Time for the US and Iran to Act

Europe, Russia, China and the United States have pressed Iran for years to end a suspected nuclear weapons program. After years of harsh sanctions, Iran is engaging in serious negotiations under President Hassan Rouhani. “Only US pressure through economic sanctions and martial threats has made Iran face the reality that it won’t be permitted nuclear weapons,” explains Jamsheed Choksy, professor of Iranian studies. Keen interest from other nations in Iran as a major holder in natural gas and oil reserves is disruptive for negotiations and application of sanctions. Verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency is required. Now that the United States and Iran have reestablished contact and the process of normalizing relations slowly unfolds, Choksy urges the US to “move alone to clinch the deal.” Nuclear weapons will never resolve problems or secure the Middle East. Most Iranian citizens seek a peaceful solution, and talks resume this week. – YaleGlobal

Time for the US and Iran to Act

Holding leverage over Iran, the US can ensure verification by the IAEA
Jamsheed K. Choksy
Thursday, November 21, 2013

Too many cooks for Iranian deal? US Secretary of State John Kerry with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the UN, top; earlier fruitless meeting of P5+1 with Iranian diplomats

BLOOMINGTON: Since 2003 Britain, France and Germany, subsequently joined in 2006 by the US, Russia and China, have carried on fruitless negotiations with Iran in a bid to end its suspected nuclear weapons program. Iran seems finally ready to accede. But a successful outcome ultimately depends on assent from the United States – the only power that has inflicted pain on Iran and is capable of wielding military blows. It’s time for the US to move alone to clinch the deal.

The Iranian government is negotiating seriously because of broad-based political will inside Iran for a nuclear deal and not from fear of the EU, Russia, China or even Israel. Only US pressure through economic sanctions and martial threats has made Iran face the reality that it won’t be permitted nuclear weapons.

In fact, some of the other P5+1 nations – Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – have weakened sanctions by requesting and receiving waivers from the US or simply circumventing them. All have strategic interest in Iran – ranked fourth in proven oil reserves and first in proven gas reserves.  London, for instance, is in the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with Tehran. Worse, Russia and China have supplied technology to Iran’s nuclear program.

The failure of P5+1 representatives to present a united front during negotiations at Geneva in early November is the latest example of the international group having outlived its usefulness. As Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted: “Mr. Secretary [John Kerry], was it Iran that gutted over half of US draft Thursday night and publicly commented against it Friday morning?” Consequently, the forum of discussions should change.

The P5+1 format was valuable when the US and Iranian governments did not have overt official contact. Then this year saw a series of regular contacts: written and oral communications between the two presidents, Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani; face-to-face meetings between Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif; and other in-person meetings by officials of lesser rank during the past months, often out of view, around the globe. The process of slowly normalizing US-Iran relations has begun.

Iranian authorities have become more favorable to a deal because they know that President Rouhani, as a cleric, will not use popularity from such a deal to subvert the regime. Consequently within 24 hours of talks in Geneva deadlocking, Tehran’s politicians joined ayatollahs and members of the Iranian public in denouncing France rather than the US for changing the pre-negotiated language of the preliminary deal Foreign Minister Zarif had been instructed to accept.

Obama’s speech at the UN General Assembly in September acknowledged the “right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy.” Iran’s recently rephrased demand that the world "respect" rather than "recognize" its right to enrichment can be resolved within that context. So, negotiators must focus bilateral talks on curtailing Iran’s enrichment of uranium above civilian-use levels and preventing production of nuclear weapons. Regular verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran is conforming fully to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty must be part of weapons preclusion, too.

Iran has signaled that it understands these concerns by agreeing to grant IAEA inspectors access to the Arak heavy water plant and uranium mines. The IAEA’s November quarterly report indicates Iran has effectively ceased expansion of its nuclear program. It also has speeded up converting its 19.75 percent uranium to fuel rods, ensuring that the stockpile remains below that needed for weaponization. Iran appears to have taken these steps as confidence-building measures to ensure successful negotiations. In theory, the Iranian government saves face by retaining its “right to enrichment,” but in practice suspends enrichment indefinitely or at least brings it down to the 3.5 percent civilian-use level.

Disclosure by Iran of past military dimensions to its nuclear program would be valuable to the US and IAEA in determining the progress toward weaponization. Yet Iran seems to be wiping out those tracks, by destroying traces of militarization at Parchin, for instance. Despite the P5+1 failure in Geneva, even Parchin is likely to be opened eventually for inspection as a second stage to the cooperative agreement just signed by Iran and the IAEA. Accordingly, lack of complete disclosure of past activities should not serve as a fundamental obstacle to a negotiated settlement, so long as full verification proves weapons programs have ended and can’t be restarted.

Outside the P5+1, Israel is rightly concerned about national security in the face of an Iranian regime that questions its right to existence and supports its insurgent enemies. Israel, which swiftly demolished incipient nuclear programs in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, has consistently threatened Iran over the past decade without follow-up – perhaps because its aerial forces may no longer be capable of rendering inoperative all of Iran’s nuclear-related sites. Consequently, Jerusalem’s warnings of using force do not evoke fear in Tehran.

On the other hand, Iranian leaders know full well that US forces, with technological capability to inflict massive damage, are stationed within striking distance. So, the US threat of ensuring the security of allies like Israel remains credible and reinforces Iranian belief that the only nuclear deal which matters is one with Washington.

Yes, the US could simply abjure negotiations and pound Iran. But the long-term effectiveness of martial actions against Iranian nuclear facilities would likely be modest. As Rouhani told the UN General Assembly in September, Iran has domesticated nuclear technology and dispersed the program across the country, making it extremely difficult to eradicate through externally-staged military and cyber strikes. Possessing knowledge, technology and ability to restart is another reason behind Iran’s newfound confidence to negotiate earnestly.

Despite restart capability, most Iranians do not wish their nation to be devastated and prefer a peaceful solution resulting in increased interactions with the global community. Moreover for domestic socioeconomic progress, in addition to sanctions relief, Iran seeks to unlock approximately US$50 billion in assets frozen around the world plus gain access to new technologies. Tehran’s leaders realize full well it is the United States that has been at the forefront of cutting Iran off from international networks and it will be the United States that can reintegrate Iran once it proves responsible, non-hostile and contributive in world affairs.

For all these reasons, even if the next round of P5+1 talks this week produce a temporary agreement, the US should move forward with one-on-one negotiations with Iran over detailed, enforceable and reciprocally beneficial steps. The IAEA can serve as an independent verification organization, reporting on whether agreement terms are being fully implemented.

Of course, the US should not abandon allies nor reduce pressure hastily. Sanctions must continue to be enforced and force remain an option until Iran irreversibly steps back from breakout capability. The end result must be nuclear weapons never being developed by Iran even as that nation in return begins to benefit from nuclear-based energy, from reciprocal abatement of sanctions and gradual reintegration into the global community.

Direct negotiations, combined with sanctions as the pressure mechanism and backed by overwhelming military force as the final option, can succeed in swaying Iran away from nuclear armaments. It’s fully worth the effort for if direct talks do not work within a short time span, then the United States could, justifiably, finish crippling Iran’s authoritarian regime.

Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian Studies, chairman of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies, and former director of the Middle East Studies Program in the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University. He also serves on the US National Council on the Humanities overseeing the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale