Iran and the Six Powers Must Make a Good Deal, But Can They?

By Hooshang Amirahmadi

The article appeared in "Payvand News" on July 4th, 2014.

Nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) are toughening as they approach the July 20 deadline for a comprehensive deal based on the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) they signed in Geneva last November. While serious disagreements remain, significant progress has been made. Iran has almost fully complied with the terms of the JPOA, and the P5+1 has agreed to allow Iran to enrich uranium to fuel its research reactors in Arak and Tehran under strict conditions. What divides them is the origin of fuel needed for Iran’s nuclear energy reactors. The P5+1 wants Iran to import the fuel while Iran insists on producing it at home.

The JPOA has stipulated that Iran’s demand for fuel production must be judged against its “practical needs.” Iran had hoped that it can use the Bushehr plant and the planned future reactors as justifications. However, Russia is supplying fuel for the Bushehr reactor and it has a contract with Iran to do so till 2021. Yet, what has become an obstacle to Iran’s demand is Russia’s insistence that it supply fuel for the Bushehr plant beyond 2021, claiming that only its fuel is safe for this Russian-made reactor. Indeed, Russia is now leading the P5+1 in resisting Iran’s demand for fuel production. Iran’s argument is also weakened by the fact that even the US is importing its nuclear fuel from countries like Russia and France.

It is unfortunate that Iran cannot trust the international community for its future nuclear fuel needs as it would have been economically better off to just import such fuel. Iran’s experience with world powers has often been negative and dependency on them has often harmed its autonomous development. It is no wonder that a major slogan of the 1979 Revolution was “national independence.” What has made Iran resist demands that it must import nuclear fuel is its recent experience with Eurodif (European Gaseous Diffusion Uranium Enrichment consortium) and now Russia. Eurodif, in which Iran had a 10 percent share, refused to supply Iran with nuclear fuel for Tehran’s research reactor.

Lacking trust in the Islamic Republic, the P5+1 is after a “bullet proof” deal that reduces Iran’s nuclear enrichment program to a symbolic and strictly contained size. It allows for only about 5000 IR1 centrifuges, caps enriched uranium at about 10,000 KG, changes the Fardo uranium enrichment plant into a research facility, restricts Iran’s manufacturing of modern centrifuges, and cripples the Heavy Water plant at Arak. The group also wants the IAEA to inspect certain Iranian military sites, impose intrusive and unrestrained monitoring, identify and interview Iran’s nuclear scientists, and make the Islamic Republic acknowledge that it had a past nuclear military program. Further, the US is telling Iran that sanctions cannot be so easily and rapidly lifted and that its nuclear file may not become normalized for years to come.

While Iran has consented to most of these demands, it continues to resist the request that it import fuel for its nuclear energy plants. Iran, for political reasons, wants an autonomous nuclear program to satisfy its future fuel and energy needs. The Bushehr plant alone will require 100,000 SWU for which Iran needs 100,000 IR1 centrifuges or 20,000 IR2. Iran also wants sanctions lifted quickly and its nuclear file normalized within a few years. Against these demands, Iran has tried to impress upon the P5+1 that it has no intention of building nuclear weapons, and toward that end it has implemented most of the JPA’s requirements and used a religious “fatwa” by the Supreme Leader Khamenei.

Despite these efforts, Iran has not yet gained the right to industrial-scale enrichment. Reportedly, the reason for the group’s rejection of Iran’s demand is that it wants Iran’s “breakout” time -- the time Iran would need to develop a nuclear bomb -- be sufficiently long, ideally longer than a year, so that it will never be able to clandestinely build a bomb. However, this disagreement is less about technical matters and more about political calculations, reflecting the fact that the US and its allies do not yet trust Iran. Unfortunately, this lack of trust is mutual and its roots are as much contemporary as they are historical. Iran’s relations with most countries in the P5+1 have been problematic at one point or another.

