What’s on the Table in Iran Talks

Negotiators from the major global powers reconverge on Geneva on Wednesday for a second try at an interim deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. After the heated rhetoric of the past 10 days, it is vital to understand what is on the table and why a deal should be done.

The recent flurry of international diplomacy has been a Rorschach test for views of Iran. Some Israeli and American politicians have warned — hysterically and without a proper understanding of the terms being offered to Iran — that the world is at risk of repeating the allies’ appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938, with all that ensued. Others think a grand bargain will be struck that leaves traditional U.S. allies — such as Israel and the Arab monarchies — discarded like so many used tissues.

Both of these views misunderstand, or more probably willfully distort, what will actually be under discussion in Geneva.

Although we don’t know the full details of what transpired in the talks that broke up with such drama on Nov. 9, we have a rough idea of the deal that was almost done: Iran would freeze much of its nuclear expansion, including uranium enrichment to the higher 20 percent level that requires only a short time to process further to weapons grade. The Western powers would offer in exchange less than $10 billion worth of sanctions relief, a rather modest sum that would leave the truly crushing restrictions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors intact. Importantly, the deal would be temporary, designed to last about six months. It would merely buy time for the two sides to reach a final settlement.

In the first round of talks, the French intervened at a late stage to demand tougher conditions on a handful of issues – – specifically, how the agreement would deal with Iran’s “right to enrich” and whether construction at Iran’s Arak heavy water nuclear reactor would be halted. The U.S. and other members of the so-called P5+1 — China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. — agreed to work these into a new draft. But Iran didn’t accept the new text as it was, and there wasn’t time to hammer out a compromise. Hence all the confusion when the meeting broke up as to whether it was the French or the Iranians who had blocked the deal. The correct answer was both.

What should be clear from this account is that the last round of talks in Geneva didn’t collapse, as some have suggested; they ran out of time. The Iranians had to take a new set of proposals back home, and there is every reason to believe that the remaining issues can be ironed out in the coming days – – if the political directors who meet in Geneva are given the chance.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has complained that this would be the “deal of the century” for Iran. But he is wrong. The draft deal offers Iran only limited and reversible sanctions relief, comes with an expiration date, and leaves the bulk of sanctions untouched. It has the capacity to double Iran’s so-called breakout time — the period Iran would need to enrich enough weapons-grade fuel for a bomb.

What this debate has obscured is that if a deal is struck and Iran cheats on it, the U.S. and its allies, including Israel, will — as President Barack Obama has said — have lost almost nothing. That’s because sanctions relief can be reversed and, had there been no agreement at all, Iran would have continued decreasing its breakout time anyhow. If Iran doesn’t cheat, however, it will be further from the capacity to build a nuclear weapon and a minimum of trust would be built on to lead toward a comprehensive deal. Like all good diplomacy, the agreement would hedge against its own failure.

Netanyahu and much of the U.S. Congress believe that such an interim deal would undermine the task of coercing Iran into complete surrender. After all, it has taken years to secure the sanctions regime that brought the Iranians back to the negotiating table. So why ease up on the pressure now, when Iran is just beginning to sweat?

The reasons are twofold. First, this approach repudiates the very idea of diplomacy, which requires more than merely restating terms of surrender. It would make impossible a deal that might not eliminate Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle, but would subject it to limitations and a much elevated degree of international monitoring.

Second is that the alternative to a deal is worse. The timeline for economically strangling Iran is longer than the one for its nuclear program. Without the breathing space provided by an interim deal, Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium will grow, on present trends, to dangerous levels. That would force us into a terrible choice: watch Iran outrun sanctions or preventively bomb its nuclear facilities. Air strikes would be launched in the knowledge that while they might push the program back by a year or more, the Iranians would probably rebuild underground and without meddlesome inspectors to slow them down.

Those who insist that the Iranian nuclear threat is serious and imminent should be the first to recognize the value of a short-term agreement. Iran is a serial violator of human rights, a state sponsor of terrorism, and an enthusiastic ally of Bashar al-Assad’s bloodthirsty regime in Syria. But repudiating diplomacy at this delicate juncture — including by imposing further sanctions, as many in Congress have threatened — does not fix any of these things. It only prolongs a nuclear standoff that has festered for over a decade and cast a shadow of war over the Middle East. What is increasingly worrying is that the obstacles to diplomacy appear to lie as much on Capitol Hill, as in Tehran.

Shashank Joshi is a research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute.

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