Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: In Negotiations With Iran, Nuclear Rights and Nuclear Wrongs

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I don’t even want to acknowledge hopefully-soon-to-be-former Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress. Thomas Friedman sums up my feelings on the situation nicely:

I think such a deal would be in America’s interest if — if — it includes Iran agreeing to constant, intrusive and unannounced inspections of, and limits on, all bomb-making capacities and if, even after the specified 10 years, there are more-than-the-usual inspections. I would also welcome Congress accompanying the deal by granting the president formal authorization — right now — to use “any means necessary” to respond should Iran try to break out of the deal.

I still don’t know if I will support this Iran deal, but I also have a problem with my own Congress howling in support of a flawed foreign leader trying to scuttle the negotiations by my own government before they’re done. Rubs me the wrong way.

Letting the Israeli Prime Minister use Capitol Hill as the backdrop for a speech meant to undermine active negotiations involving not only our government, but the governments of the worlds most powerful countries, is indefensible.

The P5+1 Iran negotiations are an example of the international community working together towards a common goal. Inviting Netanyahu to Capitol Hill did not promote American values, it undermined the very Post-WWII international order America helped build.

Update: As if inviting Netanyahu to speak was not enough, today 47 GOP senators wrote a note to Iran’s leaders in another attempt to undermine negotiations.

The end of March deadline for a framework agreement is approaching, the sides are familiar with their counterparts interests and red-lines, and potential bargaining space has become clearly defined–we will know soon whether or not an agreement can been reached.

A few key issues remain in the negotiations:

  • Nuclear rights of Iran (number of centrifuges)
  • Preventing a “sneakout” / lengthening “breakout” time (international monitoring rights / acceptable levels of uranium enrichment)
  • Easing sanctions as slowly as possible / longest possible duration of the deal
  • How to manage Iran’s nuclear activities after the “sunset” period

“Break-Out” Time and “Sneak-Out” Capacity:

The efforts focus on the fate of Iran’s three major “declared” nuclear facilities, and on lengthening the “breakout” time for Iran to produce enough fuel for a single bomb. But those declared facilities are crawling with inspectors and cameras.

Unstated is the fear of a more problematic issue, referred to as “sneakout.” That describes the risk of a bomb being produced at an undetected facility deep in the Iranian mountains, or built from fuel and components obtained from one of the few trading partners happy to do business with Tehran, like North Korea.

The goal is to “make as airtight as possible” the language that would allow highly intrusive inspections to track the precursors and parts that feed Iran’s uranium complex, according to one participant in the negotiations.

The American officials are highly attuned to the findings of a once-classified 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that Iran ended its headlong race for a bomb in late 2003. But it also concluded that smaller-scale activity continued, and warned that “Iran probably would use covert facilities — rather than its declared nuclear sites — for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon.”

Behind the efforts to close a nuclear deal with Iran this weekend lies a delicate question that has been little discussed in public: how to design an agreement to maximize the chances that Western intelligence agencies would catch any effort to develop an atomic bomb at a covert site.

During his interview with Charlie Rose, Morell warned that the focus on declared centrifuges is misplaced, because he expects that if Iran were to try to build a bomb, it would do so in secret. The only protection against that, Morell said, is unannounced inspections at any place in the country at any time.

“If you are going to have a nuclear weapons program, 5,000 is pretty much the number you need,” Morell, now a CBS analyst, said on Charlie Rose. “If you have a power program, you need a lot more. By limiting them to a small number of centrifuges, we are limiting them to the number you need for a weapon.”

This fact that bombs require fewer centrifuges than power is a source of frustration for Albright, a physicist with the Institute for Science and International Security.

“I wish it were reversed,” he told us. “Then we could easily tell if the program was for weapons.”

A bomb requires about 25 kilograms of U-235 enriched to the 90 percent level. If an agreement limits Iran to about 9,000 centrifuges, that would be sufficient to produce enough bomb-grade material but would leave Iran well short of the capacity to generate fuel to power nuclear power plants.

