A Diplomatic Solution to the Iran Nuclear Standoff? That May Depend On Achieving Compromises

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A handout picture released by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's official website shows him (R) listening to an expert during a tour of Tehran's research reactor on Feb. 15, 2012.

Sanctions on Iran are beginning to work, goes the argument from the Obama Administration, and they should be given more time to bring Tehran to heel. The primary audience for this argument is the leadership of Israel, whom the U.S. and other Western powers are working hard to dissuade from launching a military attack on Iran. Tehran is showing renewed willingness to negotiate about its military program and this is taken, by some, as evidence that sanctions could achieve an acceptable outcome without risking a potentially catastrophic military confrontation. Whether that proves true, however, may ultimately depend on whether the players can be reconciled diplomatically — it’s extremely rare that any party to international conflict gets all of what it wants at the negotiating table unless its adversary has been forced to surrender.

Talks are certainly the focus of the moment. A high-level delegation of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrived in Tehran on Monday, to test Iran’s willingness to allow inspectors to visit sensitive sites and interview key personnel. Tehran’s response to the IAEA’s requests will be an important indicator of the prospects for talks expected to be scheduled soon between Iran and the “P5+1” — a group comprising the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.

Meanwhile, U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon is in Israel, amid Israeli media reports of tensions over public statements by some U.S. officials warning Israel against a military strike. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will meet President Barack Obama on March 5, during his visit to Washington to address the annual conference of a large pro-Israel lobbying organization, the America Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) — an audience important to Obama as he seeks reelection in November.

But whether diplomacy — backed by sanctions and Israeli military threats on the one side, and Iranian defiance on the other — resolves the standoff will depend on all parties finding a formula with which they can live. This would require uncomfortable compromises all round.

If Iran’s expressed readiness to negotiate is genuine, the Financial Times gave warning in an editorial last week, that it becomes essential to clarify “what level of Iranian nuclear capability the world can live with, subject to intrusive external monitoring to verify Tehran is not running a weapons program”. If, once IAEA concerns about past activities are satisfied, Western powers aren’t willing to accept Iran’s maintenance of the internationally monitored uranium enrichment capability to which the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entitles it “there will be nothing to negotiate.”

Iran has agreed to discuss its nuclear program with the P5+1, although its nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili insisted that it would do so “without preconditions” — by which he means without necessarily accepting Western demands. Indeed, Jalili promised that Iran would bring new initiatives of its own to the table.

Former Iranian diplomat Hossein Mousavian suggested last week that a plausible diplomatic solution would need Western powers to recognize Iran’s right to nuclear technology, including enrichment, and lift sanctions. Meanwhile Iran would accept maximum transparency requirements under the NPT, including intrusive monitoring of all of its nuclear work, accept limits on its  enrichment levels and on the amount of low-enriched uranium it can stockpile, and other limits on its nuclear activities during a confidence-building period.

There’s no sign that Moussavian’s views would have the support of Iran’s leaders (he is currently a scholar at Princeton University) although they dovetail with other proposals to which some of them have responded positively. Then again, Iran’s Supreme Leader remains suspicious of and hostile to the intent of Western powers, and it remains to be seen what degree of compromise he will allow. If, however, he were amenable to the path outlined by Moussavian, it could create a headache for Western powers.

The civilian nuclear infrastructure to which Iran would be entitled under the NPT framework for peaceful nuclear power (once concerns over its previous activities are resolved) would nonetheless give it the capability to build nuclear weapons — if it expelled inspectors and broke out of the NPT. The same is currently true for Japan, Brazil, Argentina and other less controversial nuclear-energy states. Iran is not currently compliant with all of its NPT obligations, of course, but it is quite possible for Tehran to put itself fully in compliance with the Treaty and at the same time retain the capability to build nuclear weapons.

Until now, the bottom line for Israel, and of the more hawkish elements in the West (particularly France), has been that Iran can’t be allowed to maintain even peaceful enrichment capability because of the dual-use potential of that technology. The Bush Administration did, in fact, vow to prevent Iran acquiring the know-how to manufacture nuclear fuel, although that was rendered moot in April 2006 when Iran produced its first enriched uranium. Still, the Bush Administration had a position that Iran would have to give up all enrichment of uranium.

The Obama Administration’s stance has been more ambiguous on whether it would accept Iranian enrichment as part of a diplomatic solution that satisfied concerns over Iran’s intent and substantially strengthened safeguards against weaponization. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ruled out the prospect of Iran retaining any enrichment capability in July 2009. More recently she has stressed that the U.S. seeks a “negotiated solution that restores confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program while respecting Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy consistent with its obligations under the Non Proliferation Treaty.” If NPT compliance is the only benchmark, of course, Iran would be able to enrich uranium under international scrutiny once it has satisfied concerns raised by the IAEA over its previous activities.

The political pressures on the Administration are made obvious, not only by the Israeli threats to take unilateral military action, but by moves such as the bipartisan effort in the Senate to pass a resolution that would draw the line not at any Iranian move to weaponize nuclear material, but at Iran having the capability to build a bomb. That’s a capability Iran already has, of course, even if it hasn’t yet decided to use it. At a Senate Armed Services committee hearing last week, Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. General Ronald Burgess noted “Iran today has the technical, scientific and industrial capability to eventually produce nuclear weapons.” At the same hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services committee that the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community remains that Iran has not yet decided to build nuclear weapons, even as it steadily accumulates the means to do so. (Pentagon officials suggest that it would take two to three years from breaking out of the NPT for Iran to develop a nuclear device that could be delivered via a missile.) Clapper said that he believed that Iran was a rational actor, and that Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei would make that decision based on a cost-benefit analysis.

While Israel and the more hawkish voices in Washington insist on a solution that rolls back Iran’s nuclear capacity, there’s no sign, thus far, that even the most punishing sanctions have changed Iran’s mind. Despite that pressure, Lt. Gen. Burgess told the senators “we assess that Iran is not close to agreeing to abandon its nuclear program.”

By that assessment, a diplomatic solution right now would require a measure of mutual trust (backed, following Ronald Reagan’s dictum, by verification) that has thus far been absent. Putting that in place (or even simply avoiding a dangerous confrontation) during a domestic election season in which Iran is the primary foreign policy issue, remains the most distinctive foreign policy challenge of Obama’s presidency.