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Getting to ‘Yes’ With Iran

A former U.S. negotiator on resolving the impasse over Tehran's nuclear program.


We don't yet know whether Hasan Rouhani's election as president of Iran will improve the prospects for a nuclear deal -- prospects that had dimmed significantly as a result of continued stalemate in the negotiations in the first half of 2013. But if the United States and its partners are to take advantage of whatever opportunity may exist post-election, they need to move quickly to review and adjust their own approach.

We don’t yet know whether Hasan Rouhani’s election as president of Iran will improve the prospects for a nuclear deal — prospects that had dimmed significantly as a result of continued stalemate in the negotiations in the first half of 2013. But if the United States and its partners are to take advantage of whatever opportunity may exist post-election, they need to move quickly to review and adjust their own approach.

There are reasons for thinking the situation may have changed for the better. The election’s most encouraging development — aside from Rouhani’s win itself, which was surprisingly decisive — was that it revealed a deep discontent about the country’s hard-line diplomatic strategy. Although several candidates criticized the "no compromises" approach to talks, which was defended by candidate and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, the sharpest rebuke came from Ali Akbar Velayati, former foreign minister and the supreme leader’s foreign policy adviser. In the June 7 debate, he said, "When you take three steps and want the other to take one hundred steps, it’s clear that you don’t want to advance matters." And he concluded that "our current nuclear negotiations definitely have problems; otherwise we would not be in our current situation."

That critique is remarkable for two reasons. First, Velayati and the other critics are drawing a direct connection between Iran’s rigid negotiating posture and the deprivations suffered by the Iranian people as a result of sanctions; they are arguing that Iran must adopt a more conciliatory approach if it wants to reverse Iran’s downward economic spiral and rebuild its international standing. Second, this assessment comes from regime stalwarts but stands in sharp contrast to what Supreme Leader Khamenei and other hardliners have been saying: that the sanctions, while harsh, can be weathered, that the economic difficulties were caused by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement and can be remedied by a new president, and even that the sanctions are a blessing in disguise because they encourage Iranian self-reliance and reduce dependence on oil revenues.

Khamenei’s key negotiating goal — at least so far — has been to weaken international support for sanctions and buy time for advancing Iran’s nuclear program. His hope seems to have been that the international community would lose interest in sanctions before the sanctions broke the back of Iran’s economy, freeing Tehran from having to make concessions that would compromise its nuclear ambitions. The deep divisions exposed during the election suggest that there is strong skepticism within Iran that such a hope can be realized — and a growing belief that the only way out of Iran’s current predicament is to reach an accommodation on the nuclear issue. Sanctions seem to have altered Iranian calculations.

Of course, in the Islamic Republic, the ultimate authority on things nuclear is the supreme leader, and Khamenei is perhaps the regime’s most uncompromising ideological opponent of accommodation with the United States and its partners in the so-called P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom). But we shouldn’t underestimate Rouhani’s role. He will be a player on the nuclear issue, much more than Ahmadinejad ever was, not just because of his personal experience as a nuclear negotiator or his mandate from the Iranian electorate, but also because it is now clear that he has allies within the Iranian leadership who support his desire to end the impasse. The supreme leader will continue to be heavily influenced by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and other opponents of compromise. But he and his close advisors will also have to pay attention to Rouhani.

As Iran reviews its approach, the Obama administration needs to do the same, especially in light of the Iranian election and advances in the Iranian nuclear program.

There will be a natural tendency within the administration to stand pat for now and wait to see whether the new Iranian government will alter its approach when talks resume. Some officials will argue internally that "we should not negotiate with ourselves" by adjusting our position even before we learn whether Iran has decided to adopt a more serious approach. Such caution is understandable, especially given Iran’s disappointing track record. But the "other side must go first" approach doesn’t take into account the domestic difficulties Rouhani will encounter in formulating a new posture, the likelihood that it will be easier for the new Iranian negotiating team to react to ideas put forward by the United States and its partners than to initiate ideas of its own, or the fact that time and Iran’s nuclear program are not standing still.

