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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, second from left, and his cabinet ministers meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei about Israeli air strikes on Gaza, Tehran, July 2014

In the summer of 2002 an Iranian opposition group thought to have been fed intelligence by Western spy agencies revealed the existence of a secret uranium enrichment facility outside the central Iranian town of Natanz. It was the beginning of a long, rancorous, and so far intractable battle of wills between a revolutionary state seemingly determined to acquire the expertise necessary to build a nuclear bomb and an international coalition, led by the United States and including other nuclear weapons states, that has been trying to prevent this from happening.

In 2009 it came to light that Iran had developed another secret centrifuge facility, this one deep underground, at the desert site of Fordow, and two years later the United Nations’ nuclear-monitoring body, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), disclosed that it had received “credible” information that Iran had “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” that these activities had until recently happened “under a structured programme, and that some activities may still be ongoing.” All the while, the Iranians continued to build a heavy water reactor at Arak—whose existence had also been revealed in 2002—which could when completed make enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons a year.

Iran has insisted all along that its program is geared only to the generation of electricity and medical isotopes, and for several years it expanded its cascades of centrifuges in order to enrich uranium. The country was punished with sabotage, the murder of several of its nuclear scientists, and sanctions on its oil industry and financial institutions that brought its economy to the brink of ruin. Seeking to forestall further escalation, possibly in the form of an Israeli military attack, in November 2013 Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany (the so-called P5+1), met in Geneva and declared a truce. Under the so-called Joint Plan of Action (JPA), the Iranians promised to advance no further in developing their enrichment capabilities, while the P5+1 announced a moratorium on new sanctions and unfroze some Iranian assets that had been held in overseas banks.

That the truce still stands is easy enough to explain; neither Iran nor the P5+1 has anything to gain from going back to the potentially disastrous status quo ante. But the Joint Plan of Action was conceived as a first step to a comprehensive agreement that would be reached within eight months, with the IAEA certifying Iran’s nuclear program as exclusively peaceful, after which the complicated range of sanctions already imposed by the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union would be either relaxed or repealed. But nothing like this has happened.

In July 2014 the JPA was extended for four months as negotiations continued, and although hopes were raised when the foreign ministers of all the parties spent several days last November closeted in a Vienna hotel trying to thrash out an agreement, in the end they did not come close and the expiration of the JPA was again pushed back, this time to July 1, 2015.

In the words of Wendy Sherman, the US’s chief negotiator, the P5+1’s aim is to cut off “the various pathways Iran could take to obtain a nuclear weapon: a uranium pathway, through its activities at Natanz and Fordow; a plutonium pathway, through the Arak heavy water reactor; and a covert pathway.” The idea is to ensure that “any effort by Tehran to break out of its obligations [under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran joined in 1968] will be so visible and time-consuming that the attempt would have no chance of success.” At the same time, the aim of the P5+1 is to implement inspections that are sufficiently stringent and wide-ranging to ensure that Iran could not “sneak out” of its obligations and make nuclear weapons on the sly.

Both sides have refrained from publicizing details of the negotiations for fear of jeopardizing them. In mid-December I spoke to a senior diplomat from a P5+1 country who had just gotten back from the latest round of talks, which he described as aimed at building a “framework” of basic, interlocking principles that the technical experts would go on to flesh out. According to the International Crisis Group, whose Iran analyst Ali Vaez enjoys good access to both sides, an agreement has been reached to

cap enrichment below 5 percent [i.e., far below weapons-grade], reduce the size of Iran’s stockpile of enriched material, bar reprocessing of spent fuel to extract plutonium, convert the heavy-water reactor in Arak to a proliferation-resistant reactor [i.e., one producing less plutonium], repurpose the bunkered enrichment facility in Fordow as a research and development site and enhance safeguards and transparency measures.1

In recent testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Gary Samore, who used to be involved in the nuclear negotiations on behalf of the White House and is now at the Belfer Center at Harvard, came up with a similar list, adding that progress had apparently also been made on the question of removing some of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Russia.


For all the hard technical calculations that underpin each of these issues, the technical route to a deal is relatively simple. It involves coming up with mutually acceptable formulas for centrifuge numbers and enrichment levels, stockpiles of enriched uranium, and the frequency and effectiveness of IAEA inspections, as well as agreement on uncovering the program’s possible military dimensions, through the provision of information and access to Iranian nuclear scientists. Exploiting the modest momentum that was generated in Vienna, the parties have put forward novel proposals in order to get around entrenched positions.2 But a comprehensive deal still seems distant. In the words of the same senior P5+1 diplomat, “I’ve always been cautious on the possibility of success in these negotiations, and I’m only slightly less cautious now.”

