Gary Samore's speech on the distance still to go in Iran nuclear talks

SamoreGary Samore spoke last week at the National Defense University's WMD Symposium at Fort McNair in Washington, DC. He traced the evolution of talks between Iran and the P5+1 before explaining the distance between the two sides' positions on Iran's enrichment capabilities. The JPA is succeeding in slowing down Iran's nuclear clock, he concluded, but a final nuclear deal is likely still a long way off.

I’d like to discuss prospects for the current P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran and implications for U.S.-Iran relations.  I want to make clear that this is unclassified presentation, based on what I read in the newspapers and my discussions with people close to the negotiations, including several from Iran.   

The first thing to say is that the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action, which went into effect on January 20, 2014, has been very successful in achieving its primary objectives.  Under the agreement, Iran has frozen or capped key elements of its nuclear program (suspend enrichment above 5%, halt installation of additional centrifuges, dilute or convert existing stock of 20% enriched UF6, halt major construction at Arak) - thus halting in most respects further development of Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons materials.  It’s true that Iran has been able to continue centrifuge research and development under the Joint Plan of Action and there’s been a delay in completing the facility to convert additional LEUF6 into oxide, but neither of these significantly changes the nuclear status quo over the time frame of the interim agreement.

On sanctions side, the U.S. and EU have been able to ease some trade sanctions and release some frozen funds, but – despite fears of the critics - the overall sanctions regime remains intact, mainly because the U.S. and EU governments have warned companies and other governments not to take actions that would draw sanctions.  It’s true that Iranian oil exports have averaged about 1.2 MB/D since January – slightly higher than the 1 MB/D that Administration estimated when the Joint Plan of Action was negotiated – but not enough to make a huge difference to the Iranian economy, especially because financial sanctions restricting Iranian access to its oil revenues remain in place.

So, on balance, the decision by the P5+1 to pursue an interim agreement as a first step towards a comprehensive agreement is working. In fact, the status quo is probably more acceptable to the P5+1 than it is to Iran because we are essentially freezing their nuclear program without giving up very much in sanctions leverage.  In the meantime, negotiations for a comprehensive agreement are beginning in earnest with a P5+1 experts level meeting with Iran in New York last week and a meeting at the Political Directors level in Vienna this week.  As you know, the objective is to complete a comprehensive agreement by July 20, 2014.  

No doubt, both sides are highly motivated to complete an agreement.  My Iranian friends tell me that President Rouhani is under tremendous pressure to produce economic results or face a counter attack by hardliners, who will charge that he has shackled Iran’s nuclear program without getting much economic relief in return.  In fact, some Iranians say that Iran will walk away from the table if an acceptable deal is not achieved by July, but I suspect this threat is mainly bargaining tactics.   Frankly, if Iran does walk away, we are in a very strong position to increase sanctions, especially further reductions in Iran’s oil exports because of the soft global oil market and because of our political influence with three of Iran’s biggest four remaining customers: Japan, Korea, and India.  China is more problematic. 

"So, on balance, the decision by the P5+1 to pursue an interim agreement as a first step towards a comprehensive agreement is working. In fact, the status quo is probably more acceptable to the P5+1 than it is to Iran because we are essentially freezing their nuclear program without giving up very much in sanctions leverage."

President Obama would also like a foreign policy victory, especially in the Middle East, to silence the critics of his foreign policy.  To paraphrase President Obama, a good nuclear deal with Iran would be more than a single or a double.  It would be a home run – removing (or at least postponing) one of the most significant security threats facing the U.S. and our allies in the region as well as the single greatest danger to the international nonproliferation regime.  And, as a practical matter, a nuclear deal in July would be easier to defend in Congress before the mid-term elections, in which the Republicans may take the Senate.

But, what are the prospects for a comprehensive deal by July?

On one hand, the two sides seem to have agreed – at least in principle - to modify the 40 MW Arak heavy water research reactor to a lower power level and different fuel type so that it produces much less plutonium.  Details still remain to be negotiated – in particular, how reversible the modifications will be – but this seems to be a bridgeable set of issues.   The truth is: Iran’s pathway to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons is much more challenging and distant than uranium and therefore easier for Tehran to trade away.  As one of my Iranian contacts said (half jokingly), “We’ll give you plutonium if you give us uranium.”

