This morning, the Iranian, Brazilian and Turkish governments announced that they had negotiated a deal to ship a substantial portion of Iran’s uranium stockpile to Turkey, in exchange for fuel rods for nuclear energy. Negotiations between the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and Iran had stalled when the two sides failed to come to a confidence-building agreement to reduce the availability of enriched uranium to Iran, which the western powers feared Iran would use to build a nuclear weapon (despite evidence to the contrary). The stalemate was due partially to an obstinate position by the US and its allies, who did not respond to Iranian counter offers.
The US and its negotiating partners have not had time to fully respond to the announcement of the deal, but they have thus far expressed skepticism. However, if Iran follows through on the negotiated deal, it should be difficult for the US not to view it as a positive step since it achieves the main goal of making it more difficult for Iran to make a nuclear bomb. The significance of the deal will depend largely on how the West responds and decides to move forward.
I have been reading Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Limbert’s new book Negotiating with Iran, and given what I’ve seen coming out of the administration and Congress, I fear I might be the only one hearing Limbert’s important lessons from history and their implications for negotiating with Iran today. As a fluent Farsi speaker who has spent years living in Iran and experience the hostage crisis first hand, he has a valuable perspective to share. One piece that clearly seems to be missing on the US side at this point is the idea of giving Iran “yessable” propositions. Given the popularity of the nuclear enrichment program in Iran, the Iranian government must be able to save face and present any deal as a victory to their domestic audience. This deal could provide such an initial opportunity. Demands that Iran immediately halt its uranium enrichment program are in denial of this dynamic and are likely to cause future stalemates.
Iran expert Gary Sick offers valuable analysis of the deal and its potential implications:
So where does that leave us?
Essentially, it takes us back to last October. The one big difference is that Iran has more LEU now than it did then. But the reality is that Iran will keep producing LEU unless a new agreement is reached to persuade them to stop. If we had completed the agreement of a swap in October, Iran would have the same amount of LEU as it has now. If we wait another six months for negotiations, Iran will have still more LEU.
In short, this agreement is largely symbolic and limited in its practical effects. If the West accepts the deal as worked out by Brazil and Turkey, and if a new round of negotiations begins – on both the nuclear and other major issues – then this could be a breakthrough. If the West turns it down, or if the two sides do not use it to negotiate some of the major issues that separate them, then nothing much will have been accomplished.
The next step is up to the United States and its negotiating partners.
Although angst is high among the sanctions-at-all-costs crowd, this path to a nuclear swap deal was fully endorsed by the United States and was the centerpiece of the justification for sanctions. One way to respond at this point may just be to declare that our threat of sanctions worked: Iran has capitulated and we accept yes as an answer.
Hmmm…are we that smart?
I have been alarmed by statements from members of Congress and pundits that “diplomacy has failed” and we need to move on to other options. Serious diplomacy has not been tried, and abandoning the negotiating track leaves us with an array of unpalatable options. I hope the administration will recognize this new deal as the opportunity that it is and continue to work toward a negotiated resolution of tensions with Iran.