week ago, negotiations in Geneva between Iran and six world powers adjourned without a deal. At issue was an interim agreement that would have frozen Iran’s nuclear program while the group worked out a broader, long-term settlement. By most accounts, the negotiations foundered over the late introduction of more stringent language about one of Iran’s facilities—a heavy-water reactor near Arak—and the removal of an explicit allowance for low-level uranium enrichment on Iranian soil. But meetings were set to resume this week, and, last Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that Iran has not expanded its nuclear program since August, when President Hassan Rouhani took office. Just six months ago, productive talks with Iran—the kind that hold out the possibility of a historic breakthrough—were unthinkable. Now, for the first time in thirty-four years, Iran and the United States are speaking. Yet many in the West remain wary of a diplomatic solution. The nature of diplomacy, after all, is compromise, which means that an agreement with Iran will bring an end to the fantasy of total victory for either side.
Rouhani has committed himself to finding a quick resolution to the impasse, and the cumbersome, fractious machinery of the Iranian state has backed him with an unusual unity of purpose. The tone of the Iranian negotiating team is businesslike and frankly urgent. Gone are the grandiose diatribes and the repetitive talking points of the Ahmadinejad years. In their place is what the Iranian President, sounding like a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, calls “constructive engagement,” and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sounding more like a member of a yoga collective, calls “heroic flexibility.”
Rouhani is a pragmatist who came to power, in part, on the strength of disaffection, both popular and élite, with the confrontational foreign policy of his predecessor. Surely his first priority is relief from the international sanctions, tied to the nuclear issue, on financial transactions and oil exports, which have caused hardship for the Iranian people. But it’s not difficult to imagine that, with Sunni extremism rising, particularly in Iraq and Syria, Rouhani and his team are also making long-term calculations about Iran’s strategic interests. So far, his foreign-policy agenda has not encountered the predicted hard-line obstruction in Tehran. On the contrary, during the Geneva talks the Supreme Leader tweeted, “Our #negotiators are children of the #Revolution. We strongly support those in charge of our diplomacy.”
On domestic matters, however, Rouhani’s support is less certain. He has fashioned a government of national unity at a time of profound political polarization. The President is a trusted member of the clerical élite, who also carries a mandate from reform-minded voters. They are waiting, with increasing impatience and skepticism, for him to make good on promises to relax censorship and to release more political prisoners. Meeting those demands will require Rouhani to persuade the conservative members of his coalition that liberalization will not threaten them or the system they uphold. He may hope to conclude the nuclear talks before addressing such delicate matters at home. But the longer Rouhani takes to satisfy reform-minded voters the more likely it is that his coalition will fracture. The Geneva talks look straightforward by comparison.
President Rouhani is not the only world leader attempting to sell his populace on an inherently unsatisfying middle course. American critics of a diplomatic deal, including some members of the Senate Banking Committee, worry that President Obama will give away leverage by easing sanctions, and that any agreement that meets Iran’s bottom-line requirement—for low-level uranium enrichment—will be as good as no agreement at all. But they have not offered a credible alternative. Air strikes would probably set Iran’s nuclear program back only temporarily, while making its ultimate militarization all but inevitable. Sanctions have afforded diplomatic leverage over Iran that was virtually nonexistent at the start of President Obama’s first term. But, in the end, sanctions do nothing for the American negotiating position if they can’t be lifted in exchange for meaningful Iranian concessions. That is why last week Secretary of State John Kerry urged the Senate Banking Committee to hold off on a bill to impose further sanctions on Iran while the negotiations are under way.
Iran has invested more than a hundred billion dollars in its nuclear program. In 2003, it had a hundred and sixty centrifuges (the devices used to enrich uranium); today, it has more than sixteen thousand. More significant, Iran by now has the scientific knowledge necessary to build a nuclear weapon if it decides to do so. “Nothing, including the complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, will put this technological genie back in the bottle,” Colin Kahl, a former top Middle East adviser at the Pentagon and a current fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Congress last week. A decade ago, it was possible to talk about forbidding Iran to enrich uranium. Now the discussion is about the potential of Iran’s “breakout capability”—to technically be in compliance with international obligations yet have the capacity to swiftly assemble a nuclear bomb. But Kahl maintains that a good diplomatic deal can make it impossible for Iran to produce a weapon without the international community’s having fair warning and time to respond. The United States should strike such a deal not because it trusts Iran’s motives but because it doesn’t.
Most observers expect that an agreement would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium to five per cent, the level necessary to fuel a power plant, while disabling plutonium facilities, limiting the number and the type of uranium centrifuges, and imposing intrusive inspections on nuclear activities to insure that they are not turned to military use. Iran came to Geneva for the same reason that the six world powers did: because its leaders believe that they can get something they require at an acceptable cost. These are the conditions that make diplomacy possible, and it has taken ten years to produce them. The United States can use them to secure an imperfect peace. Or it can start over by increasing the pressure on Iran and demanding unconditional surrender. If it chooses the latter, it will avoid a compromise, but it may find itself left with a choice between an unmonitored Iranian nuclear program and war.