A Contrarian Optimist View of the Upcoming Iran Nuclear Talks

When President Obama nominated global health superhero Dr. Jim Young Kim to lead the World Bank, Harvard development economist Dani Rodrik remarked, “It’s nice to see that Obama can still surprise us.”

Is it possible that Obama could pleasantly surprise us in the upcoming talks with Iran over its nuclear program? Much of the media coverage would suggest otherwise.

Nonetheless, there are actually quite a few positive signs we can point to:

1. There have been no reported major explosions in Iran or assassinations of Iranian scientists recently, as have seemed to occur in the run-up to previous talks. This could be a sign that US pressure on Israel and the Iranian MEK terrorist group is working to keep things quiet on that front. There is some evidence that this might be the case.

2. No one appears to be talking about Israel much at all. Israeli officials appear to be keeping a relatively low profile, and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently put forward a proposed list of Western demands that is at least on the planet of plausibility – in particular, Barak made no demand that Iran cease enriching uranium.

3. Thanks in no small part to the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), Congress has also been relatively quiet. And this week, Congress is out of session.

4. No one is talking about pre-conditions for the talks, except for an expectation that the talks be serious.

5. Nobody is talking about lifting all Western sanctions on Iran. Just as ending all uranium enrichment in Iran is a nonstarter for Iran, so ending all Western sanctions on Iran is a non-starter for the West. The horizon that we can see right now is an intermediate deal that addresses the most pressing concerns on each side. Since it’s an interim deal, it’s not going to address all the concerns of one side, and it’s not going to address all the concerns of the other side, either.

The impending tightening of the oil sanctions is widely perceived as a real threat to Iran (as well as to the world economy). Just as Iran has proved that it is willing to endure significant pain in the form of sanctions to keep its nuclear program, so the West has proved that it is willing to endure pain in the form of significantly higher oil prices in order to increase pressure on Iran. Regardless of whether arriving to this point was the result of the wisest possible course, at least we can now say that each side has had the opportunity to publicly stick its hand into the fire.

6. None of the demands that the United States has put forward ahead of the talks would represent humiliations for Iran, with the arguable exception of the last minute demand to close the Fordow enrichment facility, which I explore further below. In particular, the demand that Iran cease all enrichment of uranium has largely disappeared from view. The United States has signaled ahead of the talks that its deal-breaker bottom line is that Iran stop adding to its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, on the grounds that 20 percent is too close to nuclear weapons grade, and thus, the further accumulation of a stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium makes the gap between Iran and the immediate ability to produce a nuclear weapon too small for comfort. This is a plausible concern not just from a nonproliferation-of-nuclear-weapons point of view, but also from a nonproliferation-of-conventional-warfare point of view.

For better and for worse, the United States has clearly put out that a decision by Iran to produce a nuclear weapon is the United States’ “red line” – that is, an evidenced-based US belief that Iran had made such a decision would trigger the US use of military force. On the downside: this threat is a flagrant violation of the UN Charter; nothing in international law gives the United States the unilateral right to use or threaten force against Iran if Iran were to decide to produce a nuclear weapon; furthermore, laying down the explicit threat could have the effect of locking the United States into using military force if Iran clearly made such a decision. On the upside: if this is the underlying US policy, it’s far better for everyone to know this in advance; it’s a million times better than having a fuzzy – and much closer – “red line” like “nuclear weapons capability” as Senators Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut), Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and John McCain (R-Arizona) would like; and the Iranians have said, clearly and repeatedly, that they have no intention of trying to produce a nuclear weapon ever; therefore, so long as these remain the bottom-line US and Iranian positions, then we can have peace between the United States and Iran forever. Given that a decision by Iran to produce a nuclear weapon is the US red line, it’s in the broad interests of humanity to have a big grassy field that everyone can see between Iran and the immediate ability to produce a nuclear weapon.

