The relationship between the United States and Iran with respect to Iran’s nuclear file is playing out at two levels. One level revolves around formal obligations and agreements and diplomacy. The second level is the long-running contest between the United States and its allies and Iran and its allies for power and influence in the region. The contest at the formal-obligations level on the nuclear program is a proxy for the contest for power and influence, and accommodation on the nuclear program likely implies some acceptance of Iran’s power and influence in the region.
The level of formal obligations is where the conflict is most likely to be resolved or managed diplomatically because there are rules for the interaction and third parties that both sides respect. There is no international treaty that says how much power and influence Iran should have in Iraq, but there is an international treaty that gives Iran rights and obligations with respect to its nuclear program. The two sides may argue over their interpretations of the rules, but they both concede that there are rules that have to be followed, and they appeal to the same rules. So, for example, the US claims that Iran broke its obligations by not disclosing the enrichment facility at Qom earlier; Iran claims that its disclosure last week met its obligations; but both sides agree that the facility has to be disclosed at some point and that Iran has to open the facility to UN inspection.
The US and Iran agree that Iran has rights and responsibilities under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. The United States recognizes that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear program. Iran recognizes that it has an obligation not to produce a nuclear weapon and says it has no intention of doing so.
However, regarding Iran’s enrichment of uranium, the US and Iran have not historically agreed what Iran’s rights are. Iran says it has not only a right to a peaceful nuclear program, but also a right to enrich uranium as part of a peaceful nuclear program. The plain meaning of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty would seem to support Iran’s view. Article IV says:
"Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty."
Since Brazil, for example, enriches uranium and is not held to be in violation of the NPT, that would seem to imply that Iran also has the right to enrich uranium.
Under the Bush administration, the US position was effectively that Iran had forfeited the right to enrich uranium by its past bad behavior. But there is no provision about forfeiting such rights in any agreement Iran has signed. The Obama administration has remained ambiguous on the topic, perhaps understandably so, as it seems likely that even if some in the Obama administration do not privately see ending Iranian enrichment as a feasible goal, they still hope to get something from Iran in exchange for formally conceding this; and politically it would be much easier for the Obama administration to make such a concession in the context of a deal. But this summer, Senator Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that the US should accept that Iran has the right to enrich uranium. Senator Kerry does not, of course, speak for the administration, but if I were an analyst in Iran, trying to understand the possible boundaries of future US policies, I would take that as a positive signal.
As a candidate, President Obama pledged he would engage Iran diplomatically without preconditions. The specific precondition at issue was the Bush administration’s insistence that Iran suspend the enrichment of uranium before negotiations could begin.
This past week, we saw the first signs of concrete results of the implementation of that promise in the talks in Geneva among the P5+1 countries and Iran, which apparently included bilateral talks between chief US negotiator William Burns and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. President Obama called the talks a "constructive beginning," and The New York Times noted as signs of progress that both sides agreed to further negotiations soon, and that Iran had agreed to allow IAEA inspectors into its enrichment facility at Qom.
In his remarks following the talks, President Obama made no mention of previous US demands that Iran suspend uranium enrichment. Instead, he insisted that Iran enact its agreement to allow IAEA inspectors at Qom and undertake confidence-building measures it had already agreed to.
US officials have stressed that the main thing they were looking for in the initial talks were signs that the Iranian side was negotiating seriously. Of course, Iran is looking for the same thing. The fact that the Obama administration is currently focusing attention on the implementation of concrete, achievable demands that Iran has already agreed to is a sign that the Obama administration is serious. Many people were alarmed that the Obama administration appeared to be pounding the table; but what was more significant was that the Obama administration was pounding the table in support of reasonable, achievable demands. When the Obama administration demanded that Iran allow UN inspectors at Qom, it was demanding something that Iran had already agreed to and that Iran never disputed it was required to do.
There has long been a widespread view among many US analysts that, in the end, the US will have to accept Iranian enrichment in some form as part of any realistic deal. For example, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering and others have argued for multinational enrichment of uranium in Iran. Last May, Iran indicated its willingness to negotiate on such a proposal in a letter to the United Nations.
Others have suggested that agreement on an enhanced UN inspections regime should be able to satisfy legitimate Western concerns about the possible diversion of nuclear materials to a military program.
Indeed, the recent revelation of the facility at Qom supports such a view. Senior administration officials suggested that Iran undertook the creation of the new facility because the enrichment facility at Natanz was under UN inspection and, therefore, useless for clandestine enrichment. Now, it seems almost certain that the new facility will be under UN inspection. According to the logic of US statements, the new facility will now also be useless for clandestine enrichment. This means that, from the US point of view, Iranian clandestine enrichment has been set back and it was set back not by military action or threats of military action nor by sanctions, crippling or otherwise, but by surveillance and multilateral diplomatic action to hold Iran to account to its international obligations.
