uranium and also shutter its protected underground enrichment facility at Fordow. This was built specifically to withstand aerial assault – probably a lesson learned from Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's civilian reactor at Osirak. It is highly unlikely Tehran will agree to shutter it unless all threats of force are removed.
Some P5+1 nations are also insisting that Iran ratify the voluntary “Additional Protocol,” which allows the IAEA to carry out more intrusive inspections. But since such inspections may give the IAEA access to scientists and to non-nuclear military sites such as the Parchin military base, Iran may be hesitant to agree to this, lest sensitive military information be leaked to adversarial states. The recent spate of assassinations and cyberattacks against Iran have probably hardened it against agreeing to the Additional Protocol without some reciprocal removal of threats of force.
Having successfully hobbled Iran’s economy, the world powers appear to believe that they are negotiating from a position of power. But this attitude could be dangerously delusional and may backfire. It is the Iranians that are accumulating the potential bomb fuel. They, too, may be thinking that they are negotiating from a position of power.
Ongoing stalemate is not in the P5+1's favor, however. As time goes by, the world powers' negotiating position will worsen. Iran will keep collecting more and more 20 percent enriched uranium. And as Washington's allies get weary of having to keep restricting trade with Iran, it may become more difficult to present a united face in enforcing the sanctions regime. An EU court has recently struck down – for the second time – the legality of some of Europe’s sanctions on an Iranian bank.
So what can the P5+1 powers offer Tehran in exchange for the suspension of its 20 percent enrichment work? The International Crisis Group has recently compiled a list of sanctions and analyzed which ones have the highest economic impact. The suspension of some subset of these high-impact sanctions would be a good quid-pro-quo for Iran suspending its 20 percent enrichment work.
Alternatively, or in addition, some of the EU banking and oil sanctions could also be suspended. As the P5+1 includes the UN Security Council nations, these negotiators could also propose the removal of some of the more painful UN sanctions.
The point is to use the sanctions for their purpose: to bring about a change in Iran's nuclear calculus, not to endlessly punish the Iranian people. In fact, it is possible that one of Iran's goals in continuing to enrich to 20 percent is its usefulness as a bargaining chip to exchange for sanctions relief. Tehran’s leaders may see enriching to this level as the only remaining leverage they have to get the sanctions removed.
What are perceived in the West as being provocative steps toward nuclear weapons capability may just be a negotiating strategy to get the draconian sanctions removed.
And if, for some reason, a deal between the P5+1 and Iran is still not forthcoming in April, there is yet another tactic to try: The IAEA could independently offer Iran technical assistance in converting its gaseous enriched-uranium stockpile to metallic fuel plates for future use in its research reactor. It is known that Iran is having trouble with this process.
This conversion essentially freezes the enrichment level and subtracts from the “enrichable” gaseous stockpile used in centrifuges. Whatever amount is converted to metal-oxide form is not easily available for further enrichment to weapons-grade uranium, even if Iran decided to launch a weaponization effort in the future. Reconversion back to gaseous form is difficult and time-consuming and a major roadblock if a country intends to “race to the bomb.”
And if the IAEA is hesitant to teach Iranian scientists the relevant uranium metallurgy for converting their fuel, another possibility would be to have a fuel-plate fabrication facility in Iran staffed by the IAEA. Though this may be somewhat expensive, it would be far cheaper than any war. To make certain Iran is not going to “breakout,” the IAEA could also propose to station permanent on-site inspectors at Iran's nuclear facilities.
Fundamentally, the ball is now in the world powers' court: Some serious sanctions relief could bring about the suspension of Iran's 20 percent enrichment work. The P5+1 nations should seize this opportunity. Why not achieve the P5+1 goals peacefully and inexpensively by lifting some sanctions soon, instead of trying – and likely failing to – do so at greater cost in a later war?
Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, is professor and scientist-in-residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The views expressed are his own.