Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have wrapped up in Baghdad. There was no agreement, but one wasn’t expected and both sides agreed that talks will continue. The broad outlines of a deal are fairly well known and include: Iran coming completely clean about its nuclear activities; the cessation of enrichment to 20 per cent and the removal from Iran of its stockpile of such material; the safeguarding within Iran of its uranium enriched to lower levels; stringent safeguards on all Iranian nuclear activity; and, in return, the removal of the sanctions on Iran, both those in place and those pending.
Another key question is the timelines. For the Iranians, the desired outcome is a speedy removal of the sanctions in return for as little in the way of concessions on their nuclear program as possible beyond vague promises of future action. For the international community, the desired outcome is speedy and certain action on Iran’s part, followed by the phased removal of the sanctions as Iran’s promises are seen to be kept.
Expect some hard negotiations over the interplay of these objectives and timelines, and not just between Iran and its partners, but also among the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany) and with Israel. We are, then, talking about a process whereby a series of reciprocal concessions and gestures will be made on these various issues over time. Thus, there is a need to keep in mind some overriding principles that should guide how we assess the discussions.
First, Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear program (including enrichment), but the international community has the right to insist that the program actually be peaceful, transparent and verified. This is often forgotten on the U.S. and Israeli side by those who insist that the negotiations should strip Iran of all nuclear capacity and, on the Iranian side, by those who insist that Iran has unlimited nuclear rights.
Second, this is about the nuclear issue only. Sanctions legislation in the U.S. Congress has gone beyond the nuclear problem to insist that Iran undertake profound domestic political changes before the sanctions are lifted. This position makes a nuclear deal impossible. If the Iranian regime has to give up its hold on power, there will be no deal. Broader goals concerning reform in Iran can still be pursued, but the international community cannot mix up the need for a resolution of the nuclear file with longer-term goals concerning democratization and human rights in that country. This is the approach the West took with respect to arms control with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Third, all life contains some element of risk. Let’s admit it from the outset: There can be no perfect verification provisions. Some scope for small-scale cheating will remain. The first key to dealing with this is to create a verification regime that makes the likelihood of detection sufficiently great that Iran thinks twice before risking it. The second key is to make sure that even if small-scale cheating does happen, it cannot get anywhere near giving Iran a usable weapons option before it is detected. This is the verification standard against which a deal should be judged, not some abstract notion of perfection. Those who will oppose the deal will argue for perfection, but don’t be fooled; they will be using this argument as an excuse to trash a deal they oppose anyway.
Fourth, given Iran’s disgusting rhetoric, the Israelis have a right to be worried and to have their concerns taken into account. But they don’t have a veto. The Israelis have insisted that this problem is one that faces the entire international community. Fine, but that means the international community’s standards of an acceptable deal take precedence. If the Israelis don’t like the deal that emerges (if one does), they have the option of taking unilateral action – and facing all of the consequences that will entail in terms of U.S., Iranian and other international reactions. But they cannot insist that the international community take this problem up and then argue that only Israel’s desired outcome is acceptable. Whatever deal is reached, the Israeli right wing will howl that it’s not good enough, and will expect a handsome payout in terms of additional military aid (“to ensure Israel’s security”) and other considerations – but they do not have a veto. Interestingly, some signs have begun to emerge from Israel of possible flexibility, including a recent statement by Defence Minister Ehud Barak that some low-grade enrichment activity in Iran may be acceptable to Israel under strict safeguards.
These talks are only just beginning. But at least they have begun.
Peter Jones is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.