As administration officials have said, the United States has no plausible alternative to diplomacy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. A unilateral US military strike or US-permitted Israeli strike would be a grave violation of international law. As Defense Secretary Gates has emphasized, such a strike would at best set back the Iranian nuclear program temporarily in a physical sense while impelling it forward politically. As Admiral Mullen has noted, such an attack would destabilize a region where the US has more than 180,000 troops fighting two wars in countries where Iran has significant influence and ability to shape events in ways that would put US troops in greater danger.
Sanctions are also not a plausible alternative to diplomacy. At best, existing and threatened US and international sanctions support US diplomatic efforts by increasing the benefit to Iran of a negotiated agreement. But it is extremely unlikely that sanctions alone will cause Iran to capitulate.
Many in Congress have supported efforts to try to block Iran’s imports of gas. But such efforts will be no panacea.
Some recent estimates in the press of Iran’s gas imports have varied between 25 percent and 40 percent of Iran’s gas consumption. Whatever the number is, it is likely to decrease as Iran builds up its own domestic refining capacity. Any effective gas embargo would require Russian and Chinese cooperation, which is highly unlikely. Russian and Chinese cooperation on gas sanctions is even more unlikely if such sanctions are attempted on the basis of Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium, as opposed to something around which there is stronger international consensus, such as an Iranian refusal to accept IAEA inspectors. It was widely reported that Russia had indicated possible support for increased sanctions if there was no progress in negotiations; less reported were subsequent Russian statements that they had agreed to no specific measures. Venezuela recently announced that beginning in October it would export 20,000 barrels per day of gasoline to Iran, about a sixth of current imports. Venezuela would almost certainly not comply with any embargo that did not have UN Security Council sanction. Iranian gas consumption is artificially high due to steep subsidies, which the Iranian government would like to curtail. An external gas embargo would likely provide political space for the government to reduce these subsidies, thereby reducing consumption. Whatever impact such an embargo did have would likely be felt by the Iranian population more than the government. The likelihood that such sanctions would hurt the Iranian public has been cited by the French foreign minister in opposition to such sanctions, and opposition leaders in Iran have spoken out against such sanctions. Of course, there is a school of thought that you hurt the leaders by hurting the population, but in addition to ethical concerns, there is the likelihood that such measures will backfire, strengthening the domestic political position of the government.
Some advocate a policy of "regime change," either trying to bring about a government in Iran that wouldn’t pursue a nuclear program or trying to bring about a government friendly enough to the United States that the US wouldn’t be concerned if it had a nuclear program. Putting to the side the morality and legality of trying to overthrow the Iranian government, the feasibility and desirability of doing so is extremely doubtful. Relative, at the very least, to its nuclear program, the Iranian government is highly stable. There is a national consensus in support of the program, and any successor government to a US overthrow attempt would be as likely to pursue a nuclear program as the present one, and might well be at least as hostile as the present one. The "regime change" policy of the US in Iran in the 1950s helped produce the Iranian government we see today.
So, at the level of the formal conflict over Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration has no option besides the diplomacy which it promised to engage in and is now engaging in. And, as President Obama has said, a "constructive beginning" has been made.
Underneath the dispute about Iran’s nuclear program is a dispute about Iran’s role in the region. If the US didn’t have issues with Iran’s influence and activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, if the United States and Israel did not have concerns about Iran’s influence and activities in Lebanon and Palestine, it is very likely that there would be a lot less concern in the US and Israel about Iran’s nuclear program. Many in Washington and Tel Aviv, as well as Iran, see an Iranian enrichment capacity as a deterrent against a US or Israeli attack, and they object to Iran’s nuclear program precisely because they object to Iran having such a deterrent. If Iran feels secure from a US or Israeli attack, the reasoning goes, then Iran will not be afraid to "meddle" in Iraq or Afghanistan or Lebanon or Palestine.
But arguably, Iran already feels fairly secure from a US or Israeli attack, and already Iran is acting in the region in ways that the US and Israel don’t like.
Moreover, recent history indicates that direct engagement can lead to Iranian actions that the US likes better. In the case of Iraq, the US says the flow of weapons from Iran has decreased; Iran has used its influence to defuse conflicts between the Iraqi government and Shiite militias. In the case of Afghanistan, the US and Iran had a strong cooperation after the US invasion in 2001, in which Iran helped organize the post-invasion government. This cooperation ended after the Bush administration branded Iran as part of its "axis of evil." Under the Obama administration, some cooperation has resumed. In the case of Lebanon, in May 2008 a new national accord was negotiated – the Doha Agreement – which created a national unity government including Hizbollah and ended the 18-month political crisis. The Doha Agreement was supported by both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Saudi Arabia in the past was able to broker a national unity government between Fatah and Hamas – i.e., between its own client and Iran’s client. The Obama administration has indicated that it might be able to support a Palestinian national unity government that included Hamas.
So, in all these arenas, there is evidence that the US and Iran could get along better, regardless of the state of Iran’s nuclear program; and if the present talks between the US and Iran lead to agreements in these areas, it will lead to a reduction in tension around Iran’s nuclear program and pave the way for a real resolution of the nuclear issues.