Even though an agreement in Geneva over Iran’s nuclear program stumbled at the last minute over language regarding Iran’s right to enrich uranium, the events of the past weekend should not obscure the fact that the United States and its partners are on the verge of an historic diplomatic achievement. One indication of this is that the parties have agreed to meet again soon, on November 20.
The exact details of the proposed deal are unknown, but some elements have been made public. In return for limited and reversible sanctions relief, Iran would be required to halt production of medium-enriched uranium, and render much of its existing stockpile into nuclear fuel unusable for a weapon. It would also require Iran to stop using its most sophisticated centrifuges, which can enrich uranium more quickly than older models.
What is unfortunate and counterproductive, however, is the public hailing of France's maneuver by hawkish American critics of the Obama administration's engagement policy. Frankly, the celebrating of these self-styled super-patriots over such a setback for U.S. diplomacy is highly objectionable, particularly since the policies developed and supported by many of these critics, and implemented at their urging by the Bush administration, did a great deal to boost Iranian interests in the region, at the great, and continuing, expense of the U.S. and its allies.
News that Iran and the IAEA agreed to inspections of the Arak facility should go a good way to addressing those concerns. This is the first time Iran and the IAEA have come to such an agreement in the past six years. It is a particularly welcome step from Iran as it comes in the absence of an agreed deal with the P5+1.
While considerable distrust remains, the result of thirty years of enmity and conflict, the fact is that the governments of the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran are currently in sync as they have not been for a long time, perhaps ever. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the ultimate decision maker in Iran’s system, has repeatedly and publicly signaled his support for the diplomatic initiative of Iran’s new President Hassan Rohani and his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
While comparisons between Iran’s political factions and the U.S.’s can obscure more than they clarify, one aspect in which they are very similar is that both administrations see value in diplomatic engagement, and believe their respective countries’ interests can be advanced through talking. But both administrations face domestic challenges from hardline elements that see no value in talking, and believe the other side to be irretrievably committed to their country’s destruction.
Already, some Iranian hardliners are warning against the proposed deal. The window for an agreement is open now, a former Iranian official told me in a recent conversation, but at some point soon the domestic political pressure could become too great for Rohani to sustain his diplomatic effort.
While the sanctions are clearly making an impact, it’s important not to overestimate the amount of leverage that exists against Iran right now. It’s safe to say that the economic difficulties exacerbated by international sanctions have contributed to Iran’s decision to engage in these talks, but there’s little evidence that Iran’s economy is at a breaking point, as hawkish U.S. supporters of sanctions insist. The Islamic Republic has shown in the past, most notably during the Iran-Iraq war, that it is willing to endure extreme difficulties in defense of what it perceives as its national interests.
Now is the right time for a first-step agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, which offers limited and reversible sanctions relief in return for Iranian concessions, in order to create space for a broader, more comprehensive agreement that brings Iran’s program under full international monitoring and rolls back any possibility that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon in a short period of time without being detected.
Such an agreement could, in turn, create the opportunity for the U.S. and Iran to address broader tensions, possibly leading to greater cooperation on issues of mutual interest and concern. This is what took place back in 2001-2002, when Iran and the U.S. cooperated in Afghanistan, an opportunity ruined, as former Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan Ryan Crocker recently noted, when President Bush chose to cast Iran as a member of the “Axis of Evil.”
It’s also worth remembering that, back in 2005, Iran and the international community, represented then by UK, France and Germany, were close to a deal that would have restricted Iran to 3000 centrifuges -- instead of the 10,000 they have currently spinning -- until the Bush administration scuttled it. The P5+1, Congress, and even Israel would jump at that deal today. Hopefully we will not look back in years to come with similar regret. Now is the time to strike a deal.
Korb is a senior fellow and Duss a policy analyst at Center for American Progress.