The Institute for National Security Studies

Is a "Good" Deal Possible?

Editor's Note: In an October 24th presentation at the Institute for National Security Studies, 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. While not ideal, says Einhorn, such a solution is significantly better than alternative means of dealing with the issue, particularly the use of military force and active efforts to promote regime change.

No negotiated solution to the Iran nuclear issue will be ideal. The United States will not get all that it asks for. Any agreement will be criticized, both in Israel and the United States.

But the test for any agreement should not be how it measures up against the best outcome we can imagine. A better test is how it compares to alternative means for dealing with the problem.

Those alternative means include the use of military force, active efforts to promote regime change, and a continuation of the current pressure strategy.

The military option has been much discussed, both here and in the United States. Its main advantage is that it could set back Iran’s nuclear program and make credible the perceived risks for Iran of continuing down the path toward nuclear weapons.

But whether military force is used by Israel, the United States, or both, the risks and uncertainties are substantial. A major uncertainty is whether the setback to Iran’s nuclear program would be short-lived or more durable. Another major uncertainty is the impact of retaliatory measures by Iran or its surrogates.  The potential impacts range from manageable provocations to large-scale armed conflict.

Perhaps the most worrisome potential downside of the military option is that it could trigger an Iranian decision to kick out inspectors, withdraw from the NPT, and move as quickly as possible to build nuclear weapons. It could give Iranian advocates of early nuclear weaponization something they’ve wanted for years – a green light to cross the nuclear threshold.

A military attack could also have major consequences for the international sanctions coalition. In the wake of the use of force, we would want to keep powerful sanctions in place to deter or respond to Iranian weaponization. But an attack would almost surely precipitate the demise of international sanctions efforts.

This is a greater risk today than it was a year ago. A year ago, military force might well have been seen as an understandable response to Iranian intransigence at the negotiating table. With Iran’s new leadership widely perceived to be open to compromise, an attack could generate sympathy for Iran and a rapid unraveling of sanctions.

A second option is to seek actively to destabilize and change the Iranian regime. Regime change could be a very positive outcome. It could possibly end Iran’s nuclear ambitions, although it is far from certain that a new regime would have a different attitude toward an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. And a less ideologically-driven Iranian regime could adopt a more benign approach on a wide range of issues, including support for terrorist groups, human rights, and relations with its Gulf neighbors and Israel.

But experience has taught us that promoting regime change in another country is an unpredictable and difficult challenge. This may be especially true for Iran, with its extreme sensitivity to and vigilance against outside influences, especially Western influences. Despite widespread discontent inside Iran, the Islamic Republic has proven to be very resilient. Cycles of relative moderation following periods of conservative orthodoxy have provided a kind of safety valve for the regime.

If fundamental change is to come to Iran, it will come from within, not from outside. And it’s highly unlikely to arrive in time to address the Iranian nuclear threat.

A third alternative to a negotiated solution is to ratchet up the pressure further and de-emphasize the diplomatic track. The hope would be to persuade Iran’s leaders eventually either to take a conciliatory approach in the negotiations or unilaterally to change course and abandon the provocative elements of its nuclear program.

The premise of this approach is that, if current sanctions are compelling Iran to show greater flexibility than before, then still harsher sanctions will provide an even greater incentive for Iran to re-think the goals of its nuclear program.

But there are problems with setting negotiations aside and counting on enhanced pressures to lead to a better outcome. One problem is that generating international support for ratcheting up sanctions will be very difficult – especially if we are seen to be de-emphasizing a diplomatic solution and the Iranians are seen finally to be willing to accept significant constraints on their nuclear program.

Another problem is that Iran is now on the verge of operationalizing certain nuclear capabilities that will significantly heighten the breakout threat.