The “Sunset” Problem:

One major issue is the “sunset” problem — that is, what happens after the accord, which would limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting economic sanctions, expires. The length of the accord has not been decided, but it could be 15 years or less.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel expressed alarm in his Tuesday address before Congress that Iran would be free to vastly expand its network of centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, after the accord ends. That, Israeli officials have argued, would greatly compress the time that Iran would need to develop nuclear weapons and would encourage Arab nations in the region to follow suit.

Administration officials assert that that criticism is off base. But they have yet to detail what combination of verification measures and possible constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities would remain in place.

This has become the main sticking point. I have heard ideas floated of pre-authtorizing U.S. military / UNSC response as a deterrent. The international community needs an effective and possibly automatic mechanism in place should Iran decide to pursue nuclear weapons during / after any potential agreement.

Deal or No-Deal?:

As a Jewish-American, I am as apprehensive as anyone about the idea of a nuclear Iran. But in order to move forward we must recognize the nuclear rights of the Iranian people, while addressing the legitimate security concerns a nuclear Iran would cause.

I have heard people argue that Iran does not need nuclear power because it is an oil producer. But from the perspective of sustainable development, building a nuclear power industry would help Iran diversify it’s economy and produce zero emission energy.

While the P5+1 nations are clearly negotiating from stronger economic ground, it could be argued that Iran is negotiating from a stronger geopolitical position. The Iranian government, while lacking in may human rights aspects, does a decent job of meeting the economic and security needs of its people. Furthermore, Iran is contributing significant ground troops in the fight against ISIL, something that is in short-supply in the American led coalition.

Given the current security context in the Middle-East, a challenge to the Khamenei regime is unlikely. The Iranian leadership knows the international community needs as many stable parties in the region as possible. The narrative of a power asymmetry between the two sides–that Iran needs a deal more–has been overblown.

It has been acknowledged by all sides that negotiations are a long-shot. President Obama recently said any agreement would have to include at least a 10 year freeze of sensitive nuclear activities, an idea the Iranian camp quickly stated was “unacceptable But the two sides continue to talk, showing that despite harsh rhetoric bargaining space still exists. Progress continues to be made, and all evidence suggests Iran is not using negotiations to stall while developing a nuclear bomb:

“Over the last year and a half, since we began negotiations with them, that’s probably the first year and a half in which Iran has not advanced its nuclear program in the last decade,” Obama said in a December 2014 conversation with CNN’s Candy Crowley.

Obama’s comments were largely accurate, according to experts. The agreement signed in November 2013 has made it harder for Iran to produce weapons-grade nuclear material, we found. International observers report that Iran complied with the terms of the temporary agreement. The amount of enriched uranium is less, and the country’s facilities to produce weapons-grade material has been curtailed.

Getting a deal done is not determinant of success. A bad deal is not better than no deal, it is just a bad deal; coming away with an agreement just to claim a diplomatic success would be catastrophic. But, contrary to what Bibi would have you believe, a deal with Iran need not be inherently “bad”.

In my opinion, a failure of the negotiation process would not be failing to reach a deal. A failure would be letting prejudices and distrust undermine the possibility, however remote, of reaching a “good deal”.

Regardless of the outcome, these negotiations have brought to the forefront certain issues Ayatollah Khamenei can no longer hide from. Is Iran’s nuclear program for peaceful or military purposes? Whats more important, Iranian national sovereignty or the standard of living of Iranian people? These questions will be answered by actions, not words, for the whole world to see. 

In the event of no-deal, it will be important that the international community can credibly claim they did everything they could, and that Iran was an unreasonable negotiating partner. In order to meet this criteria, we must ask for meaningful concessions from Iran (long-term unfettered access by inspectors, slow easing of sanctions) and making meaningful concessions ourselves (recognizing Iran’s legitimate nuclear rights).

Despite efforts from all sides to derail the negotiations, it appears all diplomatic avenues are thankfully being exhausted.

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