It is a bad outcome — but it is the least bad of the available options.
When world powers meet with Iran on Wednesday in Baghdad, they may reach an interim nuclear deal. Its precise outline is unknown, but it reportedly includes Iran’s agreement to cease weapons-grade uranium enrichment, ship its existing stockpile abroad for conversion into reactor fuel, and accept heightened inspections of its nuclear infrastructure. In exchange, Iran would be allowed to continue enrichment at low levels, and the punishing new American banking sanctions and European Union oil sanctions due on July 1 would be eased.
Iran has strategic reasons for wanting nuclear capability and has so far rejected all inducements to give up the effort. It has dangled the prospect of a diplomatic resolution in the past, only to renege, repeatedly using artifice and deceit, apparently in the attempt to gain time to complete development. It may be doing so again; however, the crushing weight of international sanctions — those in place and those that are imminent — may have finally changed Iran’s strategic calculus.
Still, the purported deal is no more than a stopgap measure. It would not resolve the issue.
Iran would be able to claim that it had forced the West to back off from the long-standing demand that it cease all enrichment activity and to accept its “right” to do so.
In practice, Iran would become a “nuclear threshold state,” with its nuclear infrastructure intact, a reserve of fissile materials and the potential “breakout capability” to build a bomb quickly. The deeply buried mountain facility outside Qom, which Israel believes may already put Iran’s nuclear production inside a “zone of immunity,” would continue to exist.
Perhaps worst of all, there is the risk that with the immediate danger removed, the West would lower its guard and in effect “declare victory,” turning its attention elsewhere. Ramping up serious multinational sanctions again would prove difficult.
Nonetheless, the interim deal would gain time, and that is the essential point. No other option, including a successful military attack, could achieve more. Iran has already developed the know-how and infrastructure needed to make a bomb; were a military attack to destroy all of its nuclear facilities, it could rebuild within a few years. An attack may still prove to be necessary, but if the few years can be achieved through diplomacy, this is obviously preferable.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deserves credit for successfully forcing the international community to finally address the Iranian nuclear threat seriously. For 15 years Israel has argued that the only measures that might, conceivably, force Iran to compromise are those that the West is now belatedly imposing. Netanyahu’s implied threats of military action were designed primarily to encourage those severe sanctions rather than to indicate an actual intention to attack. No one prefers a diplomatic resolution more than Israel; it would pay the price in international opprobrium after an attack, no matter its motives, and it would bear the brunt of retaliation by Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
In Baghdad, Iran must be made to understand that this is its last opportunity to reach a deal. In the absence of this agreement, the full force of the sanctions must go into effect as planned on July 1.
Moreover, any concessions made by the West should be for a limited time and contingent on a final agreement providing for a full cessation of Iran’s nuclear program. We can also hope that the processes of change underway in the region, which began with the Iranian demonstrations of 2009, may return to Iran and sweep away the mullahs, the best long-term solution to the threat Iran presents.
In the meantime, the least bad option may be good enough.
Chuck Freilich, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, was a deputy national security advisor in Israel during Labor and Likud governments.