Iran 2014: Aiming for the Best of Imperfect Outcomes

Throughout Robert Einhorn’s report, “Preventing a Nuclear-Armed Iran,” Einhorn consistently reminds us about of the necessity of compromise and trade-offs during the ongoing 2014 negotiations toward a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.

Einhorn begins by outlining the components of an ideal comprehensive agreement, highlighting three goals: (1) Ensuring and enabling early detection of breakout (2) Lengthening the breakout timeline (by reducing Iran’s capability—its enrichment levels and centrifuge numbers—such that it does not have enough time to produce sufficient fissile material before outside intervention) (3) Outlining a strong international response to breakout, which would provide effective deterrence.

Einhorn then goes on to discuss the feasibility of such an ideal agreement being reached. He admits several reasons to be skeptical about the success of these talks. First, he clarifies that the possibility of Iran breaking out is a real danger, pointing out that the debate about preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon versus developing the capability to develop a weapon is a myth; in fact, Iran already has the capability. Due to Iran’s persistent claims of a peaceful, scientific purpose, Supreme Leader Khamenei’s 2005 fatwa against nuclear weapon possession, and a lack of complete inspection information, Einhorn admits that we likely cannot ever expect to eliminate Iran’s capability or dismantle its enrichment facilities—the ideal U.S. outcome. He also recognizes that the U.S. will likely have to take a more conciliatory stance during talks, compromising on some of its goals and easing sanctions in exchange for reductions in Iran’s nuclear program. Inevitably, the negotiations will also be stalled and bombarded by strong and conflicting opinions from parties vying for different demands; some parties, like Israel, will likely only be appeased by unrealistically substantial concessions by Iran. Thus, negative press and backlash to the final agreement seems inevitable.

However, there are also reasons to be hopeful. Beginning with the negotiations for the Nov. 2013 Joint Plan of Action, Iran has been the most willing it has been in many years to come to the negotiating table. Unlike its previous non-compliance with IAEA regulations and inspections, the IAEA confirmed that Iran has indeed complied with the JPA’s reduction requirements, which lengthen the breakout timeline by a few months, and monitoring requirements. Iran’s newfound willingness to join talks was perhaps ushered in by the more moderate leadership of President Rouhani. Rouhani belongs to the camp of Iranian politicians who believe that the U.S. and Iran do have some overlapping interests, and has prioritized Iran’s economic improvement (starting with the lifting of sanctions). The JPA, while a temporary and incomplete solution, demonstrates an unprecedented level of diplomacy between Iran and the P5+1. Examining the progress through the JPA, Einhorn seems to suggest that appealing to Iran’s domestic priorities (such as its emphasis on developing a civil program, for which they would only need a portion of their current capacity, and its economy) may be an effective diplomatic strategy.

Given these factors, I pose to you a few questions:

  1. What are your predictions for the outcome of these 2014 talks? i.e. length of the talks, an extension of the JPA vs. a comprehensive agreement, which parties are dissenters or compromisers, public opinion/reaction
  2. Which of the three goals listed above (in the second paragraph) do you think the U.S. and P5+1 should prioritize and refuse to yield on for the final, comprehensive agreement? Which element is most important in preventing a nuclear-armed Iran? The most feasible to accomplish?
  3. Do you consider recent developments in negotiations with Iran, specifically the 2013 JPA, a success or failure?
  4. How should the U.S. and P5+1 go about appealing to Iran’s domestic agenda? What are Iran’s largest domestic considerations?