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After Failure in the Iran Nuclear Talks, What?

After Failure in the Iran Nuclear Talks, What?

Think ahead about what can be gained while failing. It’s a process of contingency planning that was practiced by some on the National Security Council staffs in the Reagan-Bush and Bush-Cheney White Houses, though it was also a staple of Cold War-era strategic thinking. An article in the Kennedy-Johnson era, "After Detection — What?," became a model for policy planners at State and Defense for realistic steps if inspections indicated cheating — failure of arms control compliance — by Moscow on its nonproliferation commitments. And as the United States and its allies work to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, it’s a practice that deserves some thought.

Assume failure to reach agreement in the six-party talks over Iran’s nuclear program by the target date of July 20, 2014. Russian retaliation in the talks because of Western sanctions and inability to close the divide between American and Iranian views about the interim accord of January make prospects for a permanent accord slim.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated that Moscow would respond in kind to U.S. sanctions imposed on Russians over Ukraine and is considering other steps if Washington escalates tensions; indeed, he suggested that six-party talks over Iran’s nuclear program are a potential venue for a response. As the March 2014 meeting closed in Vienna, one of Moscow’s representatives said, Russia might have to use the negotiations "as an element in the game of raising the stakes." Although a U.S. Treasury official said Moscow had done nothing to suggest undermining pressure on Iran due to Ukraine, Tehran appeared to set a hardened posture.

Irrespective of whether Moscow is explicit in its retaliation, the chasm between Washington and Tehran since signing the January accord suggests reaching a permanent agreement by the third week of July is a bridge too far to cross so soon. Conflicting Iranian and American views of the agreement are an indication a success by July is unlikely.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has stated that, "Not under any circumstances" would Tehran destroy any centrifuges for uranium enrichment. President Obama’s view is that Tehran has to roll back some of its enrichment capabilities that, "hint at a desire to have breakout capacity" — the time it would take to produce enough highly-enriched uranium for one bomb before inspectors could detect such progress.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) compared Iranian breakout time in August 2013 with the time it would take if Iran complied fully with the interim accord and allowed stringent inspections. In August, ISIS assessed Tehran might reach breakout status at about 1.0-1.6 months, as opposed to 1.9-2.2 months after the January agreement.

ISIS acknowledges the increase looks small but assumes International Atomic Energy Agency daily inspections at two enrichment sites, Natanz and Fordow, which would make the increase in breakout times "significant." But examining the same increase, United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) concludes that, "In reality, the [January] accord does little to push back Iran’s breakout time." 

I concur: Why would Tehran rollback its enrichment capacity and accept daily inspections in view of lessening pressure because of the unfolding situation in Ukraine, Iranian statements to the contrary, and unwillingness of the White House to walk away from the talks without Iranian dismantlement of its enrichment capacity? Because failure is the most likely outcome, Washington should only go back to the negotiating table with a zero-enrichment policy.

Failure because of Iranian intransigence would give the Obama administration time and space to adopt tougher congressionally-supported financial and trade sanctions against Iran, which had been rejected by the administration. With the onus on Iran, the White House and Congress could align around the Senate letter of March, 18, signed by 83 of 100 Senators. The Congress has to concur with any permanent deal to end congressionally-mandated sanctions, so the split between the White House and the Hill does not augur well for prospects of a deal by July.

Regarding human rights, failure of the talks would provide an occasion for the Obama administration to open the door to the Iranian people not just to the regime. Washington negotiates with Beijing, yet reaches out to the Chinese people and to what the central government considers an "enemy" like the Dalai Lama. Washington should do no less with the Iranian people. And subsequent talks with Iran must include a human rights component.

If the top EU representative can meet with Iranian dissidents in Tehran, President Obama could meet with the National Council of Resistance of Iran, whose offices are within a block of the White House. Tehran is more threatened by its internal opposition than by external friends or enemies — reaching out to Iranian dissidents is the way forward in anticipation of failure of the negotiations with Iran.