June 27, 2013

Some urge U.S. to pursue bigger nuclear deal with Iran

With Iran nuclear talks on hold until after the August inauguration of Iranian President-elect Hassan Rouhani, some U.S. national security experts are urging the Obama administration to pivot from trying to get a small nuclear deal with Iran, to going for a more comprehensive deal.

“Going ‘Big for Big’ now potentially gives Rouhani something substantial to use to claim he got the P5+1 to recognize Iran’s ‘rights,’ something his predecessors didn’t get, and thus perhaps help him build an elite consensus around a nuclear deal,” former Pentagon Middle East advisor Colin Kahl told Al-Monitor Thursday. “We should move now to presenting an endgame proposal,” former Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross wrote in the New York Times this week (June 25).  “One that focuses on the outcome that we, the United States, can accept on the nuclear issue.”

Negotiations over the past year between six world powers and Iran have focused on trying to get Iran to curb its 20% uranium enrichment in exchange for limited sanctions relief. (See the most recent P5+1 offer to Iran here.)But Iran, at talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan in April, has said that it wants assurances that it will receive recognition of its right to enrich and the lifting of major US and European banking sanctions in exchange for stopping its 20% enrichment work and continuing to convert its 20% stockpile for medical use.

Rouhani, speaking at his first press conference following his win in Iran’s June 14th presidential polls, said that Iran would not agree to suspend its lower level 3.5% uranium enrichment, as it did when he led negotiations with three European powers from 2003-2005. But he did not rule out a halt to Iran’s 20% enrichment, and signaled that Iran may be willing to offer greater transparency of its nuclear program to assure the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it wasn’t diverting material for a nuclear weapon, in exchange for having its “rights” recognized.

While one U.S. official indicated the argument for pivoting to a comprehensive proposal was getting a new hearing in the Obama administration, U.S. officials wouldn’t comment if they thought that position would prevail.“The P5+1 is consulting on what the next steps should be in this process,” Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Staff, told Al-Monitor Thursday.  “I would note, however, that Iranian officials have indicated they will not be ready to resume talks until the new President is sworn in in early August.” Some US partners in the so-called P5+1—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany—however, have expressed wariness at the idea of putting forward any kind of end-game ultimatum to Iran. “After a ‘last chance’ offer, [then] what?” one western official, speaking not for attribution, said earlier this month. 

While the US internally debated the “go big” idea in advance of nuclear talks last year and after they stalled, the Obama administration ultimately did not pursue it, after it met resistance both from European allies and members of the administration who thought it was certain to fail. But some believe that calculus may have changed, since Iran has repeatedly insisted in talks over the past year on a deal that would grant it recognition of the right to pursue lower level enrichment and has sought greater sanctions relief than that offered in the smaller, confidence-building deal on the table.

Ross this week argued the United States should pivot to an endgame offer even if it can’t persuade all of its P5+1 partners to go along. “We should do so even if our negotiating partners — particularly the Russians — aren’t prepared to accept such a move, since the clock is ticking,” he wrote. Because diplomacy may take a long time, “we need to put a comprehensive package forward as soon as possible,” Kahl said. (See Kahl’s piece, with Alireza Nader, “Before piling on new sanctions, give Rouhani a Chance.”)

“Unless Iran slows its progress down, we don’t have years,” he said. “We have perhaps 12-18 months until they reach a breakout capability”–the point at which Iran could “dash” to produce enough weapons grade fissile material for a bomb even at declared facilities under inspection by the IAEA.“At that point,” Kahl continued, “Iran becomes a de facto nuclear-armed power whether they build a bomb or not and the prevention and diplomacy game is up.” Meantime, it appears that Iran’s president-elect had ordered his own review of Iran’s negotiations with the P5+1, in anticipation of talks resuming some time after his August 3rd inauguration. “In the last few days the president-elect has determined a group to review the discussion with P5+1…and some of our friends from the foreign ministry were present,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Wednesday.

Iran media reports have speculated that Ali Akbar Velayati, the international affairs advisor to the Supreme Leader and former Iranian foreign minister, may be a contender to become Iran’s next nuclear negotiator under the Rouhani administration. But Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said Thursday no such decisions had yet been reached.

Meantime, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei weighed in on the nuclear talks this week, saying getting a nuclear deal would be simple if Washington and its allies weren’t looking for a pretext to exert further pressure on Iran. “Several countries have formed an opposition front to Iran and they lie to the international community,” Khamenei told members of Iran’s Judiciary this week. “But if they put aside their stubbornness, solving the nuclear issue is simple and easy.”