  • In particular, they could soon start producing near-20% enriched uranium in the centrifuge cascades at Fordow that are now idle.  12 of the 16 cascades installed there are not spinning.
  • They could install additional, more advanced IR2m centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow and begin feeding uranium gas into them. They have not yet begun enriching uranium in the IR2ms currently installed.
  • They could fuel and begin operating the Arak heavy-water reactor to produce plutonium.
  • And they could continue building up their stocks of enriched uranium at both the near-20% and below 5% levels.

De-prioritizing negotiations while seeking stronger sanctions would pass up the opportunity to halt these worrisome activities.

So these are the main alternatives to a negotiated solution – the use of force, regime change, and ratcheting up pressures. In my view, none of them seems very promising. The question is whether a negotiated outcome would be any better.

It’s possible to design a negotiated outcome that would clearly be better. The Israeli government has done that. It would include a permanent ban on enrichment in Iran, a ban on retaining any enriched uranium stocks on Iranian territory, and the dismantlement of the Fordow enrichment facility and the Arak reactor.  Presumably it would also include rigorous verification measures.

So, should we press for such an agreement and accept nothing less? After all, the sanctions are having a devastating impact. Rouhani and his advisors understand this and seem to believe that a nuclear deal is the key to removing the sanctions and fixing their economy. So why not take advantage of this leverage by aiming high and holding out until Iran decides to cave?

The problem is that Iran is exceedingly unlikely to cave in to demands that it regards as tantamount to surrender. Most observers who follow Iran and its internal dynamics believe that – no matter how devastating the sanctions, no matter how persistent we are at the negotiating table, and no matter how credible the military option we are able to threaten – Iran will not agree to the maximalist terms that the Israeli government and some Americans advocate.

The nuclear issue has been successfully framed within Iran as a matter of “rights,” with the United States and its partners seeking to deprive Iran of its legitimate rights. Upholding the nation’s rights is a cause that can rally support across the entire Iranian political spectrum. 

Rouhani’s electoral victory was a mandate for economic recovery, for greater moderation, for removal of sanctions, for less strident rhetoric, and for greater flexibility in reaching a nuclear agreement. It was not a mandate for surrendering Iran’s rights.

While signaling moderation and flexibility on a number of issues, Rouhani and his negotiating team have repeatedly and categorically defended Iran’s nuclear rights, especially what they regard as a “right to enrich.” They have indicated a willingness to accept constraints on a domestic enrichment program, but never a willingness to give it up altogether.

It is also important to bear in mind that there are influential, hard-line supporters of Supreme Leader Khamenei who don’t want an agreement with the United States and the West, for ideological and other reasons. Some of them are reaping economic benefits from illicit activities designed to circumvent the sanctions. They wouldn’t mind a diplomatic impasse or even the further strengthening of sanctions.

Khamenei may be prepared to overrule the hard-liners for an agreement that is seen as protecting Iran’s rights. But the hard-liners would pounce on any deal that could be portrayed as a humiliating surrender of those rights. And it is hard to imagine the Supreme Leader overruling them in those circumstances.

Even the threat of military force would not be enough to persuade Iran to accept maximalist demands.   Iran’s leaders probably calculate that, especially with Iran’s new image of moderation, the likelihood of a military attack has substantially decreased.

But even if the military option were seen as highly credible, there are those in Iran who might welcome an attack – because they believe such an attack would both shatter the international sanctions coalition and provide a pretext for crossing the threshold to nuclear weaponization.

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.

Like us, the Iranians believe that no deal is better than a bad deal.  And for them, a bad deal is one that sacrifices what they see as their nuclear rights.

So, in my view, the ideal deal is not achievable. But the key question remains: can an agreement that falls short of an ideal agreement still be a “good” deal – a deal that is significantly better than the non-diplomatic outcomes I mentioned earlier.

Of course, Israelis will judge for themselves. But I’ll give you my version of a possible deal that may well be achievable and is better than the available alternatives.

In an article I wrote in July, I suggested a general framework for the negotiations. It involves reaching agreement simultaneously on a package of interim measures and on the key elements of a comprehensive, final agreement. 

