Argument

The Nuclear Bazaar

Stopping Iran from getting the bomb may require embracing a Middle East tradition: haggling over the price.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Next week’s nuclear talks with Iran, when top diplomats from the world’s biggest powers are slated to sit down with Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili, will take place in the shadow of WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of sensitive U.S. documents. It is now spectacularly public knowledge that when it comes to the Islamic Republic, the Arabs can sound more warlike than even the Israelis. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is quoted saying in a confidential U.S. diplomatic cable that the United States should attack Iran in order to "cut off the head of the snake." Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan meanwhile sounded the alarm by saying Iran is looking to "reestablish a Persian empire in the 21st century." (He was, needless to say, pessimistic about the possibility of cutting a nuclear deal with Iran.) While other Arab leaders, including some Saudis, are quoted urging talks, Arab and Western leaders seem to agree at a minimum that the Iranians are not to be trusted and must be heavily pressured.

All this only reinforces the reigning pessimism about next week’s "P5+1" talks in Geneva, the first time Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States have sat down with Iran in over a year. The Islamic Republic says it is always open to talks but does not want its nuclear program questioned. The United States insists, however, on discussing precisely this issue. Meanwhile, some 4,000 centrifuges are chugging away at Iran’s Natanz site, enriching uranium that could be refined further into material for bombs.

Conventional wisdom holds that the talks are doomed, with Iran stalling for time and the United States still unwilling to make concessions. But the two sides have tools to negotiate, even if it is not clear whether they will unlock them. There has been plenty of bluster in the past, and the present might be no different. Still, U.S. and Iranian officials seem in recent comments to be outlining a willingness, or at least tentative steps, toward compromise over the stickiest issue of the nuclear dispute: Iran’s enriching uranium that could eventually be used to make atomic bombs.

It is difficult to gauge Iran’s intentions. Perhaps international sanctions against Iran are having an effect and/or the Iranians realize their technical progress is less than they had hoped. Perhaps Iran is thinking about getting the most it can by capitalizing on its technical accomplishments for political and strategic gains. Perhaps this is just spin and manipulation. One European diplomat who is a front-seat veteran of this crisis told me: "Under no circumstances should you believe that Iran is floating a possible deal."

OK. But Barack Obama’s administration has not given up, and it is working at finding a way to extend olive branches, despite its own cynicism about finding a solution and even while burnishing the arrows of sanctions. For instance, Washington’s trump card may be a concession of epic proportions to Iran. The Obama administration has offered, at least in a preliminary deal, to accept that Iran enriches uranium. This is a tactical maneuver, backing off on the United States’ long standing requirement that Iran not have one centrifuge turning to make the enriched uranium used to power civilian reactors but also atomic bombs. U.S. officials protest that their position has not changed, that this is merely a confidence-building step and a way in fact to get Iran to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium. They say they will still insist that Iran honor U.N. Security Council resolutions and suspend uranium enrichment if negotiations are to begin. Their claims, however, ring hollow because Iran has built its diplomacy on having its right to enrich formally acknowledged. Any deal, even a preliminary, confidence-building one that includes Iran enriching, is a step in this direction. It is foolish to think the Iranians will let go of such an advantage once they gain it.

The Obama administration is said to be readying a new proposal involving enrichment. The six powers negotiating with Iran are trying to save a fuel-exchange deal first floated in October 2009. The idea is to get Iran to ship out enough of the enriched uranium it has produced to leave it with not enough to make nuclear weapons. The October 2009 deal was to ship out 1,200 kilograms to be processed into fuel for a research reactor in Tehran that makes medical isotopes. Iran had some 1,600 kilograms at that point, which is about what it would need for an inefficient first try at a bomb.

Iran now has more than 3,000 kilograms, and the P5+1’s goal is to leave it with only 500 to 600 kilograms, just below the amount needed to make a bomb the more efficient way, a diplomat told me. To pull off this trick, the six powers now have to find a rationale for Iran to ship out more than the original 1,200 kilograms. The United States wanted to have Iran ship out low-enriched uranium which Russia would use to make fuel for the Bushehr power reactor just now coming online in Iran. But France rejected this idea, according to my sources, saying this would be giving Iran too much, namely tacit approval of its uranium enrichment.

U.S. policy is suppler than it appears. The goal is to avoid having to choose between accepting Iran with a bomb or bombing Iran. U.S. officials know that confidence can only be built in stages, but also that the Iranians will have to have a settlement they can sell to their own public. And U.S. officials point out privately that U.N. Security Council resolutions say Iran must suspend enrichment but do not say how long this halt must be. There is wiggle room on enrichment. It is the face-saving exit that Iran may need. George W. Bush’s administration was also heading toward such a compromise, despite insisting publicly that the United States would not allow even one enriching centrifuge to turn.