In the view of many Western commentators and experts, it is axiomatic that Iran wants a bomb and that only the threats of military action and economic collapse have deterred its viscerally anti-American supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, from ordering that Iran either produce a nuclear weapon or be in a position to do so quickly if it wants. According to this reading of Iranian intentions, the Islamic Republic has courted diplomatic isolation and squandered money in order to make nuclear fuel that could have been obtained far more cheaply from abroad. Russia is currently providing fuel for Iran’s sole nuclear power reactor, at Bushehr, in the south of the country, but after 2021—when that contract runs out—Iran wants to supply Bushehr using indigenously produced fuel.

In July Khamenei announced that his country’s enrichment must eventually reach 190,000 separative work units, or SWUs (a measurement that reflects energy input, enrichment, and depletion levels), which is many times in excess of what the US has indicated it will tolerate. This may seem like more evidence for a continued Iranian appetite for a bomb; indeed, on occasion advocates of nuclear proliferation (as a means of establishing equilibrium in international affairs) have proffered reasons why this would be a good thing.3

The Iranian nuclear situation is more complex than this account suggests. Iran’s attitudes reflect those of Khamenei himself and his ideas about the state he will bequeath. (The supreme leader is seventy-five and recently had prostate surgery; he has since returned to a brisk program of public appearances.) As well as being Iran’s undisputed political leader for life, he is a self-regarding Shia cleric who has issued several religious opinions in which he has declared the development of nuclear weapons to be unlawful. Such opinions are reversible, and it is possible that he is making use of the Shia practice of taqqiyah, which is roughly translatable as telling an expedient white lie, but Khamenei is sensitive to jibes that he is a theological featherweight and his credibility would be harmed if he abandoned a piece of dogma that he has made his own—and that allows the Islamic Republic to look virtuously down its nose at its nuclear-armed adversaries. In view of Iran’s past interest in exploring weaponization technologies, it is clear that getting close to being able to make a bomb has been (and may remain) part of the Iranian calculus. But it is only one factor among others.

Khamenei has made it clear that he is determined that the Islamic Republic will not be lulled by diplomacy into ideological surrender, as he believes the Soviet Union was (“I am not a diplomat,” he once famously said; “I am a revolutionary”). The main challenge facing him is to unite the hard-line minority of his people with a majority that has grown estranged from the revolutionary orthodoxy. The nuclear issue has the potential to bring together these two tendencies. It has been used by Khamenei to drum up defiance and to tap a much older national desire for independence in energy—which Iranians regard as a strategic resource that should be protected from foreigners.

Iranian energy has been vested with the utmost poignancy since 1953, when the Iranian prime minister who nationalized the then British-owned oil industry was overthrown in an Anglo-American coup, a humiliation whose effects may be seen in Iran’s lachrymose, testy, occasionally xenophobic attitude toward the West.

An example is Iran’s determination to run Bushehr (and other reactors it is planning) using uranium that has been mined and enriched at home—despite Russia’s preparedness to carry on supplying fuel beyond 2021. For the past two centuries Iran has been dominated by its neighbor to the north, which in Vladimir Putin has a leader who is unafraid to shut off energy supplies in order to achieve political ends. If you view Iran’s policy from this historical perspective—as many Iranians do—the government’s keenness to end its dependency on Russia isn’t necessarily evidence of bomb-making intentions or quixotic nationalism. On the contrary, it may seem like common sense.


By the standards of an absolute leader concerned to bolster his standing and stiffen the revolutionary resolve of the state, Khamenei has played the nuclear issue with tenacity and skill. He has shown that by standing up to the West, important concessions can be won. Back in the early 2000s American officials argued that oil-rich Iran had no need for nuclear energy. That argument has gone by the board as more and more states—including Saudi Arabia, which has even more oil than Iran—aim for an eclectic energy “mix” including nuclear reactors. When the reactor at Bushehr was being built—again, by Russia—there was much speculation that Israel would attack it; it went online in 2011 without incident, and operational control was transferred from Russia to Iran two years later.

Now there is “general agreement,” in the words of Jeremy Bernstein, who has written elegantly on the Iranian nuclear program, that the Bushehr reactor “does not pose a significant proliferation issue.” He considers the planned heavy water reactor at Arak to be more sinister since it could be aimed at producing plutonium for a bomb.4 Most important of all, under the presidency of George W. Bush the US refused to countenance an indigenous Iranian fuel cycle based on increasing enrichment of nuclear fuel by centrifuges. Nowadays, the discussion turns on the number and productivity of Iranian centrifuges, not the fact of their existence.

Mike King

The nuclear issue has also been good for Khamenei domestically. Behind the state of national emergency that has dominated Iran’s political landscape for much of the past decade, he has been able to silence his reformist rivals and establish a degree of political supremacy that no one who observed his faltering succession to the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, back in 1989, could have thought possible. Khomeini exerted a quasi-divine but, in practice, haphazard and chaotic moral authority over his squabbling subordinates. Khamenei runs a much more tightly controlled state—as exemplified by the limited range of reactions that have so far been heard to the nuclear negotiations.

