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A Solution for the US–Iran Nuclear Standoff

The recent National Intelligence Estimate’s conclusion that Tehran stopped its efforts to develop nuclear weapons in 2003, together with the significant drop in Iranian activity in Iraq, has created favorable conditions for the US to hold direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program. The Bush administration should act on this opportunity, if for no other reason than that its current position is growing weaker, and without such an initiative, Iran will continue its efforts to produce nuclear fuel that might, in the future, be used to build nuclear weapons.

Currently, Iran has approximately three thousand centrifuges, which it has used to produce small test batches of uranium that has been enriched to a low level (which cannot be used for nuclear weapons). Until now, Iranian engineers have not successfully operated a centrifuge cascade (a collection of centrifuges working together) at full capacity—which, as a practical matter, would be needed to enrich nuclear fuel to the level necessary either to establish an effective nuclear energy program or to manufacture nuclear weapons. But the Iranian government has declared its ambition to build more than 50,000 centrifuges, and recent reports also suggest that Tehran is testing a modified “P-2” centrifuge, a more advanced version of its existing centrifuge technology, which can produce a larger volume of enriched uranium.

We propose that Iran’s efforts to produce enriched uranium and other related nuclear activities be conducted on a multilateral basis, that is to say jointly managed and operated on Iranian soil by a consortium including Iran and other governments. This proposal provides a realistic, workable solution to the US–Iranian nuclear standoff. Turning Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities into a multinational program will reduce the risk of proliferation and create the basis for a broader discussion not only of our disagreements but of our common interests as well.

1.

New Opportunities in the US–Iranian Relationship

Over the last several months, two important developments have created new possibilities for relations between the United States and Iran. First, in December, the US intelligence community issued its new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) for Iran. The report concluded that in 2003, Iran’s government halted development of nuclear weapons. Second, it appears that the direct talks on Iraq between the US and Iran have led to a significant reduction in the flow of improvised explosive devices and foreign fighters coming from or through Iran into Iraq. Notwithstanding the continuing harsh rhetoric between the Bush administration and the Iranian government, these events have created the political space for new thinking about the US–Iranian relationship, and they demonstrate that negotiations with the Islamic Republic can produce tangible results.1

For over five years, a group of former American diplomats and regional experts, including the authors of this article, have been meeting directly and privately with a group of Iranian academics and policy advisers.2 Some of the American members of this group believe that there is now an opportunity for discussions on the single most important issue in the US–Iran relationship: Iran’s nuclear program. We believe that the Iranian government would seriously consider a proposal for direct talks with the United States on issues beyond Iraq. This paper proposes a way for Washington to begin talking directly with Tehran about its nuclear activities.

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the US and Iran have each missed many chances to alter the character of their relationship, one that has been built on mutual hostility and suspicion. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations failed to take advantage of such opportunities. In 2003, for example, under the more moderate presidency of Mohammad Khatami, the Iranians signaled to US officials that they were prepared to have direct talks, without preconditions, on a wide range of issues, from the nuclear program to terrorism to the status of Israel. Unfortunately, that opportunity was lost. The history of relations between the two governments has been characterized by one side offering to talk only to be rebuffed by the other, followed by a repetition of this exercise with the two sides switching roles.

Today, a new opportunity presents itself. The NIE and the improvement in US–Iranian relations over Iraq policy are part of it. Moreover, Iran’s upcoming parliamentary elections in mid-March seem likely to show a weakening of support for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies. This, in turn, will put intense pressure on him to raise his political status before the 2009 presidential elections. Without a noticeable improvement in the economy, Ahmadinejad can move in one of two directions. First, he can pick a fight with the United States, hoping that confrontation will boost his ratings. This has been his tendency until now, but it is a tactic that appears less effective each time it is used and has probably contributed to his declining popularity.

The other option is for him or members of his administration to negotiate directly with the US in order to resolve the nuclear impasse. Working to settle the nuclear issue and ending Iran’s troubled status in the international community might prove politically advantageous. Ahmadinejad would also be able to claim that as president, he accomplished something his predecessors could not.

2.

Time Is Not on Our Side

These new openings in US–Iranian relations are coming at a time when US policy toward Iran faces a difficult future. Washington’s policy of pressure and containment has resulted in a number of important victories. American diplomats won UN Security Council agreement on a series of increasingly tough sanctions resolutions, and the Bush administration persuaded its European partners to impose serious financial penalties on Iran, particularly on banking and export credits. The cost of sanctions, together with popular grievances over inflation and gas rationing, have contributed to the declining popularity of Iran’s government. Yet the current US approach to Iran faces a number of difficult challenges. Three, in particular, stand out.

