Both “no enrichment” and “mission accomplished” = no deal

Graham Allison details the unrealistic demands that have been proposed for nuclear negotiations with Iran and offers a more reasonable framework in which to consider goals for the coming talks.


By Graham Allison

Last week, the clock started on implementation of the interim deal that will freeze Iran’s nuclear program for six months in exchange for limited sanctions relief. As attention turns toward negotiating a comprehensive agreement, what can the United States realistically hope to achieve?

The suggestions of many supporters and critics of the interim agreement alike are simply out of this world. For example, take Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demands, which are essentially four “no’s”: no enrichment, no centrifuges, no stockpile of enriched uranium, and no heavy water reactor. Because Iran is not about to capitulate, it is hard not to expect that Netanyahu’s terms will ensure there is a fifth “no”: that is, no deal.

Laurent Fabius and John Kerry in Paris
Laurent Fabius and John Kerry in Paris

Calls for a comprehensive deal that will neatly tie a ribbon around a treaty and allow us to forget about the Iranian nuclear challenge are similarly unrealistic. While French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius may hope Iran will “definitively abandon any capacity of getting a weapon,” there exists no feasible feature in which we can declare “mission accomplished.”

As I argue in greater detail in an op-ed for Foreign Policy, a more realistic objective is an agreement that denies Iran an exercisable nuclear weapons option. In essence, this dictates that the timeline between an Iranian decision to seek a bomb and success in building it is long enough, and an Iranian move in that direction clear enough, that the international community would have sufficient time to act to prevent Iran’s succeeding.

Many have criticized the interim nuclear deal for failing to address other legitimate concerns, including Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, violations of human rights at home, and hostility toward Israel. Nonetheless, in thinking about the real-world alternatives, what is worse than the current Iranian regime with all its attributes we hate? My answer: that same regime with nuclear weapons.

Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban once observed of the Palestinians that they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” For seizing an interim agreement that freezes Iran’s nuclear program for six months, the Obama administration deserves kudos. Going forward, if it can persuade Iran to accept an agreement that operationally denies it an exercisable nuclear weapons option, the U.S. should not miss that opportunity.

In other words, as we look ahead to potential “end-states,” channel one’s inner Voltaire. That is, as the French philosopher once noted, do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Graham Allison is director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School.