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Former U.S. Official Makes The Case For A "Good" Nuclear Deal With Iran

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (L) walks next to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a photo opportunity before the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks at the United Nations offices in Geneva (REUTERS/Fabrice Coffrini).

In a recent presentation at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, my colleague Brookings Senior Fellow Robert Einhorn outlined the requirements for an acceptable, negotiated solution to the Iran nuclear issue, including a strictly limited uranium enrichment program and a rigorous monitoring system.  Einhorn argues that while such a solution may not be ideal, but makes a compelling case that a diplomatic resolution that incorporates significant transparency, verification, and constraints on the possibilities of an Iranian nuclear breakout offers a significantly better outcome than alternative means of dealing with the issue, particularly the use of military force and active efforts to promote regime change.

Until his departure from the Obama Administration in June, Einhorn played a central role in U.S. policy toward Tehran in his role as Secretary of State's Special Advisor for Nonproliferation and Arms Control. He participated in each of the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 from 2009 to mid-2013, and he helped craft the sanctions strategy and spearhead the diplomacy that generated the first serious multilateral pressure on Iran. I'd urge all those who are interested in a detailed discussion of the possible scope of a nuclear deal with Iran, and the relative merits of such a deal in comparison to other U.S. policy options, to read the speech in full here.

I want to highlight a few of the most important points that Einhorn makes in this speech, which offers both a broad view of U.S. diplomacy and a very specific proposition for the scope of a nuclear agreement.

The Perfect Vs. The Possible

The best mechanism for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability would entail a permanent ban on enrichment in Iran, as well as a ban on retaining stockpiles of enriched uranium stocks and the dismantlement of the Fordow enrichment facility and the Arak reactor. Einhorn argues that such a 'perfect' deal is almost surely unattainable, simply because Tehran has demonstrated its unwillingness to accept terms that its leadership considers "tantamount to surrender."

"Clearly, Iran now wants an agreement that would provide sanctions relief. To get one, Iranians are now probably prepared to make concessions that were unthinkable in Tehran before the election. But we shouldn’t assume that, with the powerful leverage provided by today’s sanctions, they have no choice but to accept a deal on our terms. They are prepared to live without an agreement, especially if they calculate that the United States and its partners would be blamed for any negotiating deadlock and that the international sanctions regime would therefore erode before long."

In this respect, Einhorn is taking on the argument that has been advanced by some recently that Washington and its allies should retain the most ambitious terms of a prospective deal and steadfastly avoid making preemptive compromises to Tehran. My own reading of Iranian politics is similar to the view that Einhorn advances. And irrespective of your interpretation of Iran's internal dynamics, by definition negotiations require mutual compromise. Those who advocate that Washington cling to a take-it-or-leave-it offer should explain why such inflexibility has not succeeded in the past. At the first moment in a decade that Iran's leadership appears prepared to make historic concessions, American intransigence at the bargaining table would be foolhardy. As Einhorn points out, it leaves Washington vulnerable to blame — and the sanctions regime open to erosion — if the negotiating process fails.

The Timing Question

Since Hassan Rouhani's election to the presidency earlier this year, much of the urgency surrounding the need for a deal has emanated from Tehran. This is of course a sharp contrast to past precedent. Einhorn's speech offers a valuable reminder of the impending technical milestones that underpins the urgency on the side of the international community: the prospect of expanded enrichment at the Fordow underground facility; increasing numbers of advanced IR2m centrifuges; growing stockpiles of enriched uranium; and perhaps most significantly, the expected commissioning of the Arak heavy water reactor.

The added risks posed by these looming developments also underscores an implicitly encouraging point — that to date Tehran appears to have actively sought to constrain its own nuclear program in order to avoid crossing what have been articulated as 'red lines' by oxidizing some of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. It is not difficult to imagine that such self-restraint might not hold, however, if the negotiations with the international community break down. Within Iran, the stakes for the current talks are quite high; the perception is that Tehran has put forward its most talented and forward-leaning diplomatic team. If this team cannot reach a deal, or if Iranian leaders perceive that their own overtures are going unreciprocated, support for a much more aggressive approach to its nuclear infrastructure would surely gain traction.

