Iran Negotiations Reach Important Milestone, But Still Have A Long Way To Go


BOLOGNA—On and off over the past few years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has splashed into Western countries’ news media headlines in articles reflecting fears that the nation was attempting to secretly build a nuclear weapon. With several rounds of crippling sanctions bringing the Iranian economy to its knees, the Iranian regime consented to a round of extremely secretive talks in Lausanne, Switzerland with the P5+1 aimed at removing the sanctions in return for some kind of guarantee that Iran will not seek a nuclear weapon. Last week, the world was given a peek behind the curtain. A joint statement of all the parties to the talks was supposed to be made Tuesday, but was delayed until Thursday as a result of ongoing disagreements between the U.S. and Iran.

Does the proposed framework have any chance of succeeding? As with many questions in international relations, it all depends. Negotiators still have an uphill battle slogging through the inevitable disagreements over the nitty gritty details of any deal before the self-imposed June 30 deadline which — judging by the difficulty getting to the broad strokes of the statement laid out Thursday — will be no easy feat. Still, as long as no external events like Iran performing a nuclear test or the U.S. Congress impeaching President Barack Obama foul up the negotiations, there is at least a chance that the pressure-cooker situation the negotiators have been thrown into in Switzerland with all eyes on them will produce some sort of agreement.

Say an agreement is reached by June 30 and all parties sign off on it without a hitch: what would the post-agreement world look like? In some form or another, the sanctions currently in place for Iran would be lifted in return for Iran’s agreement to give up the majority of its centrifuges (used for enriching fissile material), limit itself to its oldest centrifuges, only enrich uranium to 3.67 percent instead of the 90-plus percent necessary for weapons, drastically reduce its enriched uranium stockpiles from 10,000 to 300 kilograms, downscale operations at its hardened uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, and similarly limit its plutonium enrichment facility at Arak to fuel-grade plutonium rather than weapons-grade. To ensure all of this, the International Atomic Energy Association is supposed to have full access to all facilities in Iran that have any connection to the nuclear industry to ensure compliance with the terms of the agreement.

As with any negotiation, both sides come away with some wins and some losses. In a boost to national prestige, Iran will be allowed to keep most of its physical facilities even if they are limited to fuel production or nuclear research, will win the right (in accordance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty) to peaceful use of the atom, and most importantly, will get relief from international sanctions. The West will get Iran to make enormous cuts in its nuclear program that should prevent it from being able to build a nuclear weapon, as well as unprecedented access for monitors to ensure compliance, with the threat of re-imposing sanctions should Iran break the agreement.

All of this — of course — relies on the determination of both sides to stick to the agreement. If either side fails to uphold the agreement in the eyes of the other, the entire situation could end up back at square one. If Iran wants a nuclear weapon, there is almost nothing the rest of the world can do to prevent it from acquiring one sooner or later, as the example of the North Korean regime, which time and again used talks over its nuclear program to de-escalate tension and receive relief from sanctions before pushing forward with the next phase of its nuclear development, shows. Similarly, Iran has explicitly stated that the entire deal hinges upon the U.S. removing sanctions on Iran. With the political gridlock in the U.S. going as far as 47 Republican Senators sending a letter to Iran claiming that any deal made by the Obama administration and not ratified by the Senate will not be upheld, there are real concerns from both sides.

As much as the next person, I want there to be some sort of deal that allows Iran to peacefully harness the atom while ensuring it does not develop a nuclear bomb. The framework released Thursday looks promising in achieving that end if it can be implemented; the problem lies in the fact that everything hinges on implementation. An April 2 piece by NPR looks at a number of polls in the U.S. that paradoxically show overwhelming support by Americans for some sort of nuclear deal with Iran as well as the overwhelming belief that such a deal will not prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Politics is the science of the possible, and in service of the goal of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, this is as apt a time as any to bring back President Ronald Reagan’s quote referencing U.S.-Soviet relations: “Trust, but verify.” As important as it is for President Obama to convince the U.S. to accept whatever deal is hammered out, he needs to work ten times as hard making sure that that deal is durable and verifiable, or it will be worse than no deal at all.

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