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A Former U.S. Negotiator Maps the Iran End Game

A general view of Bushehr nuclear power plant, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran (REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi).

For more than a decade, the Iranian nuclear issue stood as the world's most intractable crisis. It consistently ranked at or near the top of U.S. policymakers' concerns, and yet its persistence helped generate a sense of futility, particularly as Iran's politics regressed and its foreign policy left little hope of a diplomatic exit ramp to the standoff.

Then, slightly less than a year ago, everything changed: Iran's election of a more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, offered a much-needed (and perhaps deliberately orchestrated) vehicle for the Iranian regime to change course. Suddenly, the long-stalled nuclear negotiations accelerated, and thanks in part to behind-the-scenes negotiations between Washington and Tehran, the framework for a resolution to this impasse of more than a dozen years came into focus. The November signing of the Geneva agreement, which established an interim freeze on much of Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for selective sanctions relief, offered a historic first step.

The Geneva deal was, however, only a prelude to what was always understood to be a much more complicated and inevitably harder-fought requirement, the construction of a wide-ranging pact whose terms ensure Tehran cannot acquire nuclear weapons. Amidst the drama — and debate — that followed Geneva, the fundamental uncertainty of the protracted diplomatic process has loomed larger than ever: can the world devise a satisfactory diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis?

A paper released today by Brookings Senior Fellow Robert Einhorn resolves that conundrum. Entitled "Preventing a Nuclear-Armed Iran: Requirements for a Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement," the paper examines the diplomatic history and context, and details the components of a comprehensive agreement that fulfill the security requirements of the U.S. and its allies. The paper will be released today as part of an event featuring a discussion among Einhorn and two former senior White House officials: Dennis Ross and Frank von Hippel. Moderated by Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, the discussion will also tackle expectations and issues for the next round of nuclear negotiations with Tehran, scheduled to begin next week in Vienna.

As one of the few individuals outside of government who can claim both technical expertise and experience across the negotiating table with the Iranians, Einhorn is ideally situated to lay out the scope for a comprehensive deal. He helped devise the strategy that brought Tehran to the table, and played a central role in developing and maintaining international adherence to the U.S.-led sanctions regime that is widely credited with bringing Tehran to the table in a newly serious fashion.

Einhorn's paper is a compelling response to those skeptics who are convinced that interim nuclear deal signed in Geneva last November will not bring the world closer to a resolution of the nuclear issue. Many — including senior leaders in both countries — simply fear that the technical issues are too complex and the distance between the negotiating positions on key issues, such as enrichment, remains too wide to yield a viable comprehensive agreement. Others are convinced that the interim deal  a deliberate Iranian deception, intended to create a permanent way station that legitimizes Iran's nuclear program and collapses the sanctions regime.

Einhorn's paper demonstrates in meticulous and thoughtful fashion that this need not be the case. The paper reviews the history, takes on the question of Iranian intentions, assesses the Joint Plan of Action, and lays out the components of a comprehensive deal. The paper also tackles tough outstanding issues, such as the duration and scope of a comprehensive agreement, and contemplates the alternatives to diplomacy.

The paper explicitly takes on the contention, made by many in Congress, that any deal that fails to eradicate all of Iran's enrichment capabilities is insufficient. Einhorn argues that the strategy for preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear threshhold cannot be solely focused on infrastructure, explaining that "preventing the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons does not depend on eliminating their capability ever to produce them or on dismantling their enrichment facilities. The goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran can be achieved by deterring an Iranian political decision to build nuclear weapons — by making it clear that any such decision would be extremely costly." He makes the case for fashioning "a unique set of arrangements" that create three key requirements:

  • as much distance between Tehran and breakout capability as possible;
  • as much transparency surrounding Iran's nuclear-related activities as possible;
  • as much agreement as possible between the U.S. president, the Congress, and Washington's international partners around explicit consequences for violating the agreement.

Einhorn's paper can be downloaded here and should be read in full by anyone who hopes to understand the path forward on this contentious issue. Below, I've highlighted several elements of the framework that he proposes.

Early detection of breakout

The starting point for an effective long-term agreement on Iran's nuclear program must be an end to the obfuscation and furtiveness that has been a defining aspect of the world's concerns about Tehran's intentions. Iran's track record is not reassuring on this issue: the past dozen years have demonstrated a pattern of non-compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and insufficient cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. For this reason, an effective monitoring program must include an unprecedented array of authorities and procedures, well beyond the NPT's Additional Protocol.

In addition, it will be essential to resolve outstanding IAEA questions on the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program, prioritizing issues that are most relevant to a possible covert program and that could best contribute to a nuclear explosive capability.

Lengthening the breakout timeline

Einhorn argues that the agreement should seek not just to ensure that the world can detect any breakout activities at the earliest possible stage, but also that Tehran's path to producing sufficient fissile material for a bomb should be as protracted as possible, to ensure a robust and effective international response. The Iranian leadership must be convinced that there is no viable end-run around the agreement. Mechanisms for ensuring this include

  • Limitations on the total number of centrifuges to extend the timelines to at least six to twelve months;
  • Similar limitations on centrifuge research;
  • Changes in the design and construction of Iran's Arak IR-40 reactor that preclude plutonium breakout;
  • Focusing on the practical needs of a civil nuclear power generation program (the subject of an extended Iran @ Saban essay by Einhorn last month).

Signaling strong international response to breakout

A third aspect of the framework for preventing Iran from nuclear breakout is a clearly-defined set of consequences — conveyed preemptively to the Iranians as part of the final deal — that outline penalties for violating its terms or initiating an overt or covert race toward a bomb. These penalties would include:

  • A United Nations Security Council resolution that commits the Council to action in the case of any Iranian breakout activities;
  • Congressional action, as part of any sanctions release or relaxation, to commit Washington to re-imposition of all measures in the event of Iranian breakout activities;e
  • Congressional authorization for the use of military force in the event that Iran abrogates the final deal;
  • Presidential statements reinforcing American readiness to strengthen sanctions and, as necessary, use force in response to any Iranian breakout activities.

It should be noted that Einhorn deliberately sidesteps the accompanying issue of structuring sanctions relief in the final agreement, which he notes is a "crucial" aspect of the talks particularly from the Iranian perspective. This is a sensible division of labor; the technical aspects of any deal are the foundation for ensuring that the diplomatic process achieves the intended objective of preventing Tehran from achieving nuclear weapons capability. We'll continue to take up that dimension of the nuclear puzzle here on Iran @ Saban.