Declining Political Support for Sanctions and Containment

Since the release of the NIE, Russia, China, and the US’s European allies appear even less inclined than before to pursue additional sanctions. Many of these countries were skeptical from the outset that UN sanctions would change Iranian behavior but went along because they had no better alternative, and because they wanted to head off even more severe US action (e.g., a military strike). Russia’s increasingly independent foreign policy has meanwhile culminated in Putin’s trip to Tehran in October and a Russian decision to provide its first fuel shipment for Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr.

Of course, provocative behavior by Iran—for example, regarding its new P-2 centrifuge technology—might lead to further UN sanctions, but any new resolution is unlikely to differ much from its predecessors in either content or impact. If the United States and its allies do not take a different approach soon, the strategy of containment and sanctions, while irritating to the Iranian regime, will prove irrelevant to the country’s nuclear programs.

Iran Can Build and Use Centrifuges Faster Than We Can Impose Penalties or Controls

A second problem is that Iran has moved in a relatively short period of eighteen months from a single cascade of 164 centrifuges to a reported figure of approximately three thousand centrifuges. If Tehran decides tomorrow to build another three thousand there is little Washington can do to stop it.

Historically, countries that have enriched uranium for a nuclear weapons program have built many more centrifuges than Iran has so far, and run them for years at a time. Centrifuges are famously fragile and difficult to operate on a large scale, and building a nuclear weapon also requires fashioning the enriched uranium into a nuclear device—“weaponization.” There is the additional problem of finding a way to shrink the device so that it can fit on a plane or, harder still, onto the tip of an extremely reliable missile. In short, Iran is still years away from a nuclear weapon, as the recent NIE suggests.

The more immediate problem, however, is that every centrifuge Iran builds—whether it works or not—creates new facts on the ground. The current policy of containment and sanctions does not prevent Iran from continuing to build large numbers of centrifuges.

Unfortunately, recent events vividly demonstrate the conundrum that the US and its allies face as they consider another sanctions resolution. If Iranian scientists have made progress on the P-2, they have done so despite two sanctions resolutions. By the time a new resolution is passed, they may make further progress on a P-2 program. In this race between centrifuges and sanctions, the centrifuges are winning.

Tehran’s Countertactics

The third challenge is that Iran has developed several tactics intended to undercut the current US strategy. It has improved relations with Russia, attempted to use its oil exports to win support from an energy-hungry China, and launched a diplomatic offensive aimed at its Persian Gulf neighbors. Iran has also sought to counter US pressure in the UN Security Council by agreeing to negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A clean bill of health from the IAEA, confirming that Iran was not preparing to produce weapons, would further weaken Russian and Chinese interest in joining in additional sanctions.

Retaking the Initiative: Iran Policy After the NIE

US policymakers have been slow to seize the unusual opportunity created by the new intelligence estimate and shift direction. The main obstacle has been US insistence that it will not agree to take part in face-to-face talks on the nuclear issue until Iran suspends its nuclear enrichment. This precondition may well be working against US interests. Why not take advantage of the NIE’s conclusion that Iran suspended its nuclear program in 2003 and accept it as creating the conditions for direct talks?

The fact of the matter is that the US and Iran do talk. As noted above, they meet occasionally in Iraq to discuss the situation there; further meetings were to take place in Baghdad this winter. This dialogue has probably led to the decline in explosives and in the number of fighters crossing the Iranian border into Iraq. If the two sides are talking on Iraq with some positive results, why not talk about the nuclear issue?

Washington needs to take the initiative. First, its insistence on zero enrichment of uranium on Iranian soil is not credible and grows less credible with every newly constructed Iranian centrifuge. The policy of containment and sanctions is eroding with each passing day.

Second, a serious proposal for direct talks would allow the US to set the agenda rather than simply respond to Iran. Moreover, sanctions are only useful insofar as they induce the punished party to negotiate (complete capitulation is rare in international politics). Sanctions without an opening for discussion cannot lead anywhere. A US initiative also puts the burden on the Islamic Republic to show that it wants to be accepted as a member of the international community. If Iran fails to reciprocate, it would be easier to persuade our international partners to take punitive actions. On the other hand, if the US fails to make a serious proposal, it risks losing the diplomatic achievements of the past few years.

  1. 1

    Indeed, what is most striking about the recent flare-up involving US and Iranian naval vessels in the Strait of Hormuz is the way both governments minimized the episode and instead made plans to participate in the next round of talks on Iraq.

  2. 2

    This group, which was organized by the United Nations Association of the USA, has drafted several joint papers for the US and Iranian governments and sought to promote direct government to government discussions on all issues dividing the US and Iran.

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