But whatever tactical approach the United States and its partners pursue — to table new proposals, to sit back and wait for Iranian proposals, or to explore new ideas in a non-committal way — they should at a minimum consider among themselves what changes may be necessary to increase prospects of getting the negotiations finally on track.

For several years, the P5+1 prioritized agreement on a relatively modest package of confidence-building measures, or CBMs. These measures have been designed to address the most worrisome elements of Iran’s nuclear program — namely, its production and accumulation of near-20 percent enriched uranium and its construction of the underground Fordow enrichment facility — and therefore to buy time to work out a comprehensive solution. But the Iranians have balked at this approach, arguing that the sanctions relief offered in return was far too modest and that the proposal required them to accept immediate limits without any assurance that sanctions would ultimately be lifted or that Iran would be allowed to keep an enrichment program.

Some knowledgeable observers in the United States and elsewhere have concluded that it is time to move on from CBMs and propose a comprehensive deal, one that outlines what kind of civil nuclear program we are prepared to accept in Iran. An argument in favor of this shift is that Iran cannot be expected to accept a meaningful initial package without knowing what the negotiations’ end-state will be. Another argument is that the focus on near-20 percent production and Fordow has become a less meaningful constraint in light of Iran’s installation of more efficient centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility, the continued accumulation of enriched uranium at the 3.5 percent level, and progress in the construction of a heavy-water reactor at Arak assumed to be for plutonium production.

An argument against moving to a comprehensive proposal is that it would tip the P5+1’s hand on the end-state, including the treatment of enrichment in Iran, in the absence of tangible indications that the Iranians were finally prepared to accept meaningful limits. The Iranians could insist on proceeding directly to the end-state and bypassing the earlier confidence-building steps, which would forgo opportunities to test Iran’s sincerity and risk lifting hard-to-restore sanctions before a track record of compliance had been established.

It may be possible to combine the CBM and comprehensive approaches. The two sides could try to work out a road map containing the general elements or principles of a phased, comprehensive deal, including an outline of the key elements of an Iranian civil nuclear program that would be permitted in an end-state. The road map would begin with one or more confidence-building phases and would include a phase in which all parties would abide by U.N. Security Council and IAEA resolutions. Once agreement had been reached on the broad outlines of the road map, the parties would proceed to agree on and implement a detailed CBM package, which could be an updated and perhaps more ambitious version of the one proposed by the P5+1 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in February 2013. With a limited-duration CBM in place, the parties would proceed to negotiate the remaining detailed provisions of the road map, including the end-state. Such an approach would build mutual confidence and test compliance incrementally while committing the parties in general terms to an end-state, thereby addressing concerns about accepting initial limits without knowing where the process is headed.

The toughest issue is, of course, enrichment. Iran has wanted the P5+1 states to publicly accept its "right to enrich" uranium — and to do so right away. Presumably, the Iranians hope that, by gaining early acceptance of what they term an "inalienable" right, they would later be in a strong position to fend off proposals to restrict the scope of their enrichment program and subject it to special monitoring.

The United States has been justified in rejecting an unfettered "right to enrich." The Nonproliferation Treaty protects the right of compliant parties to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but it is silent on whether that right includes enrichment, which is a dual-use technology that can also produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. Lawyers can debate whether a right to enrich is included in the treaty, but what is not debatable is that Iran has forfeited — at least temporarily — any right to enrichment (and reprocessing) until it can demonstrate convincingly that it is in compliance with its NPT obligations. For the time being, whatever rights it has to these technologies have been suspended by a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions, which are legally binding on all U.N. members, including Iran.

