An expert's point of view on a current event.

In Iran, Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

Why demanding no enrichment and no centrifuges means no deal.


Having finalized details of the interim deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear program for six months in exchange for limited relief from sanctions, attention is turning to the question of "end states" for a comprehensive agreement. In these negotiations, what can the United States realistically hope to achieve?

It is no surprise that many of the aspirations now being advocated by supporters and critics of the interim agreement alike are worthy but unworldly. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offers a leading case in point. He demands nothing short of four "no’s": no enrichment, no centrifuges, no stockpile of enriched uranium, and no heavy water reactor at Arak. Amos Yadlin, Netanyahu’s former head of military intelligence, has named this the "ideal deal." But insisting on these terms will ensure there is a fifth "no": that is, no deal — since Iran is not about to capitulate. Instead, as Yadlin has argued persuasively, Israel should accept a "less good, but still reasonable" accord in which "Iran would retain its right to enrich uranium, but only to a low 3.5 -5 percent nonmilitary grade," and a small number of operating centrifuges — as part of a package that verifiably stops Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.

Even more unrealistic than Netanyahu’s dream are calls for an agreement that will "settle this issue," tie a ribbon around a treaty, and allow us to forget about the Iranian nuclear challenge for good. This appears to be what French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has in mind in calling for Iran to "definitively abandon any capacity of getting a weapon." Unfortunately, whatever Iran agrees to in the current negotiations, even if it were Netanyahu’s dream, there exists no feasible future in which we can declare "mission accomplished." In this world, ensuring that Iran remains nuclear weapons-free will require sustained vigilance. No matter what agreement the current Iranian government signs, or what actions it takes, a future government will always have the option to reverse course.

The "reality zone" for any achievable agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is defined by four brute facts — difficult to accept, but hard to ignore.

1. Iran has acquired a "nuclear weapons option" that cannot be erased. Within its sovereign borders, Iran has all the know-how, equipment, and resources required to build a bomb by itself. When its scientists and engineers mastered the technologies for enriching uranium in 2008, Iran crossed the most significant "red line" on the road to building a nuclear weapon. Knowledge and skills engrained in the heads of hundreds of Iranians cannot be wished away. While many in the policy community have not been able to bring themselves to accept this fact, the U.S. intelligence community has insisted clearly and consistently since 2008 that Iran has the capability to build a bomb. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified last year, "Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so."

2. Given the first truth, the best the U.S. can hope to achieve is to deny Iran an exercisable nuclear weapons option. This means ensuring that Iran cannot use the knowledge, industrial base, and ongoing enrichment activities to exercise its weapons option. The essential requirement is that the timeline between an Iranian decision to seek a bomb and success in building it is long enough, and an Iranian move in that direction is clear enough, that there is sufficient time for the United States or Israel to act to prevent Iran’s succeeding. The longer the timeline, the better, since with more time, the greater number of options for action are available for Washington and its partners in the international community. If required, however, the U.S. military could destroy all identified nuclear-related targets in Iran on very short notice — in an emergency, in as little as a week; given a month, comfortably.

3. Has Iran’s supreme leader decided to build a bomb? No one outside his small circle knows. As leaders in the U.S. intelligence community have frequently testified, "we don’t believe they have actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon." Indeed, according to the U.S. intelligence community, "we do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons." Nonetheless, if Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been tempted to do so, or should be tempted sometime in the future, his choice will be shaped by three factors: U.S. and Israeli capabilities to prevent Iran from reaching its goal line; the United States and Israel’s will to conduct attacks if Iran is discovered dashing toward a bomb; and Iran’s assessment of the likelihood it would be exposed if it tried.

The third variable is as important as the first two and reminds us why the interim agreement’s success in persuading Iran to allow daily, rather than weekly, inspections of the Natanz and Fordow enrichment plants matters. Provisions of a comprehensive deal that enhance transparency are as significant as constraints on the number of centrifuges or stockpiles of enriched uranium.

4. Any agreement that achieves the best conceivable constraints on Iran’s nuclear program will be criticized for failing to address many other legitimate concerns. It will leave in place the current Islamic regime in Tehran. It will not prevent Shiite Iran from competing with its Sunni neighbors. It will not end Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, its violation of basic human rights at home, and hostility toward Israel, the United States, or Saudi Arabia.

Nonetheless, in thinking about a deal in the context of real-world alternatives, the question is: What is worse than the current Iranian regime with all of its attributes and actions we hate? My answer is: that same regime with nuclear weapons.

An ugly deal that achieves our minimum essential objectives is better than the other feasible alternatives — namely an Iran advancing ever closer to a bomb, or another war in the Middle East.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban observed of the Palestinians that they "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." That maxim applies here, too. Over the past decade, the United States has missed several opportunities to halt Iran’s nuclear progress. Looking back, it is clear that both sides have been prone to overreach, and negotiators have failed when they tried to sell an agreement after returning to their respective capitals. For its strategic determination and diplomatic skill in seizing an interim agreement that freezes Iran’s nuclear progress for six months during which to explore whether a comprehensive deal is possible, the Obama administration deserves two cheers. If it can persuade Iran to accept an agreement that operationally denies it an exercisable nuclear weapons option, the U.S. should not miss that opportunity.

Graham Allison is a professor of government at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he was the founding dean. He is a former U.S. assistant defense secretary and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Twitter: @GrahamTAllison