international analysis and commentary

The promise and the peril of the continuing nuclear talks with Iran

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So after twelve years, including the last nine months of increasingly intense talks, the Iranian nuclear crisis is at last reaching its climax. Given all the time that has passed, all the deadlines that have been conveniently ignored, it is easy to forget that in the end this crisis – like all other crises – will have a definitive binary outcome: either a deal will be struck or one will not. But in this case, the geopolitical consequences, whatever the outcome, will be huge.

For the present, both the Iranians and the P5+1 (the US, China, Russia, the UK, France, and Germany) have agreed to continue disagreeing about two major stumbling blocks: the scale (in terms of the number of centrifuges) of the future Iranian nuclear program and the speed with which after an accord sanctions on the Islamic Republic would be lifted. While neither side is yet prepared to walk away from the negotiating table, nor does it seem there are simple compromises to these devilishly complicated questions.

For the substantive problems standing in the way of a comprehensive deal are far from trivial. First, Iran (as was clearly stated by Grand Ayatollah Khamenei in July 2014) wants the ability to develop a large, civilian nuclear capacity over time. The Grand Ayatollah reckons this will require more than 200,000 of the current IR-1 centrifuges; the West’s counter-offer at present is that Iran will be allowed to possess a mere 2,000. So the negotiators, over this absolutely central point, are off by a factor of 100. This is a canyon-sized difference.

Second, the West wants any final agreement to stretch on for a generation, lasting for up to 20 years, with sanctions being repealed in bite-sized, incremental, stages. Contrarily, Tehran expects that the majority of sanctions to be suspended – in the case of the US by Executive Order as the new Republican-controlled Congress is highly unlikely to go along – almost at once and for the whole process to be wound up in a short five years. While the numbers here are not quite as daunting as over the centrifuges, the two negotiating positions remain far apart.

But before we throw up our hands in dismay, there is hope here. At the broadest strategic level, the simple fact remains that for the first time since the 1979 Revolution, both the United States and Iran wish to improve their fraught relationship at the same time. And both sides have powerful practical incentives to do so.

For Iran, due to surprisingly effective Western sanctions, the country’s oil exports have shrunk to half their former level. According to the American government, the Iranian economy is fully a quarter smaller than its pre-2012 growth trajectory, before the worst of the sanctions had been imposed. The strictures have blocked investment capital from flowing into the country, which is Iran’s biggest economic problem. For example, since 2006 investment in industry has decreased by 10-15% per year on average. A deal with Washington would open the door to Iran gaining access to a large percentage of its frozen global assets, of regaining the ability to trade freely in the world again, and to aggressively court foreign direct investment, a glittering economic prize.

But America too has reasons to desire a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic. The barbarous Islamic State (IS) will never be brought to heel without Iranian help; nor will Iraq itself be stabilized. There will never be an end to the ghastly Syrian civil war unless Tehran can convince its Assad client state to come to the table. With America on its way out of Kabul, Iran could play an important role in helping the US stabilize Afghanistan, and fend off the Taliban – an enemy to both countries. These diplomatic treasures were certainly what President Obama was alluding to when he recently sent a letter to the Grand Ayatollah in October 2014, suggesting that deeper collaboration could almost immediately begin should the nuclear talks bear fruit.

So on the one side of the ledger there stands the seminal facts that both sides want a deal, and both sides stand to gain immensely from such a deal. On the other side of the equation, both the US and Iran have very strong vested interests – centered respectively around conservative religious clerics and the Iranian Republican Guards (IRG) and irreconcilable hawks in the American Congress – who will not favor a deal under any circumstances that might be palatable to the other.

For example, Senator Bob Corker, the incoming Republican Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, stated in June 2014 that he would personally back new economic sanctions on Iran should a deal not be reached. Given these bellicose forces on both sides, and given the likely recriminations and dashed hopes that would certainly follow the break-up of negotiations, failure to solve the Iranian nuclear issue would immediately lead to a full-blown geopolitical crisis, with war a quite possible outcome. The stakes simply could not be higher.

And after a forest of false deadlines, the real sort is at last in plain view. This week both sides readily agreed to keep the talks going until March 1, when a political framework deal ought to be in place. Further to this, technical problems can then be worked on until June 30, when the whole process must be brought to an end.

But it’s the March timetable that heralds the real end game. For following the past few days’ failure to nail down an accord, the sharks are circling. Conservatives and clerical rejectionists in Tehran have been cheered by diplomacy’s failure, as has Israel and the Gulf State Monarchies (traditional foes of Iran), and most importantly hardliners in the American Congress. It is this last group that is crucial, for the new Congress (which convenes in January 2015) probably has a veto-proof majority inclined to impose new sanctions on Iran should a deal not be imminent. Tehran has made it clear that any new American sanctions would end the talks. As such, the White House probably has one more chance to make a deal work, ahead of a hawkish Congress wresting the diplomatic imperative away from the weakened President.

So how do both sides get to a deal? In this case, let’s start at the end state: What would an acceptable accord for both sides look like in the broadest possible terms? From Washington’s perspective (beyond centrifuge counting) the aim of the whole exercise is to push Iran’s nuclear program back, ensuring Tehran would need around 12 months to actually build a bomb, giving the administration plenty of advance warning. For Iran’s part, 20 years is much too long to wait to be rewarded for reaching a nuclear accord; however, more than halving the number of years (to say around eight) and having its economic freedom rather swiftly restored is what the Islamic Republic, bottom line, needs to have happen.

To meet America’s bottom line, the two sides are indeed talking about limiting Iran’s enrichment of uranium to the lower-grade 5% for the next 10 years or so, while also seeing to it that the plutonium program at Arak is put to irreversibly civilian use. All of this would have to be monitored closely by international inspectors. In exchange, Iran would receive steady and building (though reversible) economic relief from sanctions, over several years, if not several decades.

As such, a preliminary deal could be announced by the March deadline – enough to keep the wolves at bay. In other words, a deal can be done, but just. It will require creativity and bravery in equal measure to get there. But this much is for certain: this will either amount to the Obama administration’s finest diplomatic hour, or to one of its worst.