In their negotiations, Iran and the P5+1 should not get hung up on the abstract matter of "rights." Instead, the parties should consider whether there are practical ways to reassure the international community that an Iranian enrichment program would be devoted exclusively to peaceful purposes. More specifically, any acceptable approach to permitting enrichment would have to provide confidence that Iran could not quickly or secretly "break out" of agreed arrangements and use its enrichment capabilities to produce highly-enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. This would require limits on Iran’s enrichment capacity (both in terms of numbers and types of centrifuges), restrictions on its stocks of enriched uranium (in terms of quantities and locations), and special monitoring measures capable of detecting a breakout at the earliest possible moment.

The question of whether the negotiations’ end-state should include a domestic enrichment program cannot be answered until we have explored such practical arrangements with the Iranians. Such engagement will not be easy for either side. It will require the United States and its partners to do what they have so far avoided: talk about what would make an Iranian enrichment program acceptable. And it will require the Iranians to recognize that the United States and the international community will not accept an unrestricted enrichment program, but only a regulated capability that denies them the opportunity to convert their program rapidly or clandestinely to the production of nuclear weapons.

These discussions will be difficult, but it should be possible to reconcile Iran’s stated interest in pursuing enrichment to support its civil nuclear energy plans (which for the foreseeable future are modest in scale) with the international community’s interest in ensuring that Iran does not have a readily available nuclear weapons breakout capability.

In preparation for re-engaging Iran, the Obama administration will also need to work closely with Congress. The president’s team should seek an understanding with Capitol Hill on what new sanctions are needed, what measures should be held back for now, and what can be done to signal to the Iranians that sanctions are reversible if concrete progress is made. It is critical that both the executive and legislative branches send a coherent, unified message to the new Iranian government.

As part of that messaging, the administration should state publicly that it is prepared to lift all nuclear-related unilateral and U.N. Security Council sanctions. But at the same time, it should stress that the removal of sanctions cannot come at the outset of the process, as Iran has often demanded. Instead, sanctions will be eased and eliminated in a step-by-step manner and in proportion to the actions Iran takes to address concerns about its nuclear program. Iran’s revamped leadership should also understand that, if Iran continues to stall in the negotiations while its nuclear program advances, sanctions will only intensify.

The Obama administration should also address publicly an apparently genuine Iranian concern that, for the United States, the nuclear issue is only a pretext for pursuing regime change in Iran. The administration should make clear that, while it has deep concerns about various aspects of Tehran’s policies (not least regarding human rights), it is prepared to reach a deal on the nuclear issue independently, while addressing other concerns separately. It is important to disabuse the supreme leader and other suspicious Iranians of the notion that, if they make concessions on the nuclear issue, the United States will move the goalposts and demand additional concessions in other areas. Americans do not like the Iranian regime. But by now, we should realize that, if change is to come in Iran, it will be the doing of the Iranian people, not the United States.

Another important goal of near-term public messaging is to correct the widespread impression created by Tehran’s hyperactive propaganda machine that Iran is the party most interested in a negotiated outcome, that it has taken the initiative with balanced and workable proposals, and that the United States and its partners are the ones dragging their feet and not really committed to an agreement. In particular, the P5+1 should explain why the confidence-building measures they proposed in Almaty are an equitable, although modest, way of getting traction in the talks. They should contrast their offer with Iran’s April counteroffer, which, if implemented, would have little or no impact on the country’s current nuclear activities but would require major relief from sanctions. Indeed, the counteroffer did not even include an element that senior Iranian officials had long seemed to accept: suspension of the production of enriched uranium at the near-20 percent level.

Much needs to be done to prepare for resumed negotiations with Iran, likely in the fall. In the meantime, Iran’s nuclear program will move ahead, underlining President Obama’s repeated warning that the window for diplomacy cannot remain open indefinitely. We don’t know if the recent Iranian election will finally provide an opening to move toward an agreement. But even if prospects for reaching an acceptable deal are limited, the United States needs to do everything it can in the weeks and months ahead to prepare itself for any promising opportunity that presents itself when the talks resume. There may not be many more chances.

Robert Einhorn is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served as the U.S. State Department's special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control from April 2009 to May 2013 and, during that period, participated in Obama administration policymaking on Iran and in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran.

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