This is a few days late, but I did a couple of pieces on Iran last week for LobeLog that are worth mentioning, what with Hassan Rouhani addressing the UN General Assembly this week and with US officials talking about “glimmers of progress” in recent talks. Although, before we get to that, let’s talk about that LA Times piece I just linked:
Iranian officials have insisted that they be allowed to maintain their current nuclear capacity, which includes about 10,000 operating centrifuges. U.S. officials would like to reduce the centrifuge inventory to a few thousand at most.
Western governments have given ground repeatedly to Iran in the negotiations. But a deal allowing a larger inventory of centrifuges could be difficult to accept because the number has acquired high visibility and importance with powerful critics of the deal, including some U.S. lawmakers.
That bolded part is…well, it’s one interpretation of the talks. But it’s not an objective interpretation, and it’s certainly not the interpretation that the Iranians have. The US perspective, heavily influenced by our Very Serious Hawkish foreign policy intelligentsia, is certainly that the US and the P5+1 gave Iran major concessions in the Joint Plan of Action that they negotiated last fall, primarily on the issue of uranium enrichment. The JPOA was the first (albeit tacit) acknowledgement that Iran was going to keep the ability to enrich uranium regardless of how the talks concluded, which was a big change in US policy on the issue. But the problem with this interpretation is that there’s no legal or historical precedent for denying any nation its own peaceful uranium enrichment program, so the Iranians have never seen this as a “major concession” but rather as a “minimal recognition of their basic national rights.” Meanwhile they agreed, under the terms of the JPOA, to put a lot of limits on that program, to freeze their nuclear research and development activities, and to allow highly intensive inspections and monitoring of their nuclear program, all for a relatively paltry amount of sanctions relief.
You may agree or disagree with the Iranian perspective (the fact that they may well have had an active nuclear weapons program until 2003 works against their characterization of their enrichment program as “peaceful”), and reality is probably somewhere in the middle, but understand that their perspective is at least as grounded in reality as the one held by American hawks.
The main continuing hurdle in the talks is that the two sides fundamentally disagree on the appropriate size of that enrichment program, at least in the short term (although the definition of “short term” is another point of contention). Iran has publicly said it might be willing to freeze its enrichment program at current levels for some agreed upon period of time, specifically for the 7 years remaining on their deal with Russia to supply fuel for their commercial nuclear plant at Bushehr. But they want to be able to fuel that plant with domestically-produced fuel once the deal with Russia ends, which would require a major expansion of their enrichment program, and they have absolutely refused to reduce their current capacity, citing issues of national pride and Iranian scientific development. The P5+1, or at least the US, wants Iran to actually cut its current capacity in half, and to keep it there (maybe getting to raise it back up to current levels after several years have passed) for a considerably longer period of time, say 20 years or more. This would lengthen Iran’s “breakout time,” the amount of time it will need to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon, which is a terrible estimate of nuclear weapons development for many reasons (nobody builds just one bomb, for example, and anyway if Iran does decide to make weapons they’re not going to do so using the enrichment facilities that we know about), but which has taken on so much symbolic importance as a core US demand in the talks that it’s going to be hard for the Obama administration to back off of it.
Obviously, then, this is a serious disagreement. The Arms Control Association has been floating a compromise where Iran gets to keep researching more advanced enrichment technology (i.e., more efficient centrifuges), but it actually does cut its current capacity. I attended an ACA event last week where they unveiled their most detailed version of the compromise to date, which envisions a ~15 year process whereby Iran gets to keep researching and deploying more advanced centrifuges so long as its overall enrichment capacity is cut to about half of its current 9400 SWU for a couple of years, then returning it to current levels for the duration of the deal. It’s a reasonable compromise, one that achieves the P5+1 goal of a capacity cut but fairly quickly reverts to something more like a freeze, while still allowing Iran to continue its scientific research.
It’s also still going to be a difficult sell to Rouhani and his negotiators, and poll findings released last week from the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland help to explain why. The bottom line is that the American belief that Iranians are desperate for sanctions relief and that they will, when the talks get into their final hours, lean heavily on their leadership to cut any deal they can, is utterly misguided. A full 70% of the Iranian public opposes a final deal that requires Iran to cut its enrichment capacity, and only 14% of them really expect Rouhani to get sanctions lifted, so in fact Rouhani has more to lose politically by agreeing to a deal that cuts capacity than he does by walking away from the talks altogether. When asked who they will blame most if the talks failed, 40% said the US and 20% said the P5+1 (which mostly means the US), while only 9% said they would blame Rouhani and his government. Rouhani’s political survival doesn’t seem to depend on cutting any deal, but it may in fact depend on walking away from what seems like a bad or disadvantageous deal.
Fueling Iranian sentiment on the talks and the sanctions is a fundamental mistrust of American motives:
Feeding into these sentiments is a deep Iranian mistrust of the P5+1’s motives—or really U.S.’s motives—in targeting Iran’s nuclear program in the first place. When asked why America is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, 75% responded agreed with the statement “Iran’s nuclear program is only an excuse and the U.S. is pursuing some other goals.” Asked what those goals are, 53% cited an American desire to “dominate Iran or block its development,” while 11% said the U.S. “is trying to change Iran’s domestic political order.”
I wonder why they would think that?
Iranians are, interestingly, most concerned with the scientific ramifications of the nuclear program on Iran’s national development, which suggests that something like the ACA approach could work if it could be crafted to overcome their strong objection to cutting back from current enrichment levels. But, clearly, American negotiators and Iran pundits need to recalibrate their understanding of the political situation inside Iran and how it will inform what Rouhani is prepared to do. I’ll be listening to Rouhani’s UNGA speech this week for clues as to how he thinks the nuclear talks are going, but I’ll be keeping these poll results in mind when I’m listening to the talking heads dissect his remarks afterwards.