Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, recently reasserted that his government is determined to reach a nuclear deal with representatives of the six major powers negotiating with Iran—Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States—the so-called Six.
Last month, talks between the two sides were extended for a second time, for an additional seven months. (Read my earlier analysis of the talks here.)
Rouhani wants to strike a nuclear deal primarily because it would lift international economic sanctions, which combined with the collapse of oil prices, inflation and lagging growth, have severely strained Iran’s economy. But a number of unresolved technical issues and political obstacles stand in the way of a comprehensive agreement.
The most important unresolved technical issue concerns the number of centrifuges that Iran will be permitted to keep and operate. The Six want the 10,000 centrifuges the Iranians are now operating reduced to no more than 4,000. Such a reduction in operating centrifuges would increase Iran’s breakout time—the amount of time required to produce one nuclear weapon—from the current estimate of two months to at least a year, thereby enhancing the prospects of detection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) However, the Iranians have refused to make any reduction in centrifuge numbers, and instead insist that they eventually will need as many as 100,000 centrifuges to produce nuclear fuel for future nuclear reactors.
Another lingering hang-up concerns Iran’s nuclear activities with "possible military dimensions" (PMDs). The Iranians continue to refuse to address the I.A.E.A.'s concerns about the past, and possibly on-going, military dimensions of their nuclear program. Unless the Iranians come clean on this matter, 354 members of Congress have warned, in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, that they will not vote to lift U.S. sanctions on Iran. But the Iranians continue to deny that they conducted any activities related to nuclear weapons development.
Still another unresolved issue concerns the duration of a final, comprehensive agreement. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told Congress that “any nuclear agreement with Iran must have an extremely long duration,” at least a decade. But Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, proposed freezing Iran’s production capability for only three to seven years, then allowing it to resume production unimpeded.
In addition, Zarif has insisted that the economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the international community must be lifted almost immediately after the signing of a comprehensive agreement, rather than, as President Obama desires, being removed step by step as Iran proves that it is complying with the terms of that agreement.
However, considering the hostile attitude of many members of Congress to any deal with Iran, and the eagerness of many members to impose additional sanctions on Iran in order to end the stalemate in the talks, the Iranians obviously wonder if the sanctions will ever be lifted, even if a comprehensive agreement is concluded.
Reportedly, one of the major reasons why the negotiators failed to reach an agreement in the last round of talks was because the Iranians doubted that the President Obama could persuade Congress to lift the sanctions at all.
Even if the negotiators are eventually able to conclude a comprehensive agreement, there is no guarantee that it will be accepted by Iran’s hard-liners, and especially the Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is responsible for the military side of the nuclear program. Although Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has authorized Rouhani and Zarif to engage in the talks with the Six, he has had to tread softly between the moderate and hard-line camps. Yet Western intelligence officials believe that Khamenei may be betting that whenever a final agreement expires, Iran will be able to have an industrial enrichment capability, much as Japan does. Left unsaid will be the fact that Iran will be recognized as a threshold nuclear-weapon state, that is, one with the ability to produce nuclear weapons if and when it decides to do so.
Will Iran’s Middle Eastern neighbors accept that status? One neighbor, Iran’s chief Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia, is giving every indication that it is prepared to respond in kind to Iran’s nuclear program. The Saudis have already announced their intention to build 16 nuclear power plants, which, if completed, would give Saudi Arabia the world’s largest civilian nuclear program. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, Prince Turki bin Faisal, has warned that his country will build uranium enrichment facilities to match whatever Iran is allowed to retain.
Saudi Arabian implementation of such an ambitious nuclear program raises the specter of a Middle Eastern arms race between two leaders of the Muslim world. Moreover, it would undermine the international effort to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Even more worrisome, for the long term, is the possibility— remote though it now seems—that a nuclear-armed Saudi regime might one day be overthrown by Islamists eager to threaten Israel with nuclear weapons.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has stated repeatedly that Israel will not accept Iran as a nuclear-weapon threshold state. Considering Netanyahu’s willingness to attack Hamas in Gaza last summer—without fearing the public relations consequences—as well as past Israeli air strikes against an Iraqi reactor in 1981 and a Syrian reactor under construction in 2007, it is conceivable that he would launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, perhaps even if a comprehensive agreement is negotiated.
But an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations would only delay, not eliminate, the Iranian nuclear threat. Moreover, the collateral consequences are likely to be horrific. A number of Iran’s nuclear facilities are located near cities, including the capital, Tehran. Attacking them could result in substantial civilian casualties and prompt Iran to retaliate, perhaps by launching missile attacks on Israel’s cities. In addition, if war breaks out, Iran has threatened to attack oil tankers plying the Persian Gulf and the narrow Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s oil traffic moves. A war in the Persian Gulf, analysts believe, could drive oil prices up by at least 50 percent.
Obviously, continuing to negotiate with Iran is much less risky than engaging in military action. Yet there are also risks in continuing the talks. The comprehensive agreement will have to constrain Iran’s nuclear program over the long term, provide verifiable assurances to the international community that Iran’s nuclear activities will be exclusively peaceful and ensure that any attempt by Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon would be promptly detected. At the same time, the comprehensive agreement also will have to avoid being too restrictive for even Iran’s current moderate government to accept.
It’s proving to be a tough order to fulfill. But considering the reluctance of all the involved parties to face the likely consequences of have another, much more horrific war in the Middle East, and the eagerness of Iran’s moderate government to end Iran’s economic strangulation, there is reason to believe that a comprehensive agreement may eventually be possible. Needless to say, achieving it still will be very difficult.
Ronald E. Powaski, a retired adjunct professor of history at Cleveland State University, is the author of several books, including two histories of the nuclear arms race: March to Armageddon (Oxford, 1987) and Return to Armageddon (Oxford, 2000).