Broaden the peace process with Iran
High-level Geneva talks with Iran adjourned November 11 without reaching an agreement. Lower-level talks are to scheduled to reconvene Wednesday. The Western objective is a pause in Iran’s nuclear program — stopping the clock and allowing more time to reach a permanent agreement.
Is stopping the clock a good idea? It was done once before. In 2004-5, Iran stopped enrichment temporarily. President Hassan Rouhani was then secretary of the Iranian National Security Council and negotiated the pause. A permanent agreement proved impossible at that time. So Iran started enrichment again and has now expanded its capacity.
That could happen again. But a pause that provides time for negotiation of a more permanent agreement is necessary. If Tehran goes much farther in enlarging its enrichment capacity and beginning production of plutonium, it will be a very short step from obtaining all the material it needs for nuclear weapons.
Failing to stop the clock now would put us on the road to either war or containment. Neither option is preferable to a solid negotiated agreement that would prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or getting everything it needs to “break out” quickly without detection.
A meaningful pause now would require that Iran cease production of 20 percent enriched uranium, make its existing enriched stockpile inaccessible, put its plutonium-producing reactor on hold and postpone installing additional centrifuges for enrichment. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would need to verify that Iran has met all the terms of the agreement.
In return, the P5+1 (the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) would suspend some sanctions, allowing Iran more hard currency and some international financial transactions.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies in the U.S. Congress are already crying foul, fearing that this initial agreement presages a permanent agreement that they won’t like — or no permanent agreement at all. The Israelis want an end to all enrichment and plutonium production in Iran. Some in Congress are backing them and calling for additional sanctions.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states also object to a pause. They say that the end of the nuclear controversy will restore Iran into the position of a regional power.
The Iranians also face opposition to a nuclear agreement. Theirs is mainly internal. The Islamic Republic feeds voraciously on anti-Americanism. The Supreme Leader in particular distrusts the United States, fearing that Washington’s real objective is regime change.
President Barack Obama foreswore that objective in his September U.N. speech, which was intended to pave the way for a nuclear agreement. But Iran, which experienced a U.S.-backed coup in 1953, thinks it has good reason to distrust American assurances on this point — which for the Islamic Republic is existential.
The P5+1 process is a narrow one. It involves relatively few negotiators from each side. That may be adequate for stopping the clock. But a permanent nuclear agreement will require many more stakeholders to agree.
Both the Iranian majlis and the U.S. Congress will need to allow this permanent agreement to happen, though both governments will try to avoid any need for formal ratification. Is it time to broaden the contacts between Tehran and the Washington? Should Iran’s parliamentarians be invited to the United States, and America’s members of Congress be invited to Iran?
The same questions could be asked about policy analysts at think tanks, university professors and even ordinary citizens. We are getting to the point — if we haven’t already passed it — that a broader peace process is needed. Iran is far from being a democracy. But it is not a dictatorship either. Public opinion counts. Getting to yes is going to require that key people in Iran be convinced that they are not getting snookered by the Great Satan.
The same is true for Washington. We need to be confident not only that the Islamic Republic has signed on to a nuclear agreement, but also that the process is irreversible, able to survive changes of leadership and even regime.
Changes of leadership are to be expected. The Supreme Leader is 74 years old. We may have foresworn regime change, but it could happen whether we help it along or not. No American should want to be snookered by the ayatollahs.
We should have no illusions about the regime in Iran. It is a brutal, self-appointed and profoundly non-democratic one. But if we have to deal with it, we should want the confidence that comes only from a deep understanding of Iran’s political dynamics. Our negotiators, and theirs, will not welcome the proposition, but the time is coming for a broader process — even for a U.S. embassy in Tehran.
PHOTO (TOP): Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses a news conference following nuclear negotiations at the United Nations in Geneva, October 16, 2013. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich