Shadow Government

What If Iran Talks Fail? That Might Not Be Worse Than If the Deal Happens

How Obama would make a bad nuclear situation with Iran even worse.


If the Iran talks fail, it will not be for lack of concessions by the United States and its allies. According to press reports on the emerging deal, the U.S. position has gone from:

  • Zero enrichment, to allowing Iran to operate 1,500 centrifuges, to 4,500 centrifuges, to 6,500 centrifuges, to perhaps even more in a reconfigured mode;
  • No heavy water reactor at Arak, to a lightly modified reactor;
  • Insistence on resolution of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s concerns about the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program before an agreement is concluded, to treatment of the matter as an implementation issue, to be resolved later (if ever);
  • Closure of the deep underground facility at Fordo, to some modification of it;
  • An agreement of indefinite duration, to one lasting 20 years, to 15 years, to 10 years, with a five-year phase-out of restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program, after which Tehran would be free to return to the two month (or less) breakout period described as unacceptable by Secretary of State John Kerry;
  • Seeking parallels between sanctions removal and restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, to trading permanent concessions for temporary restrictions.

Thus, the main question if the Iran talks fail would be: “Why didn’t Tehran take ‘yes’ for an answer?”  Such an outcome seems unlikely, but if it were to occur, President Obama’s suspicions about Iranian intentions might be raised.

The United States and some of its allies would likely vigorously pursue sanctions. In the financial and oil sectors, these could take a severe toll on the Iranian economy, even with zero or halfhearted participation by the Russians or Chinese.

Iran would likely resume production of 20 percent enriched uranium, although it might keep inventories below the red line cited by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his 2012 United Nations General Assembly speech. It would also likely resume construction of the reactor at Arak and increase its centrifuge enrichment capacity.

In short, the situation would resemble the period after the attempted agreement would have expired in 10 or 15 years, except that sanctions would remain in place, denying Iran access to capital markets, much arms trade, full integration into the international community, and legitimacy for its nuclear programs.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Belfer Center’s Best Analysis blog.

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William Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

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