Forget the Handshake

Here's what the United States really wants from Iran.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has been on a charm offensive in recent weeks, penning an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for an end to "the age of blood feuds," telling NBC News that he hoped to meet President Obama, and even wishing Jews around the world a happy new year. Something that was unimaginable even a few months ago suddenly seems possible: a far-reaching nuclear deal that could end decades of hostility between the United States and Iran.

We know what Iran would want out of any agreement: freedom from the Western sanctions that have decimated its economy and international recognition that it is entitled to have a civilian nuclear program. More specifically, Iran would want the United States and its allies to lift the measures that have led foreign countries to significantly cut their purchases of Iranian oil, reducing Iran’s monthly oil revenues by nearly 60 percent over the past two years, and that have forced overseas financial institutions to freeze their ties with Iran’s central bank, driving the value of its currency down to historic lows and effectively cutting Iran off from the global financial system.

We also know the broad terms of what the United States would want: clear evidence that Iran had dropped its pursuit of nuclear weapons and would no longer have the equipment or radioactive material necessary to start it up again. That would require Tehran to agree to a long list of specific American demands. The likeliest ones are below.

Stop Enriching Uranium. The most important single ingredient for a nuclear weapon is a large quantity of enriched uranium, and Iran has been steadily amassing more and more of it. The country is estimated to possess 185 kilograms of uranium that has been enriched to a purity level of 20 percent, enough to make about 18.5 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium. If Iran amasses 250 kilograms of the lower-level uranium, that would be a red line for the Israelis, because the amount could be used to produce 25 kilograms of the more potent uranium — just enough to build a single nuclear weapon.

David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, which has closely tracked Iran’s nuclear program, says that a deal would almost certainly require Iran to stop enriching uranium up to a purity level of 20 percent and then to either sell some of its current stockpile or put it under international supervision.

Close Down a Nuclear Plant. U.S. officials would also demand that Iran shutter one of its two known enrichment facilities, Natanz and Fordo. Natanz is an older facility that has long been used to produce uranium enriched to low levels of purity. Fordo, a more sophisticated facility, is of enormous concern to American and Israeli policymakers because it’s buried deep underground and would be difficult to destroy by air. The German newspaper Der Spiegel has reported that Rouhani is ready to decommission Fordo, a potentially major concession, but the Iranian government has denied any willingness to shutter the facility.

Cut Back on Centrifuges. Last month, the outgoing chief of Iran’s nuclear program said his country had 18,000 of the centrifuges needed to enrich more uranium, with about 9,000 of them already fully operational. Any agreement between Washington and Tehran would put in place new limitations on the number and quality of those pieces of machinery. Albright says that one potential compromise would be for Iran to keep using the centrifuges that are already up and running while dismantling the roughly 9,000 that aren’t yet in use. That would be a face-saving measure for Iran that could also reduce Western fears of Iran being able to increase more and more of the uranium it would need for a nuclear bomb. Colin Kahl, who formerly served as the Pentagon’s top Mideast policy official, said a deal that put new restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment activities without also reducing the number of its centrifuges would be largely toothless. "If you cap their enrichment but don’t do anything else they’d still have a breakout capability," he said.

Install More Cameras. Kahl said that any deal would also need to include the installation of video cameras capable of round-the-clock surveillance of every one of Iran’s nuclear facilities. The imagery would be transmitted back to the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna, giving the organization’s technical experts the ability to watch what was happening at the plants and make sure no weapons-related work was taking place there. Right now, he said, IAEA inspectors can only physically inspect Natanz and Fordo every week or two. The West would also likely insist that Iran ratify the IAEA’s so-called "additional protocols," which would allow for unannounced inspections of all of the country’s nuclear facilities. Those are far from airtight solutions, however. When North Korea decided to restart its nuclear facility at Yongbyon in 2008, Pyongyang simply took down the cameras and ordered the IAEA’s inspectors to leave the facility.

Shutter the Heavy Water Reactor. In 2002, Albright’s organization revealed that Iran was building a so-called heavy-water reactor near the city of Arak. That kind of plant can be used to produce plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. The facility has not yet been completed, however, and Albright says that the West would insist that Arak be completely shut down as part of any deal. There’s a simple reason for that: Once operational, bombing the plant could lead to massive radiation leaks, potentially poisoning tens of thousands of Iranians. If no deal is struck, Albright says, Israel would strongly consider destroying Arak before it came online. Kahl notes the United States could try to forestall an Israeli strike by offering to provide Iran with a light-water reactor, which would provide the same amount of energy as a heavy-water plant without being able to produce the high-quality plutonium needed for a bomb.

There’s ample reason to be skeptical about the prospects for any kind of agreement. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wields all real power in the country, and it’s far from clear that he is genuinely interested in a deal or willing to give Rouhani the authority to negotiate one. Israel’s top leaders believe that Rouhani is trying to fool Western countries into signing an agreement that would "preserve Iran’s ability to rapidly build a nuclear weapon at a time of its choosing — the so-called breakout option." Even if a deal is signed, Israel could easily decide to bomb Iran anyway if it felt Tehran was continuing to work towards developing a nuclear weapon under the eyes of a gullible international community. On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, lawmakers from both parties would almost certainly band together to fight any effort to lift the current sanctions on Iran.

But set aside that pessimism for a moment and consider the prospect of a deal being reached. Kahl, the former Pentagon Middle East official, said that no agreement, no matter how detailed, could permanently persuade Iran to fully abandon its decades-long quest for nuclear weapons. Still, he said, a flawed agreement would be better than no agreement at all.

"I don’t believe that an ideal deal is possible," he said. "But a good enough deal is a heck of a lot better than either going to war or accepting an Iranian bomb. The alternatives to a deal would be far worse."

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