International crises are supposed to last days. Perhaps, like the Cuban missile crisis, they can stretch to weeks or, like the prelude to war in 1914, even months. But the Iranian nuclear crisis, which began with the revelation of secret nuclear sites in 2002, has now lasted a full decade. Although some might consider 10 years without war to be a success, it would be foolish to assume we can endure another 10.
It is now more important than ever that we take advantage of fortuitous diplomatic circumstances and seek a deal with Iran, one which both addresses our basic security concerns and allows Iran to come away with dignity.
The window for nuclear diplomacy between Iran and the west has been open since Barack Obama's re-election. But it will start inching shut as we approach the Iranian presidential elections in June. The same election-season policy paralysis that grips Washington every four years also afflicts Tehran. Iran's political system has been especially fragmented during president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's second term, and factional competition will intensify. Since negotiations can't be held before January, that leaves a short period – no more than five months – in which to hammer out an agreement.
Everyone understands what the compromise should look like. The west would offer limited sanctions relief and, despite UN security council resolutions demanding the contrary, would allow Iran to enrich uranium. Iran, in turn, would cap its enrichment to 5%, thus excluding the production of uranium enriched to the more dangerous 20% (nine-tenths of the way to weapons-grade). Iran would also have to agree to convert its stockpile to fuel (which is harder to use for bombs), limit its ability to produce more in the future, and – most important of all – agree to intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The latter is a crucial point. If Iran did seek to dash for a bomb, its main problem would not be getting material, but getting caught. We must ensure it stays that way. We should, counterintuitively, prefer a bigger, more transparent Iranian nuclear programme to a smaller, more opaque one.
Finally, if and when the agency gives Iran a clean bill of health – something it cannot do now, while Iran remains unco-operative – all sanctions could be lifted. Iran may be worried that if it comes clean, it would simply face further punishment. There is a solution: in return for total transparency, Iran should be offered an amnesty for past transgressions. After all, many countries – South Korea, Taiwan, Sweden, South Africa – have conducted illicit nuclear research, and been forgiven.
The problem, as so often in negotiations, is that each side is convinced it can outlast the other. We assume that Iran, creaking under the weight of unprecedentedly tough sanctions, will eventually agree to far greater concessions than those outlined above. This may be a mistake.
First, long-term sanctions can have catastrophic humanitarian and diplomatic effects, as they did in Iraq in the 1990s. In those western countries spearheading sanctions, there is disturbingly little debate over the consequences.
Second, the longer the crisis lasts, the greater the risk that Israel, fearful of Iran making unseen advances in the development of a nuclear bomb, launches air strikes. That would result in Iran expelling inspectors, reconstituting its nuclear programme out of sight, and redoubling its efforts – just as Iraq did after it was bombed by Israel in 1981.
Finally, it may seem desirable that sanctions drive Iranians on to the streets. But such protests, by making the regime more vulnerable, can increase the appeal of a nuclear deterrent and empower hardliners. Moreover, as we found during the 2009 green revolution, it can be politically awkward to negotiate with a regime visibly cracking down on its citizens. That undermines the core purpose of sanctions: to negotiate from a position of strength.
There are other reasons why we should show flexibility. The Obama administration has already indicated it is willing to engage in direct talks with Iran, but a president is never as politically strong as at the beginning of a second and final term. Moreover, the increasingly probable collapse of the Assad regime in Syria will deprive Iran of one of its only true allies. When that happens, Tehran's stance can be expected to harden further.
Iran might simply refuse to make the necessary concessions. In that case, we are no worse off than we are now. But it would be negligent not to try. Considering that every internationally recognised nuclear weapons state took less than 10 years to produce their bombs, the duration of this crisis is remarkable and troubling. Just waiting Iran out is not a good strategy. Sanctions may have played a role in forcing Iran back to nuclear talks over the past year, but they can no longer do all the heavy lifting.
Shashank Joshi is a doctoral student at Harvard University and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.