Solving the Iranian Rubik’s Cube, up now at Lobe Log

My newest at Lobe Log recaps a new report from the International Crisis Group and a panel discussion held yesterday by the US Institute of Peace, both looking at what remains to be done before a comprehensive deal with Iran is reached. Both used the analogy of a Rubik’s cube to describe the talks, since every piece of a final deal has to come into alignment with every other piece, and the terms of one piece (say, how much uranium enrichment capacity Iran will be allowed to operate) impact the other pieces (like how much enriched uranium Iran will be allowed to stockpile; lower enrichment capacity means they can stockpile more of it, and vice versa):

But the ICG’s recommendations, and the discussion on the USIP panel, make it very clear that these objectives will be difficult to meet in a way that satisfies both parties. The two sides disagree on even basic elements of the talks; as Kahl explained, the Iranian government rejects the P5+1’s continued focus on Iranian “breakout capacity” because it has officially sworn off of any military application of its nuclear program. The P5+1 does not accept those assurances, but Iran also has legitimate questions as to why other countries with civilian nuclear programs have not been subject to the same requirements that Iran has faced.

The USIP panel seemed to reach a general consensus that the biggest remaining hurdles to a comprehensive deal revolve around Iran’s uranium enrichment program. This includes both Iran’s capacity for enrichment and the amount of enriched uranium it will be allowed to stockpile; the level of access that Iran will permit to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its inspectors; and the timing of and conditions for sanctions relief.

There are still so many complicating factors, from whether or not Iran’s ballistic missile program should be limited as part of the deal or treated as a separate issue, to how other regional powers respond to the terms of the deal, to the very high domestic political hurdles that a deal will have to overcome in both Iran and the US, that I still have a hard time explaining why I’m optimistic that a deal will get done. Mostly I think it’s because, as the ICG report says, the cost if these talks fail could be massive, and everybody involved knows it.

I also talk about what I think is the overarching issue: the fact that the P5+1 on the one hand, particularly the US, UK, and France, and Iran on the other hand, just don’t trust each other to live up to their obligations. It’s hard to put together a deal like this in optimal circumstances, but the lack of trust in this case is just crippling. The P5+1 do not believe that Iran’s intentions are purely civilian and they’re demanding that Iran prove it has no nuclear weapons program. Well, it’s impossible to “prove” the absence of anything, so you’re already starting in a bad place in which one side logically can’t be satisfied no matter how severe Iran’s monitoring and verification requirements are, because it’s always possible that Iran is hiding something from inspectors. Iran, meanwhile, can’t understand or accept that its civilian-only assurances won’t be believed the way that similar assurances were accepted about Germany’s nuclear program, or Japan’s. It would be difficult for any nation to accept the idea that it, in particular, must be singled out for extra scrutiny while other nations (whose past actions haven’t exactly been motivated by compassion and a desire to do Good) are more or less taken at their word.

For Iran’s part, it’s going to have a hard time trusting the US, especially, to live up to its end of the deal and lift sanctions when agreed-upon milestones are met. Our esteemed legislature has not helped to assuage their fears, and neither has the Joint Plan of Action, whose terms still aren’t being fulfilled (on our side; Iran seems to be holding up its end of the bargain so far) because Western banks are afraid that even releasing the money to which Iran is entitled under the JPA could put them at risk of violating the rest of the sanctions regime.

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