The interim measures would be implemented right away and would be in effect for about six months, unless extended by mutual consent. While the interim measures were in place, negotiations would proceed on the details of the comprehensive, final agreement.

The interim agreement would be designed to halt further advances in Iran’s nuclear program. We can’t have a situation where the Iranians take advantage of the negotiations to make progress in their program.

The P5+1 countries proposed a package of interim, confidence-building measures in the February negotiating round in Almaty. It addressed the production and stockpiling of near-20% enriched uranium as well as the Fordow enrichment facility.

That proposal, which was developed over a year ago, has been overtaken by developments in the Iranian nuclear program. Now, to halt further progress toward a breakout capability, a P5+1 interim proposal needs to be expanded.

As in the Almaty proposal, it should stop production of near-20% enriched uranium, reduce the breakout potential from existing stocks of near-20% enriched uranium, and address the threat posed by the Fordow enrichment facility.

In addition, it now needs to prevent the start-up of the Arak heavy water reactor, halt the installation of additional IR2m centrifuges, prevent enrichment using currently installed IR2ms, stop the installation of additional P1 centrifuges, and address the threat posed by the production of additional enriched uranium below 5%.

Taken together, these measures would put a significant lid on Iranian advances toward a breakout capability.

But to get more, the P5+1 would have to give more. Their Almaty proposal offered to refrain from new UN Security Council and European Union sanctions, to engage in some civil nuclear cooperation and civil aviation safety cooperation, and to suspend U.S. sanctions on petrochemicals and gold and other precious metals.

The broader package of interim measures that I believe is necessary would require the P5+1 to expand their offer, especially in the area of sanctions easing. But my impression is that the U.S. in particular is not prepared to go very far in sanctions easing for an interim deal.  It knows that the most effective sanctions, especially in the oil and financial areas, will be needed as leverage to pursue an acceptable final agreement.

I noticed that, in their recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Amos Yadlin and Avner Golov criticized partial steps largely on the grounds that the P5+1 would give up their best leverage in exchange for only partial constraints on the Iranian program. I can’t speak for the U.S. Administration, but I strongly believe that U.S. officials are acutely conscious of the need to avoid giving away too much in an interim deal.

A phased approach with a near-term interim deal has important advantages over going directly to a comprehensive agreement. An interim agreement provides an opportunity – before a final agreement is concluded – to test Iran’s willingness to implement its commitments faithfully.

And an interim deal can put immediate constraints on Iran’s program. A detailed, comprehensive agreement could take a long time to negotiate. Without interim constraints in place, Iran could use the period of negotiations to advance its nuclear program substantially.

As I mentioned earlier, the key elements of a comprehensive deal would be agreed at the same time agreement is reached on interim measures – and the comprehensive deal would be negotiated in detail during the six-month interim arrangement. 

A key issue for a final agreement will be enrichment. 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.

The question then becomes: is a “good” deal possible that permits Iran to have an enrichment program?

The answer depends on whether the agreement sufficiently limits Iran’s breakout capability. A breakout capability is the ability of the Iranians to suddenly abandon constraints, kick out inspectors, disable monitoring equipment, and use existing enrichment facilities to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one or more nuclear weapons – and to do these things before the international community can take effective action to stop them.

To provide sufficient assurance against breakout, an agreement will have to provide confidence:

  • That breakout activities will be detected at the earliest possible stage;
  • That covert fuel cycle facilities do not exist;
  • That the timeframe between the initiation of breakout and the production of enough weapons-grade uranium for one or more weapons is as long as possible; and
  • That once breakout is detected, the international community will have the will, the capability, and the time to take effective action, including the use of military force, to prevent the acquisition of enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

In my view, these requirements should shape the P5+1 approach to negotiating a final agreement.

Monitoring arrangements would have to be robust. At key facilities, downloading cameras once a week is not enough. There should be arrangements, technical or human, to monitor on a daily basis that breakout is not underway.