While both sides are trying to reach an agreement by July 20, it is not certain that they could, in which case they can agree on a 6-month extension as anticipated in the JPOA. This possibility will further trouble the negotiations and make reaching a good comprehensive deal even more difficult. The extension will provide the forces already opposed to the negotiations a golden opportunity to torpedo them by raising more demands and finding more faults in an expected deal. So, as things stand, the current negotiations can lead to “no deal,” a “bad deal,” or ideally a “good deal.” These outcomes will have far reaching implications for Iran’s disputed nuclear program, US-Iran relations, and a Middle East in turmoil.

“No deal” will make the US impose more crippling sanctions on Iran and voice more military threats; it will make Iran revert to high-grade and rapid industrial-scale nuclear enrichment. This scenario can eventually lead the US to attack Iran’s nuclear and strategic sites, and Iran to attack oil tankers and shipping lines in the Strait of Hormoz in the Persian Gulf. The conflict will surely rapidly spread in the growingly chaotic Middle East, where Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict is on the rise, the future of Iraq and Syria is hanging in the balance, and state-sponsored extremists are growing in numbers and strength, destabilizing the region.

In the US, no deal will create more headache for President Obama, who will be blamed for yet another foreign policy fiasco. In an election year, when conservatives are poised to overtake the Senate, no deal can spell disaster for the President and his party. In Iran, too, the impact will be severe on the “moderates” as they will be discredited for trusting the US. There are two elections ahead in Iran as well (Parliament and Expert Assembly), and they are highly contested. No deal will dash the popular hope for Iran’s rapid economic recovery, making the moderates lose the elections. In that case, and given renewed Islamic radicalism, President Rouhani will be weakened beyond repair and relations with the West will deteriorate.

A “bad deal” will have no less negative consequences. Secretary John Kerry is right in saying that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” a dictum that is equally applicable to Iran. For Iran, who does not want to “depend” on foreign nuclear fuel, a bad deal will leave the country with a meaningless nuclear enrichment program. The deal will be even worse if critical sanctions on oil and banking were to remain for a protracted period. Such a deal will not be supported by the Iranian conservatives and nationalists, and President Rouhani could not implement it. Recall that his government has promised Iranians a “win-win” deal with the West.

The US will also lose from a deal that will not be implemented, leaving Iran with the possibility of nuclear weaponization if it ever intended to do so. Besides, the Iranian people, among a few in the region with a positive view of the US, will become disappointed and may even buy into the view that the deal is bent to weaken Iran and prevent its development. They will recall a previous “bad deal” between the US and Iran, the Algiers Accord of 1981. It rightly achieved the release of American hostages in Tehran but, because it did not lead to the freeing of the Iranian frozen assets, it became a source of many troubles in US-Iran relations. The two nations cannot afford another bad deal.

The only acceptable result of the current negotiations is a “good deal,” and both sides must give it a real chance. A good deal for Iran is a meaningful nuclear enrichment program along with reasonable sanctions relief. For the P5+1, a good deal prevents Iran from building nuclear weapons through uranium enrichment or plutonium production. But can they change the current course, set to result in no deal or a bad deal, to one that can produce a good deal? The answer is not unless they change the present supply-side negotiations, designed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambition, to demand-side negotiations designed to eliminate any incentive Iran might have to divert.

Verifiably trusting Iran may be the best option. After all, if a country the size and geography of Iran intended to clandestinely build a bomb, no amount of inspection and verification will ever be able to detect or stop it. Even if Iran had the intention to build bombs it could be better diverted by other means than sanctions and inspections - like regional security cooperation, trade and foreign investment, and political reform in Iran, all of which will build trust and confidence. However, in the absence of a good deal none of these are possible, which will be unfortunate given the precarious state of US-Iran relations and the dangerous future facing the Middle East.

As the crises in Iraq and Syria and the rise of the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) suggest, Iran and the US have common interests that are better served by tighter cooperation. Their teamwork will seem most imperative if it is recognized that forces like ISIS are not just zealot Muslims but paid agents, supported by state and non-state entities. The region includes millions of poor and unemployed ready to be hired, and rich individuals and states who are willing to employ them for selfish gains. Under this condition, the US or Iran will never be able to single-handedly eliminate such threats to their national security and interests. They must cooperate, and towards that end they must conclude a good deal.

The article appeared in "Payvand News" on July 4th, 2014.