One often hears that unruly hardliners in Iran constitute a threat to the negotiating process. This is misleading. There was general satisfaction among ideologues in Tehran at the inconclusive conclusion to last November’s talks, with the influential editor of the newspaper Kayhan suggesting that the only thing to emerge was American “untrustworthiness.” But the public endorsement of the prolongation of the talks that Khamenei issued on November 27 amounted to a binding resolution to continue them that his followers have accepted.

This does not mean that hard-line groups are happy with the trend of events. It would not be surprising if senior officers in the Revolutionary Guard showed hostility to demands that will certainly come from the IAEA for access to installations that it has not yet visited. The prospect of opening up sensitive military sites to a UN agency that the Iranians regard as compromised by the constant flow of information (much of it misinformation, they argue) it receives from the country’s adversaries, and whose inspectors are regarded as Western spies, will be odious to an institution that prides itself on its revolutionary purity (just as such charges are offensive to the US). Iran’s academic community will continue to balk at IAEA requests to interview some of its leading nuclear scientists, and not only because of the incriminating information that might have to be given up; the scientists have—in the words of Edward Levine of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, speaking at an event at the Brookings Institution—an “understandable fear of being assassinated,”5 as several scientists have been in recent years.

For all that, if the supreme leader requires his hard-liners and other vested interests to deliver concessions on the nuclear issue, they will do so. Back in 1988, after eight years of war, Iran’s revolutionaries were forced to accept peace on terms they bitterly resented with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a Baathist neighbor that had invaded them with Western support. Khomeini compared laying down arms to drinking hemlock; accepting restrictions on the country’s nuclear program will be a lot easier.

The main beneficiary of Khamenei’s current backing for the negotiating process has been the government of President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in 2013 on a promise to end Iran’s political isolation. Shortly before last November’s round of talks, Khamenei’s website took the unusual step of posting an interview with the government’s chief nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, in which he thanked the supreme leader for his “heartwarming” support—including his statement in July concerning Iran’s enrichment needs, which had “raised our bargaining power.”

After the Vienna talks ended inconclusively in November, there was a flurry of statements from US legislators in favor of more sanctions against Iran. Over the past few weeks, however, Congress seems to have taken to heart the administration’s warning that this would scupper the talks and imperil the international consensus without which Iran would not have agreed to the negotiations. It is likely that Congress will refrain from proposing new bills at least until March 24, the date by which a basic agreement is slated to be in place. (According to this optimistic timetable the various technical annexes are to be completed by July.)6

The likelihood of a comprehensive deal this year is slim. It depends in large measure on Khamenei’s idea of what would be an acceptable negotiating outcome. While the Islamic Republic has made significant advances in persuading America and its allies to accept Iranian fuel enrichment, the P5+1 may not be willing to budge much further on their primary goals. These include a twelve-month “breakout time,” i.e., the time it would take to make weapons-grade fuel; more intrusive monitoring than is provided for under the so-called Additional Protocol, the IAEA’s most stringent inspections regime; and a slow relaxation of sanctions through, for example, executive orders—not a rapid termination through legislation, as Iran wants. Under this set of conditions Iran would have to wait well over a decade before it could hope to achieve 190,000 SWUs, and that figure would only be possible if the IAEA gives Iran’s program its approval.

Before the Joint Plan of Action was signed, Iran felt threatened by the possibility of Israeli attacks and also by impending economic disaster, as the riyal collapsed and inflation soared. President Rouhani has stabilized the currency, cut inflation, and embraced diplomacy, and as a result both threats are in abeyance. Although Iran continues to chafe under severe sanctions, and the possibility of even anemic GDP growth this year may well be thwarted by the recent fall in oil prices, the country is stable, repression of dissent continues, and there is no significant risk of social unrest.

On the diplomatic side, amid the doubts and mutual distrust that persist, it is worth recalling that after thirty-four years without an official relationship Iran and the United States are now talking regularly and constructively and the two countries are involved in a de facto coalition against ISIS in Iraq. This is a major development, although Iran still supports the Assad regime.

Both sides value the current negotiating process too much to allow it to collapse easily, but a comprehensive deal also seems unlikely. Iran might settle for a further prolongation of the situation as it stands now, with perhaps small confidence-building steps on both sides—in other words, an indefinite Joint Plan of Action.

If that were Iran’s position, the question facing the US would be this: Should it pile on more sanctions and risk destroying the diplomatic gains of the past year and a half, or continue with a status quo that leaves Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact but not immediately threatening, and that may suit Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an unreconstructed but circumspect revolutionary, rather well?

—January 8, 2015