Negotiating Over Nukes

I’ve written before on Iran’s nuclear program, but with only a week left until negotiators reconvene in Geneva, it seems like as good a time as any to dig into the substance of what’s actually being haggled over. Since there are many moving parts, and I lack the wherewithal to keep them straight sans assistance, I’ve indulged in a complex numbering system of organization.

1. Iran claims to be pursuing a purely peaceful nuclear program focused on civilian power production and medical isotopes. Iran also asserts a sovereign right to enrichment. Leaving that specific claim aside, it is undoubtedly true that, at least in theory, as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, Iran has a right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology.

2. The P5+1 and the international community in general is opposed only to Iran’s purported nuclear weapons program; if the IAEA can properly and satisfactorily verify that the Iranian program is operating within acceptable limits (for example, not breaching the 20% enrichment threshold) and fully in the open, then everyone can go home happy.

3. If proposition #1 is true, and Iran does only want a peaceful nuclear program, then the contours of a deal shouldn’t be that hard to pin down (and presumably, between its international pariah status and the strangulation-by-sanction of its economy, Iran has plenty of incentive to negotiate). There are certainly some prisoner’s dilemma-esque problems to be overcome regarding just how such an agreement would be structured (how much verification gets you how much sanctions relief, etc), but that seems like something diplomats should be able to manage.

4. Hopefully we’re all pleasantly surprised by this time next week, and the front pages of our favorite news aggregators are filled with pictures of smiling diplomats shaking hands over an agreement which starts Iran down a path towards a verifiable peaceful nuclear program in exchange for gradual sanctions relief.

5. But, I’m skeptical. If Iran really only wanted a peaceful program, wouldn’t they have been less prickly towards IAEA oversight all these years? Instead they’ve systematically limited inspectors’ access to enrichment facilities and pursued large portions of the nuclear program in secret underground bunkers.*

6. So it seems like there’s a decent chance Iran does actually want nuclear weapons. And, Israel’s existential fears notwithstanding, I suspect Iran wants nuclear weapons to deter the United States from pursuing a policy of regime change. Khamenei has seen what happened to Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi, and he figures a nuclear Iran is the only kind of Iran the United States won’t attack.

7. Consequently, if you operate with the assumption that Iran does want nuclear weapons, and it wants them because its leaders are convinced nuclear weapons provide their only insurance against an American invasion, the impending negotiations in Geneva become really about something much greater than inspection regimes and sanctions relief. In the long term, the United States has to convince Iran’s leadership that their theocracy won’t be Stormin’ Norman-ed or shock-and-awed out of existence even if they don’t have nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

If next week’s negotiations fail and talks are broken off completely, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to take that as a sign of Iran’s military intent. And if they wind up succeeding, it’s not necessarily any clearer what the end result will be. One option is that Iran will have negotiated a deal which it feels gives sufficient leeway to continue progress towards a military nuclear program; the P5+1 will have been played, the Iranians will trade some hollow concessions for some very real sanctions relief, and then Iran will resume the program in full at some later date. Another option is that Iran really does want only a peaceful nuclear program, and these talks will be the first small steps towards proving that to the IAEA and the international community. It’s impossible now to tell what the result will be, but if we do get a deal, its details should be a good indicator of the endgame.

*I suppose the counterargument would be that Iran, while fully intending on a peaceful nuclear program, was convinced Israel and/or the United States would interpret any nuclear-related activity as directed in pursuit of a weapons capability, and so felt compelled to keep things as secret as possible until it could disclose something of a fait-accompli, thus reinforcing assumptions about its military intent