Options and Objectives for the Iranian Nuclear Negotiations


Given the advanced state of the Iranian nuclear program, it seems that there are few feasible options for preventing Iran from acquiring a weapon. No deal would prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state, but it’s still possible to slow progress and shrink the breakout window. Given the circumstances, the best option going forward would be to negotiate a long term, invasive inspection regime into all current and future nuclear facilities. This would provide the U.S. and its allies with critical insight into Iran’s program and allow advanced warning of breakout potential. Further, the United States should ensure that robust ballistic missile defense programs are in place to counter the threat of Iranian missiles, which are unlikely to be part of a new comprehensive agreement. Sanctions must also be fully leveraged to gain concessions from the Iranian government.

This past Friday, it was announced that the negotiations between the P5+1 (The U.S., U.K, France, Russia, China and Germany) and Iran regarding its contentious nuclear program would be extended for an additional four months. Under the November 2013 interim agreement, which called for Iran to freeze or roll back portions of its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, the deadline to reach a comprehensive agreement was to be July 20th. Negotiations have been complicated by disagreements over the number of centrifuges the Islamic Republic hopes to operate. Iran nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi has suggested that his country wants to increase output of nuclear material over the next eight years that would require the equivalent of 190,000 current generation centrifuges or 8,000 advanced centrifuges. Washington, meanwhile, seeks significant reductions in the approximately 20,0000 centrifuges that Iran currently operates or has on standby.

Iranian Ambitions

In April, Secretary of State John Kerry reported to Congress that the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon is a window of “about two months.” Iran currently operates an infrastructure that will allow it to enrich weapons grade uranium. A June 2014 IAEA Report indicated that since the interim deal was struck, Iran has not enriched uranium past 5% and has diluted much of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium. Although Iran has been in compliance with the terms of the agreement, those measure alone are insufficient to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability if it desires. In fact, according to the written testimony submitted by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence regarding the 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment, Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce a nuclear weapon. The only issue keeping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is “political will.” DNI Clapper provides an assessment of Iran’s goals; “[Iran] wants to improve its nuclear and missile capabilities while avoiding severe repercussions such as a military strike or regime-threatening sanctions.”

Ballistic Missiles 

Iran also continues to aggressively develop ballistic missile technology that could allow it to deliver a nuclear warhead. According to the unclassified Annual Report on Military Power of Iran from January of 2014, “Iran has publicly stated it may launch a space launch vehicle by 2015 that could be capable of intercontinental ballistic missile ranges if configured as a ballistic missile.” Iran has already deployed a number of short and medium range missiles capable of striking Israel and Europe. Negotiators are unlikely to persuade Iran to include ballistic missiles in any comprehensive nuclear agreement. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called such expectations “stupid and idiotic.” Khamenei elaborated on his desire to maintain his country’s missile program saying, “They expect us to limit our missile program while they constantly threaten Iran with military action.”

P5+1 Options and Objectives

Negotiators in Vienna are facing a future in which it seems that an Iranian nuclear weapon is a very real possibility. Given the circumstances, perhaps the best outcome of the negotiations would be to increase the transparency of the Iranian nuclear program. This could be accomplished through gaining the right to carry out a long term, intrusive verification regime into any current and future Iranian nuclear facilities. Last week, Senators Bob Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Lindsey Graham of the Armed Services Committee, released a letter calling for inspections lasting 20 years. The letter cites a “history of deception [that] compels the international community to be vigilant.” Limiting Iran’s enrichment capability is also critical, although this is perhaps the area in which there is the greatest discrepancy between the parties. While officials have been reluctant to offer an exact timeline of an acceptable window for Iranian breakout, reports suggest that 6 to 12 months would be the most likely ambition. A robust verification regime and a lengthened breakout window can significantly improve the ability of the United States and its allies to address an Iran that has acquired a nuclear capability.

The second major area of concern is whether ballistic missile technology should be considered in the negotiations. Iran has made it clear that it will not consider its missile program as part of the nuclear agreement. Negotiators may see the need to gain transparency into Iran’s program more critical than limiting its ballistic missile program. Arms control experts have argued against making ballistic missiles a critical issue, instead they advocate pursuing a separate multilateral agreement to limit ballistic missile flight tests beyond a certain range. Should negotiators make favorable agreements that would allow for greater transparency and a longer breakout window, the issue of ballistic missiles could also be addressed through a greater reliance on missile defense systems in the Middle East and Europe.

Later this summer, Phase II of the European Phased Adaptive Approach will be installed in Romania and become active in 2015. In May, the Aegis Ashore system was successfully tested at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii. The Aegis system has proven to be capable in tests, achieving 28 out of 34 intercept attempts. An expansion of the Aegis Ashore program and other missile defense programs to protect the United States and its allies could prove to be a viable option to bolster a comprehensive nuclear agreement and help counter the threat of Iranian ballistic missiles.

The P5+1 also have the option to turn to sanctions, which brought Iran to the negotiating table. Congress has repeatedly threatened to re-introduce sanctions if Iran refuses to make concessions. Recently, Senator Mark Kirk expressed this sentiment saying, “If (the deal) falls apart, there should be another round of sanctions.” Sanctions are powerful tools that motivated Iran to begin negotiations and comply with the subsequent interim agreement. Pressure must continue to be applied to force Iran to make the necessary concessions that would allow greater transparency into its nuclear program.

The negotiations in Vienna are perhaps less than ideal, however the world must face the reality that Iran is on the precipice of obtaining a nuclear weapon capability. Increased transparency is perhaps the best option available, but should not be the sole consideration for countering the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. The United States and its allies must begin preparations to deal with a nuclear Iran, including strengthening regional alliances and expanding missile defenses in Europe and at home.

Abel Romero is the Director of Government Relations at the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance and one of two William Van Cleave Missile Defense ScholarsClick here to follow him on Twitter. 

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