On the other hand, the negotiators seem far apart on at least two crucial issues.

The first issue is physical constraints on Iran’s enrichment program.  The P5+1 are demanding that Iran significantly scale back its existing enrichment program in terms of numbers and types of centrifuges, stockpile of LEUF6, research activities on more advanced centrifuges, and future status of the Fordow enrichment facility.  Presumably, surplus centrifuges would be removed, disassembled and stored under IAEA supervision.  Moreover, the P5+1 are demanding that these restrictions on Iran’s enrichment program remain in place for more than 10 years. 

The objective of these constraints is intended to limit Iran’s so-called “break out time” – how long it would take Iran to produce enough weapons grade uranium for a single bomb from its known enrichment sites.  In my view, break out time is very artificial and arbitrary way to measure a nuclear deal because Iran is unlikely to risk break out for a single bomb from declared facilities.  Much more likely, Iran will try again (as it has twice before) to build a covert enrichment plant and produce a small arsenal of nuclear weapons in secret before revealing its capability.  Nonetheless, as a political fact of life in Washington, any nuclear agreement will be measured in terms of break out time because that’s a relatively concrete and simple yard stick that both opponents and proponents of any deal can cite in the inevitable political debate that will follow an agreement. 

Iran’s current break out time – at least on paper - is measured in about two months.  Based on conversations I’ve had with knowledgeable Israelis and Congressional staffers, a deal which pushes break out time back to a year or more and remains in place for a decade or more will be politically defensible.  This translates into about 3,000 IR-1 centrifuges with a small working stock of LEUF6.  This number also seems logical and fair.  If the P5+1 are going to roll back sanctions to pre-2010 levels, it makes sense that Iran would roll back its centrifuges to the pre-2010 status quo ante, which was about 3,000 IR-1 machines.

"In my view, break out time is very artificial and arbitrary way to measure a nuclear deal because Iran is unlikely to risk break out for a single bomb from declared facilities."

As far as I can tell, however, this is far more than Iran is willing to accept at this point.  President Rouhani has publicly rejected any dismantlement of its current enrichment program and any long term constraints on the size of enrichment program.  Instead, I understand that Iran has indicated willingness to consider short term constraints on the size of its enrichment program, such as freezing at the current level of 9,000 operating IR-1s for a few years before gradually expanding to an industrial scale of 50,000 or more IR-1 centrifuge machines, which Iran claims it needs to refuel the Bushehr nuclear power plant if Russia reneges on its commitment to provide fresh fuel.  Moreover, Iran wants enrichment limits to be defined in overall “seperative work units” or SWU rather than any specific number of particular machines so it can gradually replace IR-1s with more advanced machines when they come on line and maintain the same overall enrichment capacity. 

If you’ve seen the latest Crisis Group report by Ali Vaez, I think it represents the kind of deal that Iran could accept.  I know that Ali has spent a lot of time talking to Iranian officials, and I suspect his report is a kind of trial balloon.  The report proposes that Iran maintain its current enrichment capacity of about 6,400 SWU for 1-2 years (9 months breakout w/out LEUF6), then expand to 9,600 SWU over the next 5-7 years (6 months breakout w/out LEUF6) and then to 19,200 SWU over the next 8-10 years (3 months breakout w/out LEUF6), at which point all restrictions on enrichment would be lifted.  Such a deal would be dead on arrival in Washington!

The second big sticking point is the nature of sanctions relief.  In my conversations with Iranians, they insist that the existing nuclear-related sanctions be repealed – not just waived by Presidential authority – because they don’t want to accept long term nuclear restraints without more confidence that sanctions relief will be permanent.  Of course, repealing sanctions would require a positive act by a majority of both houses in Congress, which seems implausible in today’s political climate in Washington, especially if the nuclear deal allows Iran to retain even a limited enrichment capacity.  In addition, US sanctions against Iran are a thicket of many different laws, which mix nuclear-related sanctions with sanctions imposed on Iran for terrorism or human rights reasons, and it would be extremely difficult and contentious to craft legislation that would lift some sanctions and retain others in place.

Given the big differences on these two related issues, I assume the P5+1 negotiators will propose some kind of phased resolution: a staged draw down of Iran’s enrichment program in exchange for a staged relief of sanctions leading to repeal of international and national nuclear-related sanctions once Iran has reduced its enrichment program to a new baseline.  The problem is that Iran wants a gradual build up of centrifuges in exchange for sanctions relief, not a gradual build down. 