A confidential November 2009 State Department cable obtained and released by WikiLeaks shows the sort of talking points that were distributed to U.S. embassies worldwide. It says that the United States, France, and Russia "took great risks in supporting the [Tehran research reactor] deal, especially in light of Iran’s continuing violation of successive UNSC [U.N. Security Council] resolutions and IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] requirements, including … its continuing enrichment operations." The Tehran research-reactor deal shows daylight in the U.S. stand against not allowing Iran any enrichment at all.

So is Iran the intractable one? Presidential advisor Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi told the Washington Post in November that Iran wants the United States to respect "the rights of the Iranian nation" (a clear reference to uranium enrichment), to show it doesn’t support "the Zionist regime being armed with nuclear weapons," and to "commit to nuclear disarmament." This is the hard-line Iranian position, which Hashemi topped off by scoffing at the impact of sanctions.

But of course, as always with Iran, there are other voices hinting at a more conciliatory approach. Iranians have a mirror image of U.S. complaints about why negotiations fail. They say the Americans don’t really want to talk. A senior official close to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told me in New York in September that the Iranians viewed U.S. rejection of the fuel-swap deal brokered in May by Turkey and Brazil as a sign that Washington is not serious about taking such a step. The U.S. conditions laid out in October 2009 had been that Iran would ship its enriched uranium out of the country, that 1,200 kilograms should go, and that Iran should wait to receive the fuel. Iran was willing to do all these things in the deal with Turkey and Brazil, the official said. He then noted that the United States had refused even to take this as a starting point for hammering out an amended fuel deal. U.S. officials believed Iran was aiming to divide the international coalition against it by negotiating with Turkey and Brazil, instead of the coalition of six world powers trying to talk with Tehran. But the official pooh-poohed this complaint and said: "We were expected to be flexible, and we have already shown our flexibility, for example in the Tehran declaration.… So the feeling is very strong in Iran that they [the United States] set these preconditions to prevent the continuation of the whole process. So this indicated that they only lied, that they just wanted to start a series of propaganda campaigns."

Another official, Mohammad-Javad Larijani, head of Iran’s human rights council and an insider in the regime (his brother Ali is parliament speaker), outlined in a recent breakfast meeting in New York with journalists why he is "optimistic" about the future of talks. He said Iran was proud that it will soon be generating electricity from its Bushehr nuclear-power plant, but that pride is not enough. "Pride is good, but how long can we live with the pride? So suppose we can buy the fuel cheaper and more easily from Canada, from France, [the] United States, China, everywhere.… The more we can get it easily, the less we have of incentive to enrich ourselves." ("In place of producing fuel," he continued, "we can indulge in research in this area.")

This is, of course, exactly what the United States has been urging Iran to do: give up enrichment and take advantage of the cheaper alternative of the international market in nuclear fuel. The compromise here would be letting Iran keep a research level of enrichment but not much fissile material in its own control.

The senior official told me that Ahmadinejad believed when taking office in 2005 that the United States wanted Iran to have no enrichment. "Whatever they wanted, it only bore one meaning: a return to zero [enrichment]. Now the situation is different. We have changed course and we have started a process. So it is unreasonable for [the P5+1] to ask for a return to the time before that.… Iran’s rights for uranium enrichment must be recognized. They must trust us."

In Tehran’s version of confidence-building, Iran would gradually curtail its enrichment activities, replacing its production by purchasing enriched uranium abroad. U.S. negotiators aren’t too impressed. They see "gradually" as a way for Iran to stall while developing increased knowledge and capability in enriching uranium to the level required to make a bomb. In their eyes, Iran must not only abandon its plans to stockpile enriched uranium, but also, if it does enrich, operate under strict, intrusive monitoring. And there would need to be immediate consequences of one form or another if the Islamic Republic were caught trying to make the highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons.

You can’t start with the solution, Iranian officials counter. You’ve got to think of yourself in a sort of diplomatic bazaar. As the senior official told me: "They [the Americans] should come talk. If you go to a shop and you want to buy something, you ask the price and the seller looks at you. He wants first to find out if you are a real purchaser, and then he says, ‘OK, let’s talk.’" But if the Americans only say, "Come and sign an agreement," the official said, this is a sign that "they are playing games" and are not serious about negotiating.

So maybe it is time for some serious haggling, for both sides to see whether they are ready to deal. As Larijani said: "Yes, start bargaining sooner, rather than going through preambles which take a lot of time." Of course, the Iranians could help their case if they would just sit down next week and do exactly that themselves.

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