Key Questions

  • The United States has decided to first negotiate a first-step, interim agreement that “adds time to the clock” before reaching a final, comprehensive nuclear deal within six months. Is this step-by-step approach wise?

  • As the P5+1 and Iran debate a comprehensive deal, should the United States call for “maximalist” constraints on Iran’s nuclear program (i.e., no enrichment, no stockpiles, no heavy-water reactor)? 

  • Is a significant rapprochement between the United States and Iran possible in the years ahead?

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The United States has decided to first negotiate a first-step, interim agreement that “adds time to the clock” before reaching a final, comprehensive nuclear deal within six months. Is this step-by-step approach wise?

Analysis that would lead one to support a STEP-BY-STEP approach

  • Partial deal would provide real constraints on Iran’s program now and assures that Iran will not advance its nuclear program in the next six months.
    • Robert Einhorn (10/24/13): “An interim deal can put immediate constraints on Iran’s program. A detailed, comprehensive agreement could take a long time to negotiate. Without interim constraints in place, Iran could use the period of negotiations to advance its nuclear program substantially.”
    • Tom Friedman (11/19/13): “The deal is expected to freeze all of Iran’s nuclear bomb-making technologies, roll back some of them and put in place an unprecedented, intrusive inspection regime, while maintaining all the key oil sanctions so Iran will still be hurting aplenty. This way Iran can’t ‘build a bomb and talk’ at the same time (the way Israel builds more settlements while it negotiates with Palestinians).” 
  • Interim deal is a “confidence-building measure” that will provide momentum for a more inclusive, final agreement.
    • Kenneth Pollack (11/24/13): “The deal is better understood as a useful, even important confidence-building measure. Neither side trusts the other, but both sides needed to see some tangible manifestation ahead of time, that the other would be willing to do what would be required in a final deal.” 
  • Interim agreement gives Rouhani a victory that simultaneously allows him to partially fulfill a campaign promise to lift sanctions and sideline hardliners who oppose negotiations with the West.
    • David Sanger and Jodi Rudoren (11/22/13): “Mr. Obama and his aides have argued that unless they give President Hassan Rouhani and his Western-educated chief negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, something to take home and advertise as a victory from the first round of negotiations, there is little chance they will return to negotiate a second, permanent deal.”
    • Matthew Bunn (11/25/13): "This deal undermines the Iranian hardliners’ arguments and constrains their options. . . . Politically, the advocates of compromise in Tehran have shown they can deliver, producing an agreement that includes real benefits."
  • If the U.S. provides assurances that most sanctions will continue to bite, pressure will continue for Iran to comply with an interim deal and negotiate a comprehensive agreement.
    • President Obama (11/23/13): “The broader architecture of sanctions will remain in place and we will continue to enforce them vigorously. And if Iran does not fully meet its commitments during this six-month phase, we will turn off the relief and ratchet up the pressure.”
    • Dennis Ross (11/11/13): U.S. must make “clear that the easing of sanctions will, in fact, be limited and will not affect our enforcement of existing sanctions and those who try to evade them. We will continue to vigorously pursue all loopholes and efforts to work around sanctions.” 
  • The American public supports an interim deal.
    • CNN poll (11/18-11/20/13): 56% of Americans surveyed favor “interim deal that would ease some economic sanctions and in exchange require Iran to accept major restrictions on its nuclear program but not end it completely.”
    • David Ignatius (11/25/13): “The definition of a good agreement is one that each side can sell to its public, and that’s the case here. The agreement seems broadly positive for the United States and Israel at the outer edge of what was possible in terms of freezing the Iranian nuclear program and providing daily inspections to check against any trickery.” 
  • For Iran to agree to a comprehensive deal, it would require relinquishing its exercisable nuclear weapons option, which could be a tall order.
    • Gary Samore (11/22/13): “The reason why the P5+1 partners decided to conclude an interim deal as a first step rather than negotiate a final agreement all at once is because they judge that Iran is not willing to make the concessions necessary for a comprehensive agreement at this time. In effect, the limits on Iran’s nuclear program that the U.S. and its partners will demand in exchange for comprehensive sanctions relief would require the Supreme Leader to abandon (at least for the time being) Iran’s longstanding efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.” 