The Components Of A Deal — Iranian Concessions

Einhorn does the world a real service in his speech by fleshing out the components of a nuclear deal with Iran, which he describes as a structured set of arrangements intended to prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout. He envisions a two-step framework, with simultaneous agreement on interim measures and the central components of a more wide-ranging final deal. As with the P5+1 proposal presented to Iran in Almaty last year, the interim steps are intended to build confidence and political space for hammering out the ultimate agreement. In Einhorn's framework, however, the interim steps are significantly expanded, and there would be an integral relationship between the two phases, in the sense that each of the preliminary confidence-building measures would help lock Tehran into the final, more ambitious set of required actions.

The Einhorn plan includes interim measures such as: cessation of production of 19.75 percent enriched uranium; measures to address existing stocks of 19.75 percent enriched uranium; measures to address concerns about the Fordow enrichment facility; no start-up of the Arak heavy water reactor; no installation of additional IR2m centrifuges and no enrichment via currently installed IR2ms; no installation any additional P1 centrifuges; and measures to address the threat posed by stockpiles of 3.5 percent enriched uranium.

In describing his vision of a final deal, Einhorn tackles one of the most central dilemmas for Washington and its partners since the initial revelations of Iran's then-clandestine nuclear program more than a decade ago, namely — how to handle Iran's dogged insistence on retaining uranium enrichment capabilities? Einhorn acknowledges what no senior U.S. official has been willing to say on the record to date: that we are now almost surely beyond the point of rolling back Iranian enrichment. In his INSS speech, he notes that "I think this is a genuine red line for the Iranians. If there is to be an agreement, I believe it will inevitably provide for a domestic enrichment program in Iran."

Instead of an end or a long-term suspension of enrichment, Einhorn outlines an array of alternative mechanisms for limiting Iran's breakout capability — in other words, the ability for the Iranian government, under the cover of a civilian enrichment program, to race toward weapons capability more quickly than the world could act to forestall this. 

The final agreement measures Einhorn proposes to provide this assurance include: intensified monitoring and inspection that incorporates the Additional Protocol to the NPT and goes well beyond, including technical and/or human oversight on a daily basis; additional monitoring and inspection measures on Iran’s uranium mines and mills; its centrifuge production and assembly facilities; and its trade in uranium and sensitive dual-use goods; limits on Iran’s enrichment capacity and its stockpiles of enriched uranium and uranium hexafluoride, at a scale and level of purity substantially below current capabilities; dismantling the Fordow enrichment facility or converting it to prevent production of weapons-grade uranium; and dismantling, converting or otherwise neutralizing the Arak heavy water reactor.

Einhorn finally suggests bolstering the credibility of such a final deal with a United Nations Security Council resolution committing the international community to a robust response to any Iranian non-compliance of the terms.

The Components Of A Deal — P5+1 Incentives

As described, Einhorn's proposal entails substantial obligations on Iran from the outset, and would require substantial reciprocal steps by Washington and its partners. However, this is the only dimension of Einhorn's speech that really requires additional detail. He notes that the P5+1 offer at Almaty proposed a freeze on new UNSC and European Union sanctions, the opening of some civil nuclear and civil aviation cooperation, and a suspension of U.S. sanctions on petrochemicals and precious metals trade, and adds that "to get more, the P5+1 would have to give more." He highlights the Obama Administration's reluctance to offer dramatic sanctions relief in order to obtain an interim deal, noting that the most powerful economic restrictions are the key to retaining leverage for a final deal.

In my view, this issue is a huge uncertainty, and one that requires considerable additional discussion. This is, to some extent, a secondary issue; the first hurdle is to determine if Iran is prepared to engage in the array of constraints and concessions that are envisioned in the plan that Einhorn outlines, which likely bears some broad resemblance to the Obama Administration’s preferred outcome.

But even if Tehran can be induced to undertake such rigorous and wide-ranging restrictions on its nuclear program, its leadership will want to be rewarded for cooperation. From the inception of this crisis more than a decade ago, Tehran has made clear that it will not give up something for nothing. The interim steps pose the greatest hurdle. We truly don’t know at this point if the price that Tehran may demand for such a far-reaching preliminary deal would be one that Washington can afford, particularly given deep-seated opposition among many key regional allies as well as the U.S. Congress.

We'll be posting here in greater depth over the subsequent days on what is possible and what may be viable in terms of an incentive package that could make the Einhorn plan viable. In the meantime, please take a look at the speech that lays out this plan here, and send us your comments and ideas on it as well as ideas for the most effective reciprocal steps by the P5+1, to IranAtSaban@brookings.edu or via Twitter @maloneysuzanne