How to Avoid a War With Iran
It won’t be easy -- but it sure beats the alternative.
Observers would be forgiven for dismissing negotiations over Iran's nuclear program as Kabuki theater. Despite years of on-again, off-again efforts, after all, fears of war continue to simmer.
Observers would be forgiven for dismissing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program as Kabuki theater. Despite years of on-again, off-again efforts, after all, fears of war continue to simmer.
Such frustrations are understandable — but they may not be entirely justified. Despite real obstacles, there is a serious chance for progress if both sides come to the table willing to compromise and focused on a step-by-step approach that gives each side real gains, builds confidence, and allows more time for talks on the harder issues. The next round of negotiations between Iran and world powers, slated for May 23 in Baghdad, is crucial — though only the start of a long road.
No one could claim these negotiations will be easy. Iran and the United States have been locked in mutual hostility since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, and this enmity has produced deep mistrust and tough political constraints on both sides. In a U.S. presidential election year, compromise will be difficult, as no candidate can be seen as "soft" on Iran — and in Iran, which has a presidential election next year, no faction can be seen as advocating retreat in the face of Western pressure. For a deal to work, both sides have to see it as genuinely serving their national interests.
Nevertheless, as an American and an Iranian, both of us patriots, we believe that a negotiated deal is possible. Although genuine clashes of interests are at stake, we believe our countries would be better served by such a pact, however imperfect, than by continued stalemate or military conflict. For Iran, the status quo means ongoing sanctions, limited access to foreign investment and technology, and the looming danger of military strikes. For the United States, stalemate means no negotiated limits on the Iranian nuclear program, continued high oil prices (reflecting the risks of conflict), and no resolution of U.S.-Iranian disputes over terrorism, Israel, and more.
If the confrontation deteriorated into a military conflict, it would be a disaster for both countries’ security. Strikes by the United States or Israel would risk an unpredictable regional conflagration and could convince Iran to redouble its nuclear efforts and build covert sites that would be hard to find and strike.
To open the path to an accord, the parties must combine the realism of small initial steps with a vision of a long-term rapprochement. Early steps should be designed to build confidence on both sides that it is worth continuing the process, and to buy time for further talks.
There are a number of ways both sides could bolster confidence in the negotiating process. Iran should offer to halt its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent U-235, its buildup of larger stocks of 5 percent enriched uranium, and its acquisition of ever-more centrifuges as long as the talks are making progress. As in past proposals, the United States and Europe should offer to provide low-enriched fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor in exchange for Iran’s agreement to ship a substantial portion of its enriched uranium out of the country. And Iran should agree to implement the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol, which allows for broader international inspections of nuclear facilities, as long as cooperation is moving forward.
At the same time, the United States and Europe should offer to lift the new oil and banking sanctions now going into effect — again, as long as the talks are making progress. Such initiatives would allow each side to say to skeptics in its own camp: Things are no longer getting worse; give us more time.
As an early gesture, the United States and Europe could also allow the shipment of desperately needed spare parts for Iran’s civilian aircraft, which have been blocked under sanctions for decades, and allow Iranian airliners to refuel and receive normal services in Europe. Iran could commit to prevent any arms or other assistance from flowing to armed groups in Iraq or Afghanistan. The sides could also negotiate a pact to prevent inadvertent clashes in the Persian Gulf and work together to stop the flow of heroin from Afghanistan into Iran.
None of these interim steps, of course, will be able to produce a breakthrough unless both Iran and the United States share a long-term vision of forging a more productive relationship. The nuclear deal that would be a part of this vision would inevitably involve some level of continued enrichment in Iran under agreed-upon constraints. Iran would agree to far-reaching inspections and transparency, including resolving concerns about past work that the West suspects may have been weapons-related. The United States and its negotiating partners would agree that Iran’s admissions about past activities will not be punished.
As part of a nuclear agreement, the United States and Europe should help Iran replace the aging Tehran Research Reactor with a modern facility outside densely populated Tehran — and Iran should agree to suspend construction of the Arak heavy-water reactor, which the West fears is well suited for plutonium production, as it would no longer be needed.
It’s not only the nuclear issue that divides Iran and the United States. The two countries will have to talk directly to address the many other issues that divide them, including terrorism, sanctions, regional security, and more. All participants, including the United States, should assure Iran that they will not attack or threaten to overthrow Iran’s government as long as Iran complies with the nuclear deal and does not commit or sponsor aggression. Iran, for its part, proposed a nonaggression pact with its Persian Gulf neighbors after the Iran-Iraq War.
Both sides are likely to fear that the other will cheat on its commitments in such a deal. Both will have to take some risks for peace, while seeking commitments that are clear and verifiable. But there may be a chance to build a virtuous cycle: Once the benefits begin to flow, it will likely be harder for those who would call for ripping up the deal and returning to confrontation to win the argument.
As difficult as it is, both sides must come to Baghdad this month ready to offer clear, verifiable first steps on the path toward compromise — and away from the abyss of armed confrontation.
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