OpinionIran in the World PressHow to solve Obama's Iran dilemma

How to solve Obama’s Iran dilemma


Politico: President Obama puts the chance of translating this interim agreement into a comprehensive deal to ensure that Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon at less than 50 percent. The Iranian deputy foreign minister believes that may be high.



By Dennis Ross

The six-month clock on world powers’ nuclear deal with Iran has finally begun to tick, but nobody seems optimistic.

President Obama puts the chance of translating this interim agreement into a comprehensive deal to ensure that Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon at less than 50 percent. The Iranian deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, believes that may be high—and points out that nothing the Iranians have accepted is irreversible. Indeed, he says they can undo the steps they have taken, including suspending the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, in a day. The U.S. government, meanwhile, says that this first-step agreement offers Iran very limited sanctions relief. And with the sanctions architecture intact, the United States can quickly ratchet up the pressures on the Islamic Republic if it violates the deal or if a comprehensive deal proves unachievable.

Why are both sides so downbeat? And what will give us the best chance of producing a lasting agreement?

To begin with, the comprehensive deal will be difficult to achieve precisely because it is about rollback. The interim agreement, officially called the Joint Plan of Action, was essentially a “cap for a cap.” The Iranians cap their program in the sense that they agree not to add to the number of centrifuges or to the overall amount of enriched uranium they have accumulated at the 5 percent level (though they must reduce to zero the 20 percent enriched material they have already accumulated). The Iranians are, however, allowed to build new centrifuges to replace ones that are damaged or break down, and they may continue research on even more modern and efficient centrifuges. In return, the United States promised to adopt no new sanctions for the next 6 months, while relaxing sanctions related to petrochemicals, precious metals and the Iranian automobile industry and allowing Iran to access $4.2 billion in previously blocked funds.

Producing a cap for cap was not easy, but is far less difficult than producing a rollback for a rollback. And that is what the negotiations are now about: Can the United States and its allies get the Iranians to roll back their nuclear program and infrastructure in return for a rollback of the sanctions on banking, commerce, shipping and insurance that have proven so onerous to the Iranian economy?

It should be doable in theory. After all, the U.S. position—and that of the so-called P5+1 grouping of world powers, America’s partners in these negotiations—is that Iran can possess civil nuclear power so long as it is not in a position to break out to a nuclear weapons capability. That is what the Iranians say they are doing: They insist that they only seek civil nuclear energy and don’t want nuclear weapons. Their president, Hassan Rouhani, has even said that Iran is prepared to adopt transparency measures to assure the rest of the world of Iran’s intentions. But in practice, what theoretically sounds bridgeable may not be so easy, particularly given the legacy of distrust and the scope of the Iranian nuclear program.

Consider, at a minimum, two elements of that legacy from a U.S. perspective. The Iranians have yet to answer the International Atomic Energy Agency’s questions about the “possible military dimensions” of their nuclear program, which involves, among other things, experimentation with nuclear trigger devices; in addition, they have now built nearly 20,000 centrifuges and accumulated approximately 5-6 bombs’ worth of enriched uranium. And you can throw in a third suspicious element: Iran’s infrastructure also includes the development of a heavy-water plant that is grossly inefficient for producing electricity, but not for generating plutonium for nuclear weapons.

With the Iranians proclaiming that their nuclear infrastructure is about their dignity and independence—and that international demands are about denying them each—one can assume that they will resist an extensive rollback of their program. Yet, they will not get the extensive sanctions rollback they seek without a massive reduction in their nuclear infrastructure. While the Obama administration is not demanding zero enrichment and the complete dismantlement of Iran’s enrichment facilities, as some on Capitol Hill are calling for, it is not prepared to accept Iran as a nuclear threshold state. In other words, Iran must not be left with a nuclear infrastructure that is sufficiently robust and advanced that it can break out to nuclear weapons at a time of its choosing.

How far back is rolled back enough? President Obama has said publicly that Iran can’t have either a heavy water plant or its enrichment facility at Fordow, and it must also reduce the number of its centrifuges—though he has maintained ambiguity on what that number would be. I am one of those who believe that the United States can accept a limited enrichment program for Iran, but I think the number of centrifuges must be small, certainly less than 10 percent of what they have now (nearly 20,000). That number, moreover, cannot include any next-generation centrifuges, which even now the Iranians are trying improve with new advances. In addition, Iran must have less than a bomb’s worth of accumulated enriched uranium in the country. All that will be a bitter pill for the Islamic Republic to swallow.

Indeed, there is nothing in what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Rouhani or Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are now saying that suggests they believe they will have to reduce their program along these lines. Their concept at this point would no doubt leave them as a nuclear threshold state. Many observers, me included, believe that has been their goal all along.

Dennis Ross is counselor of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University. He served as special assistant to President Barack Obama from 2009-11.

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