To complement a P5+1 agreement with Iran, there should be procedures in place to ensure that suspicious developments that may signal breakout would be reported immediately to the IAEA Board, which would inform its members and convene immediately to consider appropriate action.

In addition, the United States and other interested parties would publicly reserve the right to act unilaterally and promptly if necessary.

To guard against a covert breakout scenario, Iran should be required to accept monitoring and inspection arrangements that include but go beyond the IAEA Additional Protocol.  

For example, Iran’s uranium mines and mills should be subject to IAEA monitoring. Without a clandestine source of yellowcake, it would be very difficult for Iran to pursue a parallel, covert fuel cycle.

Centrifuge production and assembly facilities should also be subject to IAEA monitoring. If Iran’s full inventory of centrifuges is accounted for, we would have greater confidence that there are no covert enrichment facilities.

Iran’s trade in uranium and sensitive dual-use goods and technologies should also be carefully monitored – again to limit the possibility of a covert fuel cycle.

Greater transparency and monitoring measures along these lines are necessary but are not sufficient to preclude breakout. Limits on Iran’s enrichment capacity and enriched uranium stockpiles would be required to lengthen the breakout timeline.

Iran’s current civil nuclear program has no need for a large enrichment capacity. It already has more than enough near-20% enriched uranium to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor for decades. Moreover, Russia is meeting the fuel needs of the Bushehr power reactor and presumably will meet the fuel needs of any additional reactors it sells to Iran.

It is therefore reasonable to insist on no production of enriched uranium above 5%. It is also reasonable to insist on a substantial reduction in Iran’s current enrichment capacity, in terms of the numbers and types of centrifuges. 

There is also no need for Iran to have on hand large stocks of enriched uranium hexafluoride – whether at the near-20% or below-5% levels – that could be re-enriched to weapons grade. A final agreement would have to place limits on the levels, amounts, chemical forms, and locations of Iran’s stocks of enriched uranium.

The Fordow enrichment facility is a special concern. It was almost surely intended as a covert facility to produce weapons-grade uranium. Its small size means that it adds little to Iran’s civil nuclear program.  In a final agreement, it should be dismantled or verifiably converted to a function that does not provide the capability to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Of course, enrichment of uranium is not the only breakout threat. The Arak heavy water reactor was intended for the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. The Iranians say it will produce medical isotopes. But if the Iranians are truly interested in producing medical isotopes, they would be better off with much smaller, light water research reactors, which are less suited to the production of plutonium.

In an interim deal, the Arak reactor should not be allowed to be loaded with fuel or operated. In a final deal, it should be dismantled, converted to a light water research reactor, or otherwise neutralized as a significant breakout threat.

Taken together, these elements of a final agreement could provide confidence that an Iranian breakout attempt would be detected almost immediately and that the U.S. and others would have a substantial period of time to take action before Iran could acquire a sufficient quantity of fissile material to produce weapons. 

With such measures, Iran would know that a breakout decision would be very risky. Before producing enough fissile material for a single bomb, it would have to pass through a significant period during which its intentions had been exposed and it had become highly vulnerable to military attack. Once its weapons intentions had been exposed, any inhibitions against the use of military force would be greatly reduced.

A key to deterring breakout would be to convey unmistakably to Iran that it would encounter a strong international reaction if it decided to violate the agreement and go for nuclear weapons. 

To reinforce a final agreement, it would therefore be useful for the Security Council to adopt a resolution making clear that any non-compliance with the agreement and especially any breakout decision would be met with a prompt and firm international response.

If Russia and China resisted such a resolution, the United States and other interested states should make clear that, in the absence of a timely and effective response by the Security Council to non-compliance, they are prepared to take any necessary actions to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

These are the broad outlines of an approach that I believe could form the basis of an acceptable deal. It’s not a perfect deal, but a perfect deal is not achievable. However, I think it’s a good enough deal to serve as an effective deterrent to Iran deciding to assume the risks of going for nuclear weapons. And it’s a significantly better outcome than the outcomes likely to result from alternative means of dealing with the problem.