Our guest blogger is Richard Parker, Executive Director of the American Foreign Policy Project*.
Today’s news that Iran has changed its mind and rejected a deal to send three-quarters of its low-enriched uranium stockpile to Russia no doubt will be heralded by opponents of engagement as proof that Iran is just stalling for time while it builds a nuclear weapon, so let the sanctions and bombs fly.
A much more plausible explanation, however, is that Tehran may have regarded the deal as a little too good (for the West) to be true. Think about it for just a moment from Tehran’s perspective, a feat of imagination that eludes most neocons. Under this deal, Iran would give away three-quarters of its biggest bargaining chip in the nuclear talks (its LEU stockpile) at the outset of talks. What Iran would get in return would be a status-quo negative: a tacit agreement that the West would not try to bomb or cripple Iran with sanctions for at least a few more months, during which time the West of course would demand further concessions.
I’ve never bargained with Tehran. But I did work as a trade negotiator at the Office of the US Trade Representative and remember well the mantra we practically lived and breathed by in trade talks: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” The deal that Tehran just walked away from would have been a major departure from that rule, in the West’s favor. From public reports, what has not yet been agreed — or even seriously discussed — is the ultimate question of whether Iran, at the end of the day, will be allowed to enrich uranium to low levels under comprehensive IAEA safeguards, as Iran has maintained for six years that it has the right to do, and is determined to do.
With that huge issue still out there, unresolved, why should Iran make major concessions now? Is it really so totally incomprehensible that Iran might regard (a) a tacit western promise not to club Iran for a few more months as a less-than-adequate quid pro quo for (b) a very tangible concession on the disposition of Iran’s uranium stockpile? The promise will be much easier to reverse than the stockpile will be to replace.
Does this mean we can be confident that Iran is bargaining in good faith and has no weapons program? Of course not. But if we don’t trust Iran, the thing to do is not to fuss and fume over Iran’s open-safeguarded enrichment to low levels and Natanz. What we need to do is get into place, as rapidly as possible, a comprehensive safeguards agreement that applies nationwide and gives us the maximum chance of making sure there aren’t more clandestine facilities out there. Yet right now, while all eyes focus on Natanz, we have little or no reliable means of knowing or verifying what is going on across the rest of Iran.
The stockpile at Natanz may well be a red herring in any case. Recent reports suggest that it may be so contaminated with molybdenum as to be useless for high enrichment. If so, this means there is plenty of time to negotiate a deal with Iran that puts everything on the table and deals with it as a package under that usual maxim of all negotiation: Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
Meanwhile, it clearly is disconcerting that Iran’s designated negotiator, Soltanieh, signed a deal on which he could not deliver his bosses in Tehran. Soltanieh is a relatively low-level official in Iran and this experience will raise serious questions about whether he is a credible and acceptable interlocutor for the West in future talks. At his point, he probably is not.
But that doesn’t mean you call off talks. What is needed from the Obama Administration now is cool heads, steady hands, and the patience and fortitude to ignore the hysterical screaming from the John Boltons and Liz Cheneys of the world — while patiently negotiating a long-term deal with Iran that benefits both sides.
*The views expressed herein were written in Mr. Parker’s personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of other contributors to the American Foreign Policy Project.
This post responded to a 10:30 am Reuters story reporting — based on “an unnamed source close to the Iranian nuclear negotiating team” — that Iran had “failed to accept” a U.N.-drafted deal under which it would send three-quarters of its uranium stockpile abroad for reprocessing into fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) that makes medical isotopes. Instead, Iran was circulating a counter-proposal to keep its stockpile and buy fuel for the TRR from abroad.
This news caused widespread consternation, leading Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, to issue a statement a few hours later — reported in the New York Times — clarifying that Iran has not finally rejected the U.N. proposal, but is still “studying” it.
It’s beginning to sound a bit like Do You Want to be a Millionaire, where all queries led to the ultimate one, ‘Is this your final answer?”
For that we will have to keep waiting. But three things seem clear at this point. First, when Iranians are internally divided on an issue, they leak and send mixed signals just like other countries do.
Second, this is not an easy decision for Iran — contrary to those who insist that the west got “snookered” by a deal that overly favors Iran.
Third, as I tried to convey in the original post, one reason this is not an obvious choice for Iran is that it requires Iran to give up much of its stockpile — a big concession — raising an issue about what it gets back. As the New York Times reported, “Iranian opposition to the deal could be driven by concerns that it weakens control over its stockpiles of nuclear fuel and could be perceived as a concession to the United States . . .”
Whatever Iran’s final answer, it is not an easy question.