As Iran talks resume, it’s time to play ‘Let’s Make a Deal’

September 18, 2014

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif speak together during the third day of closed-door nuclear talks at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva

On Thursday, negotiators from the United States, Iran and five other world powers begin the final stretch of negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear agreement. A deal is within reach. But time is short.

With fewer than three months before the Nov. 24 deadline for an agreement, defining the size and scope of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program remains the most significant gap. To bridge it, negotiators must move away from extreme positions toward more realistic ones.

There are several ways to square the circle and find a formula that meets the basic requirements of all parties. For Iran, the goal is a meaningful uranium-enrichment program. For the five permanent member of the United Nations Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — plus Germany, or P5+1,the goal is to limit Iran’s enrichment capacity and to monitor its activities to ensure that the time it would take Tehran to amass enough weapons-grade nuclear material to build a bomb is extended.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif addresses news conference following nuclear negotiations at UN in GenevaUnder the interim agreement reached last November, the parties agreed that Tehran could maintain an enrichment program based on its “practical needs.” Both sides base their positions on technical assessments of Iran’s needs yet strongly disagree on the amount of enriched uranium required to meet them. The problem here is essentially political.

Iran believes its practical needs include future fuel needs for nuclear reactors now in the planning stage. Russia supplies fuel for Iran’s sole operating nuclear power plant, Bushehr, and is under contract to do so through 2021. Tehran wants to build up its domestic capacity and reduce its reliance on the international market for enriched uranium fuel, a concern not unwarranted by Iran’s past experiences.

The United States and its partners’ assessment of Iran’s practical needs is more limited. They assert Iran’s nuclear fuel requirements can be met with fewer than 2,000 of Iran’s first-generation centrifuges — a significant reduction from the 10,200 now running — and by extending the Russian supply contract for the lifetime of the Bushehr reactor.

To get to “yes,” negotiators need to devise some creative trade-offs. For Iran, this would mean postponing industrial-scale uranium enrichment and extending its fuel contracts with Russia. For the United States and its partners, this would mean accepting that Iran’s uranium-enrichment program could slowly scale up over time and research-and-development activities could continue under certain restrictions and monitoring.

The International Crisis Group and the Arms Control Association, working with a number of nuclear experts and diplomats, have developed a proposal that can lead to this outcome.

Iran, in this approach, could retain a meaningful uranium enrichment capacity and continue research and development on advanced centrifuges. Tehran would also receive fuel guarantees for its Bushehr reactor, including pre-delivery of fuel when the agreement is signed — to guard against supply disruptions.
In the short term, such a tradeoff would mean that Iran would have to reduce its enrichment capacity by roughly half and remove the extra centrifuges from its facilities. Tehran could also only keep a limited enriched-uranium stockpile in the country. This would increase the time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build one bomb from nine to 12 months, a key Western goal.  It would represent a major increase from the current estimate of two to three months.

As Iran meets agreed-upon milestones and restores international confidence in its peaceful intentions, it would be able to slightly increase its enriched-uranium stockpile and phase in more advanced centrifuges.

Since last November, remarkable progress has been made in resolving the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiators have, for example, reached creative compromises on the future of the Arak heavy-water reactor and on the monitoring and verification regime for Iran’s nuclear program.

But if the uranium-enrichment standoff is not resolved, this progress will be lost. We could miss the best opportunity in more than a decade to reach a nuclear deal that guards against a nuclear-armed Iran.

The costs of failure — an unrestrained Iranian nuclear program and increased sanctions or military strikes — are too high. As with any negotiation, neither side can get everything it wants. But with a little flexibility and creativity, they can get what they need.


PHOTO (TOP): Secretary of State John Kerry (L), EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton (C) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (2nd R) speak together during the third day of closed-door nuclear talks at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, November 9, 2013. REUTERS/Jean-Christophe Bott/Pool

PHOTO (INSERT): Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses a news conference following nuclear negotiations with European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is leading talks with Iran on behalf of the six world powers, at the United Nations in Geneva, October 16, 2013. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

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Advocates of allowing Iran to retain the infrastructure for its nuclear program are under the mis-guided belief that Iran can be trusted. It’s even odder when taken in the context that the main reason why nuclear talks with Iran tanked was not the demands of the P5+1 nations, but the near hysterical rant-filled speeches by Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei in which he reiterated Iran’s commitment to a jihad against the West, especially the US and remained adamant about Iran’s commitment not to relent on upgrading, let alone reducing its centrifuges and its ballistic missile technology, both the core elements of any nuclear weapons program.Iran is steadfast on possessing nuclear weapons. Iran leaders always have and always will want nuclear weapons and no amount of talk is going to change their mind.

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