Analysis that would lead one to support a one-step, COMPREHENSIVE deal

  • Interim deal that provides partial sanctions relief could lead to a premature unraveling of the sanctions regime.
    • Dennis Ross (11/11/13): Israelis and our Arab allies “fear that the limited relaxation of sanctions will quickly erode the sanctions regime…There is a widespread belief in the Israeli security establishment that many governments and their private sectors will see an opening and will be convinced that they can and will be able to start doing business again… From the Israeli standpoint, the first step will thus be the last one.”
    • Mark Dubowitz and Orde Kittrie (11/24/13): U.S. fails to “factor in how Iran could fully exploit the loopholes opened by the Geneva deal, and how an environment of sanctions relief and de-escalating sanctions could change the market psychology from fear to greed.” 
  • Once limited relief is provided, sanctions will be difficult to reinstate in the event of Iranian non-compliance.
    • Eric Edelman and Dennis Ross (October 2013): “Sanctions regimes are difficult to reconstitute in practice, especially in an atmosphere of détente following years of confrontation and a lengthy arms-control process…Absent any tangible inducement to comply – like that offered by real sanctions relief – such arrangements naturally are more honored in the breach by countries agreeing officially to limit their military capabilities.”
    • Efraim Halevy (11/8/13): “The more you enter stages, the less you can be certain that you will get what you need in the end. Once you begin to relieve sanctions, to reimpose them is not a light matter — getting the sanctions in place took a long time. Whereas reversing the enrichment doesn’t take time, you simply get the machines going again within hours.” 
  • Comprehensive deal easier to sell at home because it provides a wider array of tangible benefits.
    • Richard Haass (11/13/13): “By including everything, a comprehensive approach actually increases the scope for trade-offs. It also increases what each party derives from the accord, making it easier to defend domestically against the inevitable charges of giving up too much.” 

As the P5+1 and Iran debate a comprehensive deal, should the United States call for “maximalist” constraints on Iran’s nuclear program (i.e., no enrichment, no stockpiles, no heavy-water reactor)? 

Analysis that would lead one to say YES

  • A series of UN Security Resolutions and IAEA directives mandate that Iran suspend enrichment.
    • Olli Heinonen (9/30/13): “Any concessions granted to Iran, such as allowing it to enrich uranium at all, would soon be demanded by other countries that have previously been denied those rights. Indeed, rewarding Iran in this way for noncompliance with its nonproliferation commitments would seem indulgent.” 
  • The United States has considerable leverage.
    • Ray Takeyh (10/14/13): “The United States and its allies are entering this week’s negotiations in a strong position. Iran’s economy is withering under the combined pressures of sanctions and its own managerial incompetence. The Iranian populace remains disaffected…Given the stark realities, it is time for the great powers to have a maximalist approach to diplomacy with Iran.” 
  • Iran is under enormous pressure to reach a deal and may be more willing to compromise as economy worsens.
    • Ray Takeyh (11/6/13): “Suddenly, the hard-pressed Iranian public has come to expect imminent financial relief. Should the negotiations not yield an accord in a timely manner, it is Khamenei, not President Obama, who would face a popular backlash. A disenfranchised and dispossessed population is an explosive political problem for Khamenei. The Western powers should not be afraid to suspend negotiations or walk away, should the Iranians prove intransigent. Ironically, stalemated negotiations are likely to pressure Iran into offering more concessions.” 
  • Credible threat of military force will convince Iran that time is running out on a gambit to buy time through endless negotiations.
    • Dennis Ross and David Makovsky (5/27/13): “Coercive diplomacy succeeds when threats are believed and the game-playing and manipulation stop. Offering a credible endgame proposal could convince the Iranians that time is truly running out — and that we are setting the stage for the use of force if diplomacy fails. We should give Iran a clear diplomatic way out — and Iranians should understand the consequences if they don’t take it.” 

