CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The ongoing deadlock in the Iranian nuclear dispute is becoming increasingly unsustainable. While Iran’s economy is seriously harmed by Western sanctions, the Obama administration has created high expectations by portraying the coming year as the final test for diplomacy.
Pressure to reach a successful nuclear deal thus seems to be high on both sides. The question is whether such a deal is understood to mean compromise or Iran’s capitulation.
It should be noted that a deal has not been a shared objective during the life of the nuclear dispute. Before 2006, several key actors signaled their support for allowing Iran limited enrichment with extensive inspections. The United States, however, demanded a complete halt to enrichment. Any further discussion on compromise proposals was effectively ruled out with the adoption of the first United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution in 2006, which called for zero enrichment.
Iranian leaders believe that complying with UN resolutions would run contrary to Iran’s interests. Given the country’s ideological aversion to double standards, its resistance to the exceptional limitations of what it views as its rights is an important matter of principle and prestige.
Iran’s inflexibility has been hardened by the lack of a face-saving way out or sufficient rewards for concessions. In addition, the credibility of UNSC permanent members and Germany (known as P5+1) on nuclear-related incentives is undermined by the fact that most of Iran’s past nuclear contracts were terminated due to US pressure on third parties.
Given Iran’s growing population and finite oil reserves, it is not surprising that Iranians should perceive a need for nuclear self-sufficiency. Finally, but not least, continuing its uranium enrichment gives Tehran the option of producing a nuclear deterrent if military threats by the US and Israel materialize.
Signaling awareness of the above problems, President Obama sought to adopt a different strategy in early 2009. In addition to more reconciliatory rhetoric and unconditional negotiations with Iran, the new approach implied a withdrawal of the zero enrichment demand. The P5+1’s offers in the last four years have instead focused on reducing Iran’s enrichment capacity and stockpiles of enriched uranium.
The problem is that, from an Iranian perspective, recent offers fail to suggest that the zero enrichment demand would not be reasserted; sanctions continue to be based on it and the P5+1 continue to refuse to recognize Iran’s right to enrichment. The resulting vagueness about end goals is reinforced by the absence of any apparent intention to lift the tightening Western sanctions as part of a potential nuclear deal.
The core problem of Iran’s mistrust in the other side’s intentions thus remains unaddressed. An obvious solution would be for the P5+1 to offer substantial and guaranteed sanctions relief in return for Iran’s commitment to limit its uranium enrichment activities and accept extensive inspections.
Rather than offering spare parts for airplanes, it is the most recent, crippling sanctions that need to be put on the negotiating table. There is uncertainty on both sides: whether Iran is serious about the negotiations and whether the US is ready for a deal.
Recent nominations of top officials in the Obama administration suggest that the US might indeed be ready for a compromise. However, one cannot underestimate the forces calling for the continuation of the old strategy of countering Iran’s regional influence.
Enmity with Iran is deeply institutionalized in the US political system. This explains many lost opportunities to improve relations, as well as the swiftness with which Obama’s initial diplomatic failure was translated into a determination to sanction the Iranian economy into ruins. Given Obama’s unprecedented success on the sanctions front, it might just be too tempting to keep Iran on its knees until it capitulates or its regime changes.
Victory might seem sweeter than compromise but its pursuit is likely to end in bitterness. Economic hardship and looming external threats can be expected to degenerate Iranian politics, and the risk of regional war remains high.
Absent a way out of the current predicament, Iran has little to lose in withdrawing from the Treaty of Nuclear Non-Proliferation.
Iran also cannot be kept in a cage forever. Given its size, population and oil wealth, it is bound to be a significant regional player. It would therefore be wise for the Obama administration to look for ways to repair the damage of past policies instead of creating more problems for the future.
Tytti Erästö is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow with the International Security Program and the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.