Forging a deal
For any final agreement to be viable, Iran must satisfy at least three criteria. First and foremost, the P5+1 negotiators must insist on a drastic reduction in the number and quality of centrifuges.
Tehran’s breakout capacity remains in a gray area of international obligations. While negotiators have proposed a cap of 1,500, Iran currently has 19,000 centrifuges, of which 9,400 (IR-1s) are operating. Any agreement which exceeds the maximum threshold of 3,000 first-generation centrifuges, coupled with an adequately low stockpile of enriched uranium, would not eliminate the threat of Iran weaponizing its nuclear material in a very short timeframe.
Secondly, Iran must agree to cooperate fully and unconditionally with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in accordance with UN Security Council Resolutions 1737, 1747, 1803 and 1929. They must also agree to a thorough monitoring, verification and early detection regime, as well as an appropriate response time in the case of a major violation. The most serious dearth of transparency remains over the potential military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program, and any inspection agreements must include full unannounced access to sites housing nuclear material.
Thirdly, Tehran must agree to the modification of two of its central facilities. The 40MW heavy-water reactor in Arak (IR-40 Reactor), currently under construction, would need to be converted into a light-water reactor without the capacity to hold significant quantities of natural uranium. Allowing Iran to complete, maintain and operate such a reactor leaves the door open for plutonium production – the most effective fuel for a nuclear bomb with a low critical mass, requiring only 35kg of plutonium oxide or 13kg of plutonium metal to trigger a nuclear detonation.
In addition, the underground Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) for production of 20 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride would need to be remodeled into a research and development installation.
There are several geopolitical factors at work that can help shape a favorable deal. First, the ongoing proxy war in Syria represents an ally under fire for Tehran. The Assad regime in Syria is one of Iran’s closest allies, providing Tehran access to the Mediterranean and, via Lebanon, an indirect border with Israel, which is why Iran and its Shi’ite proxy Hezbollah have been a crucial lifeline for the Assad regime. Increasing pressure on Damascus would carry significant costs for the Iranian leadership that is having to quickly prioritize their interests on more fronts by the day.
Second, the United States and its allies should leverage its relationship with the government in Baghdad in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). Iran has been flexing its muscles in a series of direct interventions in Iraq, proselytizing a narrative of saving their neighbor from a threat they too fear in Tehran. Limiting Iranian influence in Iraq not only represents a long-term investment in a security relationship for the US and its allies, but also a central national interest – preventing the formation of strong Shi’ite axis in the region. Limited, though effective and consequential assistance to Iraq will be critical in the coming years as the offensive against the IS continues.
Finally, the ongoing Middle East cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia cuts across several critical interests for the US. Riyadh is simultaneously seeking to maintain its market share of global energy production while “sweating” foreign operations and hammering Tehran’s most critical source of income. For the time being, low cost energy can spurn economic growth at home and around the world while limiting Iran’s national income. This dynamic increases economic pressure on Iran and raises the probability of an equal action or reaction from Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei. Yet should Tehran acquire a nuclear arsenal, no matter how small, this would trigger an arms race that would cascade across the Middle East with secondary and tertiary consequences past immediate questions of state-controlled nuclear weapons.
Saudi Arabia would seek to match Iran’s program, offering a regional Sunni counterweight to the Shi’ite bomb. The deadliest technology known to mankind would be in the hands of the two most religiously conservative regimes in the world. At a time when IS is seeking to upend the status quo and destabilize governments across the region, Sunni Wahhabism or Shi’ite fundamentalism paired with nuclear weapons or access to nuclear material is a nightmare scenario of the worst sort. In the event of government collapse, revolution, or unprovoked aggression, the 21st-century proliferation of non-state actors raises the potential for catastrophic and unprecedented global terrorism.
Pressure, foreign and domestic
The ongoing collapse of energy prices further pressures Tehran to find resolution and closure on the nuclear issue. Falling energy prices will soon lead to similar internal pressure as state revenue dwindles into 2015. With generational change and the loosening of social and cultural restrictions that has helped maintain middling favorability ratings at best, a potential economic crisis may prove incendiary enough to represent a credible internal threat the establishment must take more seriously than in 2009.
Economic sanctions destabilized the domestic economy, from state energy coffers to IRGC-controlled subsidiaries and the bazaaris, dividing leadership in Tehran and raising questions as to the viability of the political system itself. Mitigating such instability forced Tehran to acquiesce in 2013 and further pressure could put a stranglehold on the system’s elite by the next presidential election cycle in 2017. Reinstating additional economic sanctions could throttle Iran’s economy to the point where not only is a deal mandatory, it may prove vital to the survival of Iran’s political system and its leadership interests.
The military option
Economic and financial pressure segues into the option of last resort: a military strike. One of the largest deterrents to a strike on Iran has been stability of the international energy market. This hasn’t been a concern for only the US, but also its allies and the global economy at large. With the near unprecedented oil glut currently driving costs down to record lows, the economy is in a more advantageous position to weather instability in the Gulf than it was in the previous year, and perhaps more so than any point in history.
Current projections indicate such a window is likely to last into 2015 and potentially beyond, raising the credibility of a US or Israeli strike on nuclear facilities in Iran in this spring or the next.
These are certainly not the only dynamics at work in the calculus of war, but has been a major factor and will shape any discussion concerning the use of force in the days ahead. Tehran is increasingly vulnerable on economic, social and political tiers – and should be expected to avoid the worst machinations of interstate conflict through increasing its asymmetric capabilities, forging stronger partnerships with common adversaries of Western allies, and seeking another round of favorable talk extensions without the consequences of reinstated sanctions or a military strike.
Turn the page
The nuclear issue has been a plague on both the houses of the West and the Middle East.
Iran has proven it can be an influential regional power without a nuclear arsenal, as it possesses a significant amount of soft power influence coupled with direct tangible assistance for proxy forces, allies and even former adversaries. Tehran stands on the precipice of joining the responsible international community, and it might even find itself in a more advantageous position by reaching an agreement that forswears the levels of uranium enrichment needed for weaponization and maintains prerequisite minimums for energy production.
If it is not ceding any weaponization capability, as has been its diplomatic narrative thus far, Iran has everything to lose and nothing to gain by spurning the West and its allies. With so many interests at stake tied directly to the nuclear issue, Khamenei and elite of the system would be wise to turn the page of the revolution and agree to what the international community views as the most favorable outcome: one less country with the power to destroy the world.
Originally posted in The Jerusalem Post