Analysis that would lead one to say NO

  • If Iran were to accept these demands, it would be tantamount to capitulation.
    • Kenneth Pollack (9/23/13): “Given how much the Iranians have invested in this program, how much progress they have already made, how committed to it they have become, and how much pain they have endured to hang on to it, it is simply not plausible that they will agree to give it up altogether.”
    • Les Gelb (11/17/13): “Iran is nowhere near the economic hardships of Cuba, North Korea, or the tottering Soviet Union of the 1990’s. Iran is nowhere near surrender. The naysayers can’t be that self-delusional… what negotiation can the naysayers cite, in modern times, that has ever been an outright capitulation?”
    • Vali Nasr (11/24/13): “Rollback may be a step too far for the Iranians.” Rouhani “can’t go there for some time because he can’t been seen at home giving up such a huge investment or abandoning national security.” 
  • If the United States appears intransigent, international support for the sanctions regime could evaporate.
    • Colin Kahl and Alireza Nader (10/14/13): “If the United States, rather than Iran, comes across as the unreasonable party, it will become much more difficult to maintain the international coalition currently isolating the government in Tehran. Some fence sitters in Europe and Asia will start to flirt with Iran again, leaving the United States in the untenable position of choosing between imposing sanctions on banks and companies in China, Europe, India, Japan, or South Korea, or acquiescing to the erosion of the comprehensive sanctions regime.”
    • Kenneth Pollack (11/15/13): “If Washington — rather than Tehran — rejects the deal under consideration, the United States will suddenly become the problem…Instead of increasing the pressure on Iran, over time, we would probably see an erosion of the sanctions. Here it is worth remembering Iraq. Once international opinion turned against the Iraq sanctions in the mid-1990s, they unraveled quickly.” 
  • If faced with choice between sacrificing nuclear “rights” and enduring continued pressure, Iran will choose “no deal.”
    • Robert Einhorn (10/24/13): “We shouldn’t assume that, with the powerful leverage provided by today’s sanctions, they have no choice but to accept a deal on our terms. They are prepared to live without an agreement, especially if they calculate that the United States and its partners would be blamed for any negotiating deadlock and that the international sanctions regime would therefore erode before long.”
    • Colin Kahl and Alireza Nader (10/14/13): “If P5+1 negotiations are seen to fail because of Washington's insistence on zero enrichment, the Iranian public is likely to blame the United Sates not the regime for the failure. Economic pressure on the regime may increase as a result, but popular pressure to change course may not.” 
  • A maximalist position that Iran could never accept could drive Iran closer to the bomb.
    • Paul Pillar (10/31/13): “The risk is much greater that an unbalanced, hard-line P5+1 position that offers only minimal sanctions relief while demanding substantial Iranian concessions would…stoke Iranian officials’ interest in building a nuclear deterrent as a way of dealing with what they would perceive as unending Western hostility.”
    • Colin Kahl and Alireza Nader (10/14/13): “If talks fail because the United States insists on a maximalist position, Khamenei and other Iranian hardliners will likely interpret it as definitive proof that Washington's real goal is regime change rather than a nuclear accord. Solidifying this perception would likely enhance, rather than lessen, Tehran's motivation to seek a nuclear deterrent as the only means of ensuring regime survival.” 
  • Threat of military force against Iran has diminished.
    • Robert Einhorn (10/24/13): “Even the threat of military force would not be enough to persuade Iran to accept maximalist demands. Iran’s leaders probably calculate that, especially with Iran’s new image of moderation, the likelihood of a military attack has substantially decreased.” 
  • Negotiators cannot expect Iran’s capacity to reconstitute its nuclear program to disappear with any deal, no matter how extensive.
    • Graham Allison (11/22/13): “Any outcome that stops short of Iran having a nuclear bomb today will still leave it with the ability to acquire one at some future date, since Iran has already crossed the most significant ‘red line’ of proliferation: mastering the art of enriching uranium into weapons-usable material. There is no plausible outcome that permanently eliminates Iran’s nuclear weapons option.”
    • Tom Friedman (11/19/13): “Iran has already mastered the technology to make a bomb (and polls show that this is very popular with Iranians). There is no way to completely eliminate every piece of Iran’s nuclear technology unless you wipe every brain clean there.” 

Is a significant rapprochement between the United States and Iran possible in the years ahead?