In addition to these twin central issues of enrichment and sanctions, a final agreement will also need to address several other important issues, such as monitoring and verification arrangements beyond the Additional Protocol, resolution of questions about Iran’s previous weaponization program, and restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program.  Finally, aside from all the difficult issues involved in the nuclear negotiations, I fear that the Ukraine crisis could further complicate a settlement, if only because Iran will calculate it is under less pressure to make painful nuclear concessions if tensions between Russia and the Western countries over Ukraine escalate.  

Given all of these complex and contentious issues, I think it will be very difficult to reach a comprehensive deal by July.  Nonetheless, both sides have a strong interest to keep the diplomatic process alive because neither wants to return to previous cycle of escalation of increased sanctions and increased nuclear activities with increased risk of war.  And, both sides will be able to make a good case that sufficient progress is being made in the negotiations even a final agreement has not been reached. Therefore, I expected that the two sides will agree to implement the provision of the Joint Plan of Action to extend the interim agreement for an additional six months until January 2015.  Although there will be strong opposition in both Washington and Tehran, I don’t think either side can afford to take the blame for walking away from the table if the other side is prepared to continue.   

Whether a comprehensive deal can be reached by January 2015 – or another interim deal - I can’t say at this point.  It seems to me that the smartest move for Tehran is to accept significant limits on its enrichment program in order to lift sanctions and restore the economy and still preserve its option down the road to cheat or renege on the deal if decides to resume its nuclear weapons program and calculates it can get away with it.  However, Iran’s very complicated domestic politics may restrict Tehran’s freedom of action.  Even more than Washington, the nuclear issue in Iran is part of a larger political struggle between contending factions over the future direction of the country, with moderates hoping that a nuclear deal will empower Rouhani to make further political, economic and social reforms and hardliners hoping to use diplomatic failure to challenge Rouhani’s position.  As always, the Supreme Leader is sitting back waiting to see what Rouhani can deliver before deciding whether to endorse or overrule a deal.

Even if an agreement is reached, I don’t expect to see a dramatic improvement in bilateral relations because Washington and Tehran will continue to be at odds over many issues, including Iranian support for Hezbollah, opposition to Israel, support for Assad in the Syrian Civil War, and most important, competition for military dominance in the Persian Gulf.  In fact, in the context of defending any nuclear deal and placating domestic opponents and nervous allies in the region, the Obama administration will need to emphasize that Washington will continue to oppose Iran in other areas even if the nuclear file is neutralized.

" It seems to me that the smartest move for Tehran is to accept significant limits on its enrichment program in order to lift sanctions and restore the economy and still preserve its option down the road to cheat or renege on the deal if decides to resume its nuclear weapons program and calculates it can get away with it."

As far as I can tell, the Supreme Leader wants it that way.  He sees a nuclear deal as a way to relieve immediate threat of economic sanctions, but not as opening to improve overall US-Iranian relations, much less a strategic decision to abandon Iran’s long standing nuclear weapons program.   Of course, other Iranians may have different hopes.  Some Iranians whisper that the U.S should be lenient on nuclear terms to help President Rouhani achieve a foreign policy victory and lift sanctions so that he can defeat hardliner factions in the November 2015 elections for the Majlis and ultimately shift Iranian foreign policy toward a more moderate direction.  Even if true – and it might be – President Obama cannot sell a nuclear deal on basis of secret promises from closet reformers in Iran.  He needs to be able to demonstrate real, long term constraints on Iran’s ability to produce fissile material and so far there’s no sign Rouhani can deliver.

So, to conclude, I think the dual track strategy of diplomacy and sanctions that the U.S. has pursued since President Bush’s second term and then intensified under President Obama is paying off - at least in terms of slowing down the nuclear clock in exchange for limited sanctions relief.  Whether Iran will agree to substantial long term constraints on its nuclear program in exchange for more comprehensive sanctions relief is less certain, but I could imagine a series of interim or partial agreements that continues to slow down Iran’s nuclear activities, without sacrificing our main sanctions leverage.  In other words, we can still buy time – and that may be the best that diplomacy can achieve while the current Iranian leadership remains in power.