By Josh Zuckerman
Despite lacking any formal progress, the latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1, the permanent Security Council members and Germany, produced quite a bit of fanfare. Those seeking Iranian rapprochement with the international community celebrated the joint statement describing the “positive atmosphere” of the talks. While it seems like an innocuous statement, the perceived “warming up to Iran” has caused Saudi Arabia to turn down its coveted Security Council seat and declare its intention to significantly move away from the United States. This seemingly irrational move deserves greater attention that is unfortunately out of the scope of this article. Instead this article will analyze the state of the nuclear talks thus far and what appears to be the most realistic path towards Iranian denuclearization. Readers should regard this topic as vital prerequisite knowledge for understanding the Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape.
In the most recent round of talks, Iran merely presented a timeline for reducing its illicit nuclear programs in exchange for recognition of its right to enrich uranium and elimination of the sanctions. Nothing was agreed to, except that the sides will meet again in early November. In other words, they met, shook hands, offered initial terms, and decided to meet again in a few weeks. Though lacking in formal progress, the “positive atmosphere” and the fact that the sides even met at all must be considered a good start given the state of negotiations thus far.
A noteworthy development did emerge on the sanction front, however, as Obama officials have signaled that they may unfreeze some of Iran’s assets. The move would be a small, but meaningful, bit of relief to the tanking Iranian economy. Since the sanctions have taken effect, Iran’s economy has contracted by 6%, inflation is up 40%, and unemployment is over 30%. The idea has been widely supported by members of the international community and security experts alike. Although many are quick to argue such action is tantamount to rewarding Iran for continuing to enrich uranium, unfreezing the assets is probably the most prudent course of action at the moment. Pairing the unfrozen assets with the threat of a new round of sanctions, such as the ones the Senate are preparing to vote on, is a powerful incentive to keep Iran at the negotiating table. Furthermore, Obama realizes that he cannot make Clinton’s mistake of making impossible demands of a moderate Iranian president. Rohani has a clear mandate to ease the sanctions and unless he is able to accomplish something, it is unclear if Tehran will ever enter talks again. Critics of the policy also like to forget that this action has nothing to do with the actual sanctions. It would be one thing if the sanctions were eased because it’s debatable if Obama could ever get enough international support to reinstate them. This option, however, gives Iran a tangle benefit without actually changing the sanctions regime.
Below the surface of the talks, however, is emerging a larger and more difficult divide other whether Iran should have the rich to enrich uranium at all. It is unlikely Iran would ever agree to surrender its right to do so. While any realistic agreement would allow further enrichment for energy purposes, it is difficult to see the US Congress backing such a proposal. The heart of the issue is that while Iran may not be a nuclear power, as long as it can enrich uranium it will be a “threshold” nuclear state, meaning it has the capabilities to build a bomb.
It seems that any agreement will allow Iran to be a threshold nuclear state. Thus the only realistic agreement seems to make sure that Iran cannot build a weapon quickly. Nuclear energy experts argue that Iran’s nuclear program should be limited so that it would take it over six months to make enough weapons grade nuclear material for one bomb. Such a timetable would make it nearly impossible for Iran to pursue building a weapon before an international response. As of now, it is believed Iran could make enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb in about a month or less. Such a plan would require Iran to remove most of its 20% enriched uranium, closing the underground Akar reactor, and limiting its number of IR-2 centrifuges to under 3,000. In my opinion, this should be the basis of any settlement with Iran. In the meantime, I am strongly in favor of unfreezing Iran’s assets but pairing it with a threat of greater sanctions if Iran chooses to continue enriching uranium during the negotiations. Unfreezing the assets is a more than a sign of good faith unlike Iran’s continued enrichment activities during the talks. On that note, the signals from D.C. may have already paid dividends as Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, a high ranking official on Iran’s parliamentary national security and foreign policy committee, recently stated that Iran has stopped all enrichment activities. As of now the validity of this claim is questionable, but if true it certainly marks a major turning point in the talks. Should Iran choose to continue enriching uranium, however, I say allow the Senate to pass the tighter sanctions but give Obama to the power to remove the sanctions if and when the Iranians come to the table.
Photo Credit: flickr user furiousjethro, added 12/1/2011