Of course, there are a lot of big grassy fields that one can imagine. The UN Security Council could issue a fatwa that from now on, no one in Iran is allowed to study physics. But big grassy fields that can’t be achieved don’t do us any good. The consensus of reasonable expert opinion is that barring Iran from enriching uranium is a big grassy field that cannot realistically be achieved. But an Iranian agreement to cease enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, and/or to address concerns about its 20 percent stockpile – that is a different story.

7. What’s the ultimate evidence that the demand to stop stockpiling 20 percent enriched uranium is plausible? Iranian officials have clearly indicated that they agree that it is a plausible thing to talk about. The Washington Post reports:

In a signal that Iran is willing to negotiate over its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Fereydoon Abbasi, said Sunday that his country was considering a stop to the activity and [lowering] the enrichment levels.

“We do not produce more 20 percent fuel than we need,” Abbasi told the Iranian Students’ News Agency. He said it was easy to change the centrifuges now enriching uranium up to 20 percent and use them for making nuclear fuel up to 3.5 percent enriched. “Our systems are capable of making this change,” Abbasi said.

AP reports:

Abbasi said production of uranium enriched up to 20 percent is not part of the nation’s long-term program – beyond amounts needed for its research reactor in Tehran – and insisted that Iran “doesn’t need” to enrich beyond the 20 percent levels.

“The job is being carried out based on need,” he said. “When the need is met, we will decrease production and it is even possible to completely reverse to only 3.5 percent” enrichment levels.

None of this guarantees that there will be a deal. But at least on the core US demand, US and Iranian officials are playing on the same ball field.

8. Now, what about that last-minute demand that Iran shut down and eventually dismantle its underground enrichment facility at Fordow? Foreign policy scholar Stephen Walt finds the demand alarming and questions whether it means that the United States isn’t serious about a negotiated solution. Walt’s concern is sensible, but here is the contrarian optimist view.

a. As The New York Times notes, “opening bids in international negotiations are often designed to set a high bar.” If the talks fail, the United States can say it took a hard line. If the Iranians agree to a reasonable deal that addresses the 20 percent enrichment and stockpiling issues, the Fordow demand can be deferred indefinitely. Indeed, if the United States drops the Fordow demand in the context of a deal, this could help Iranian officials sell the deal to the Iranian public. “See,” they can say, “we gave up 20 percent enrichment, but we stood firm against the running dog imperialists when they demanded that we close Fordow.”

b. The question of Fordow is deeply entangled with the 20 percent enrichment issue. A significant component of why Fordow is considered provocative by the West is that 20 percent enrichment is happening there. If 20 percent enrichment stops, and/or Iran agrees to a reasonable deal to address the issue of its 20 percent enrichment stockpile, then Fordow is less of an issue.

c. The question of Fordow is also deeply entangled with the threat of an Israeli or US military strike. The Israelis find Fordow particularly annoying because it would be especially hard for Israel to bomb it.

On the one hand, it’s easy to see why the Iranians would see the expression of this concern in negotiations to be quite annoying. There is no international law or agreement that says you have to make your nuclear facilities available for easy bombing (indeed, even the threat to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities is a flagrant violation of the UN Charter).

On the other hand, at the end of the day, all these issues are entangled; tunnels aren’t the only way – and, at the end of the day, they are not the best way – for Iran to deter an Israeli or US strike. There are four reasons for Iran to have a nuclear program, stated and not-so-stated: energy, medical isotopes, national prestige and deterring a US or Israeli attack. At the end of the day, all four of these Iranian national goals can be achieved without the operation of the facility at Fordow, and, in the context of a deal that addresses the other pressing concerns of both sides, Fordow will be less of an issue to both sides.

In particular, a perverse benefit of all the warmongering against Iran is that, every time US officials counter the warmongering by saying that a military strike against Iran would be counterproductive because it would drive the Iranians towards nuclear weaponization, it underscores the fact that Iran derives important national security benefits from enrichment without ever needing to crack a textbook on weaponization, nor enrich to 20 percent nor build a deeper tunnel. If I’m an official in Iran’s enrichment program, every time a US official says that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program would be counterproductive to US interests, I get a little bit more convinced that I’m never going to need to try to build a nuclear weapon to protect my country from military attack.