Analysis that would lead one to say YES

  • A series of goodwill gestures by Rouhani’s government have raised hopes for a détente.
    • John Judis (10/1/13): “Think of how Ping-Pong diplomacy laid the basis for Richard Nixon’s opening to China…There have been many significant gestures from Rouhani and Zarif, including a tweet from Rouhani’s staff wishing Jews a happy Rosh Hoshana.”
    • Nicholas Burns (9/28/13): Obama and Rouhani's phone call was “nothing less than a sea change in the world of diplomacy. When governments fight a long cold war with no official relations and few discussions, it robs diplomacy of its greatest promise — hope. As long as two bitter antagonists refuse to even meet, there is the absence of hope of even minimal progress between them and the ever present danger of misunderstanding, mistrust and conflict. All that changed this week.” 
  • Secret talks between the American and Iranian officials, revealed recently by the Associated Press, demonstrate the Supreme Leader’s willingness to engage with the United States.
    • Associated Press (11/25/13): “The private meetings coincided with a public easing of U.S.-Iranian discord. In early August, Obama sent Rouhani a letter congratulating him on his election. The Iranian leader's response was viewed positively by the White House, which quickly laid the groundwork for the additional secret talks. The U.S. officials said they were convinced the outreach had the blessing of Ayatollah Khamenei.”
    • Amir Mohebbian (11/24/13): “It is clear that any international outreach could not be handled by someone like President Ahmadinejad. I think the leader helped bring Mr. Rouhani to power to make the public ready for a policy change.” 
  • If Iran sheds its international isolation, citizens may also demand that Iran shed its adversarial relationships with the U.S. and Israel.
    • Efraim Halevy (11/4/13): “I come away from this with a sense of possibility, by no means a certainty, that there might be an opening, in which one can turn around the thorniest problem of all: the deep-seated rejection of Israel by the current regime in Iran…If the nuclear file is closed, and sanctions removed, it will bring economic relief” and “a renewed view from Tehran of the opportunities the world is offering…Then the Iran regime will be able to turn to the public and say, ‘we should no longer be in the business of fear mongering. If we want to move forward with the US, it will be difficult while maintaining a state of belligerency against one of the US key friends and allies [Israel].’”  
  • Iran’s values are closer to those of the United States than that of some of America’s other allies in the region.
    • Akbar Ganji (9/24/13): “The establishment of amicable relations between Iran and the United States need not wait until they share the same values. The United States, after all, manages to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, countries that are even farther from democratic ideals than the Islamic Republic.” 

Analysis that would lead one to say NO

  • Task of overcoming 34 years of hostility is daunting.
    • Richard Haass (9/29/13): “It would be difficult to exaggerate the fundamental mistrust. Iranians and Americans each have their own historical narratives: the former about the US-backed coup ousting the Mossadegh government in 1953, the latter the hostage ordeal in the wake of the 1979 revolution. More important, I have yet to encounter the US expert who believes that Iran's nuclear programme is, as President Hassan Rouhani maintains, for peaceful – that is to say, energy-related – purposes, given that country's enormous oil reserves.”
    • David Rothkopf (9/27/13): “There are 34 years of reasons to be skeptical about any negotiations that may emerge from Friday's historic phone call between President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. There are scores of broken promises and outright lies about Iran's nuclear program itself. There is Iran’s state sponsorship of terror and its efforts to extend its influence across the Middle East at the expense of peace, human dignity and America's allies.” 
  • Addressing Iran’s other actions in the region will be a deeply sensitive endeavor for America’s allies in the Middle East.
    • Secretary Kerry (11/24/13): “It is fair to say that Iran’s choices have created a very significant barrier, and huge security concerns for our friends in the region, for Israel, for Gulf states and others, and obviously they have made certain choices that are deeply, profoundly unsettling in terms of stability in the region. . . . It’s too early for us to talk about other things. It’s just not right.” 
  • Negotiations alone are unlikely to transform relationship of mutual distrust.
    • Akbar Ganji (9/24/13): “Khamenei has spoken of heroic flexibility several times since becoming Iran’s leader over twenty years ago, and in each instance he has emphasized that friendly dialogue is not the same thing as friendship…Khamenei does not believe that the relationship between Washington and Tehran needs to be overtly hostile, in other words, but he does seem to think that Iran and the West are bound to remain ideological adversaries.”
    • Hossein Shariatmadari (12/17/13): "The identity of both sides is involved in this conflict. It didn’t ‘just happen.’ It is structural. The problem will be solved when one side gives up its identity, only then."