Interest is growing in a possible US-Iran nuclear compromise that could enable sensitive atomic work on Iranian soil, lower the risks of proliferation, and ease Iran's isolation.
Despite a series of UN sanctions designed to halt Iran's ability to enrich uranium, Iran has continued to make progress. And a growing number of Western and Iranian officials and analysts, arguing that turning back the clock is impossible, are pushing for a new framework to ensure that Iran's nuclear work is aimed at peaceful, not military, applications.
On the agenda is a proposal to turn Iran's uranium-enrichment program into a multilateral consortium on Iranian soil, bringing Western eyes and expertise directly into the project in a bid to minimize potential weapons danger. In exchange, the West would end Iran's pariah status.
"Now we are in the point of realizing our right to enrich uranium in our land in Iran, by our own people," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the Monitor during a conference on nuclear issues in Tehran. "If any proposal is there for joining to this activity, we can consider that."
US policy has focused on convincing or forcing Iran to give up uranium enrichment – a process that Iran says it wants to create nuclear fuel for power plants, but which can be used for nuclear weapons if taken to higher levels. But sanctions have not curbed Iran's program, spurring Iran instead to refuse to step back "one iota" from peaceful nuclear technology.
The proposal for a multilateral effort was first made by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 2-½ years ago while speaking at the UN. But Iran's technical prowess has grown since then from toying with a handful of centrifuges, which are crucial to the process, to a working chain of 3,000, with fresh progress on a more advanced unit, something that may make Iran less interested in cooperation.
"We told them [in 2005] if your problem is confidence-building … come and directly cooperate in our nuclear activities, [but the West] didn't welcome it," Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator said at the conference. The cabinet had ratified operational guidelines for "any country" to take part, he said. "Our nation however did not wait for anybody, you saw that they didn't come and we started [our work]."
Analysts say a confluence of recent events may be improving the chances of compromise. The US strategy of isolating Iran does not appear to be hurting Iran's nuclear efforts. And Iran might see that more scrutiny is a price worth paying to reassure the West that it does not want a bomb.
"The zero-enrichment option is almost certainly gone, so we need to figure out what the next best thing is," says Michael Levi, a nuclear physicist and nonproliferation expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's far from clear we could get any deal under the current circumstances."
Three decades of hostility between the US and Iran have tangled politics and deep mistrust with technical issues about Iran's rights and obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). A US-European package of incentives requires total suspension of enrichment as a pre-condition to even begin negotiation – a stance many argue is untenable.
"Right now, Iran is holding the cards," says Mr. Levi, author of the recently published On Nuclear Terrorism. "The odds of us getting zero enrichment without a military strike are low…. If we can't muster much additional pressure, I don't see any solution that does not involve limited enrichment. And if we are going to accept [that], we want to put as many constraints on it as we can."
Experts say that to be effective, any joint program would depend on – among other restrictions – Iran accepting the additional protocol of the NPT, which enables intrusive, short-notice inspections.
Iran was praised in the February report by the UN's nuclear watchdog agency for taking such open steps to resolve several outstanding issues, but says it will not accept the protocol wholesale until its case is removed from the Security Council agenda.
"Now Iran knows the technique and technologies. Iran has the base, and when a country has a base you can't change everything – you must deal with it," says Sadegh Kharazi, Iran's former ambassador to Paris.
"Now the leadership of Iran is ready to make a decision – a comprehensive decision," he says, adding that Iran demonstrated seriousness by resolving six longstanding issues identified with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last year. Another window may have opened since the recent US National Intelligence Estimate found that Iran had halted a nuclear weapons program in 2003.
"Why aren't the Americans ready to deal with Iran? Why every time is their policy to demolish Iran, to embargo and sanction Iran?" asks Kharazi. "This policy is dead. Now is the time of negotiation, of dealing and dialogue."
That is the conclusion of a proposal published in late February in The New York Review of Books, in which three US diplomats and policymakers – among them, former undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering – argue that multilateral enrichment on Iranian soil "provides better protection against proliferation than the status quo" because the "enhanced transparency … and the constant presence in Iran of foreign monitors" would make secret diversion more difficult.
Washington's insistence on zero enrichment on Iranian soil "grows less credible with every newly constructed Iranian centrifuge," the authors write. A face- saving mechanism for both sides could be joint enrichment, they say, because the US could reduce proliferation risk and "avoid the prospect of Iran successfully defying US-led sanctions and building a bomb." Iran "avoids becoming an international pariah and does not have to wave the flag of surrender to do so."
The article's call for direct talks and exploring a compromise was supported by letters from Senators Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, who said the US "cannot afford any longer to refuse to consider the strategic choice of direct talks with Iran."
But David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, says it is too soon to "give up and find a face-saving way" when further isolation might work.
"Right now it's a question of who is going to win," says Mr. Albright, who closely tracks Iran's program. "Is the West and its allies in the Security Council going to be able to ratchet up enough pressure? Or is Iran going to be able to undercut them and create a new grouping that it deals with?"
One cause of concern, he says, is Iran's handling of what the IAEA calls the "alleged studies" – intelligence provided to the agency by the US, much of it from a stolen laptop that held missile and explosive test designs. Iran has dismissed the data as fabricated and will not address them.
"Iran never gives the West – never gives anybody –the opportunity to believe that nothing is going on, that they have turned the corner," says Albright. Reaction to the studies is "increasing suspicion that in a couple of years, they will decide to build a nuclear weapon, once they are comfortable operating several thousand centrifuges."
Carah Ong, the Iran analyst for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, speaking in Tehran, says that continued efforts to isolate Iran are "pointless" because they cement Iran's stance. "We're at a point where the positions [of the US and Iran] are so hardened that it's going to be difficult to break that impasse," she says. "The more openness you have, the more difficult it becomes for nefarious activities to occur."
Iran's nuclear program has become part of the identity of the Islamic regime, analysts here say. Indeed, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader, suggested last month that the nuclear program has divine protection: "The Iranian people openly announce that they will defend their rights [to nuclear technology]. God will reprimand them if they do not do so."
Few issues are more sensitive in Iran, with newspaper editors ordered by the National Security Council not to report any negative news about the program, such as the impact of sanctions.
"The Iranian mind-set is always to project excessive toughness, because they are dealing with a superpower," says a political scientist in Tehran who asked not to be named. "They may say: 'Let's sit down and talk about global management of Iran's enrichment program,' and then go for a year-long delaying tactic."
But others argue that Iran is ready to talk. "Any amicable settlement that would show Iran as victorious would be accepted," says an Iranian political analyst who also asked not to be named. "They have nothing to lose at this point [by accepting a consortium]. It's not impossible to bring Iran to its knees, but it's almost too late."