Time is Now for Effective Engagement with Iran, experts say.

By Alfred Nurja

The Arms Control Association hosted a briefing today on Iran's nuclear program entitled "Toward a Negotiated Solution," part of ACA's "Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle" Briefing Series. The session focused on examining what a viable diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue would look like and ways to achieve it. This was the second of four briefings designed to analyze the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program and explore ways to deal with it.

A full transcript of the session will be available early next week. The following highlights are based on my notes:

Barry Blechman, co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, set the scene for the discussion, drawing from recommendations and findings of the joint Stimson - U.S. Institute of Peace joint study group, Engagement, Coercion, and Iran's Nuclear Challenge, that he co-chaired.

  • A combination of technical difficulties, sanctions and sabotage have contributed to a slowing down of the Iranian nuclear program giving an opportunity for diplomacy to work.
  • U.S policy must be rebalanced to put greater emphasis on inducements and incentives. Measures to achieve this include: Acknowledge Iran's right to nuclear enrichment under strict international monitoring including the signing of the Additional Protocol. Initiate a second track of U.S. Iranian contacts to discuss cooperation on common concerns such as narcotics, terrorism, etc, while sticking to the P5+1 track on nuclear negotiations. Permit normal interaction between Iranian and U.S. diplomats in international fora.
  • Boost incentives on oil and gas technology exchange, regional gulf cooperation conditional on nuclear cooperation.
  • Effective sanctions implementation during the last year has exacerbated internal tensions within the Iranian regime. U.S. policy should take advantage of this internal dynamic to strengthen the position of those in Iran who favor a compromise. The U.S. should maintain pressure with sanctions and accelerate security cooperation in the Gulf region, measures that would contribute to an increased sense of isolation within the Iranian regime.
  • Use of military force against Iran would be extremely counterproductive and lead to military conflict. Negative repercussions include: dividing the international coalition, increasing the sense of Muslim alienation, de-legitimizing internal reform forces; leading to dangerous repercussions for the region and severe global economic effects.

Charles Ferguson, President of the Federation of American Scientists provided a summary of the range of technical measures that could be employed in monitoring Iran's nuclear program with an emphasis on those that would be most effective:

  • Technical measures proposed are designed with the objective of keeping Iranian nuclear enrichment small-scale and preventing any diversion to nuclear weapons programs.
  • Among the three possible Iranian paths to a nuclear weapons program -- i.e. technology diversion; parallel clandestine program, and withdrawal from the NPT -- the second pathway is the most worrisome.
  • The signing of the Additional Protocol (AP) by Iran is a must for providing the international community with the tools it needs to verify the nature of the program. The AP is a mechanism that has been adopted by the majority of non-nuclear weapons countries, including Japan.
  • The type of technical measures adopted must be weighed against the financial and resource costs of deployment and the resulting increase in the level of international confidence.
  • Measures with low-to-medium cost that could yield medium-to-high level confidence include: putting safeguards on Iranian fuel conversion facilities; increasing information dissemination on nuclear program performance; increasing the frequency of nuclear material inventory assessments; adopting frequent short-notice inspections; enhancing safeguards measures at the Natanz uranium enrichment site.; accessing centrifuge production facilities; and conducting personnel interviews.

Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow at the Arms Control Association, spoke on tactical aspects of the negotiating strategy with Iran and creative approaches that could be utilized:

  • Time is right for talks with Iran. Increased leverage provided by sanctions and other technical set-backs in Iran provide an advantageous setting for talks.
  • The core objective of talks must be to provide the IAEA with measures it needs to verify the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program. Talks will require persistent patience and set-backs are to be expected.
  • Creative approaches that could increase the chance of achieving the objective include: agreeing to a fuel swap; introduce a "freeze for freeze" offer that would keep current sanctions under check in exchange for a freeze in the number of working centrifuges; and Iran agreeing to ship LEU to other countries for conversion into fuel pellets for civilian power reactors.
  • To increase the chances of success in talks, the United States must recalibrate its objectives:
  • Stop demanding the dismantlement of the Iranian nuclear enrichment program, and reiterate offer made last December by Secretary Clinton that envisions Iranian enrichment under the right conditions.
  • Use time and leverage to reach a solution that is focused on reducing the nuclear risk and is not diverted by other policy objectives.
  • Talks to resume tomorrow in Istanbul could launch a process of small steps to build confidence. Such steps could include: establishing procedures and venues for future talks; initiating bilateral conversations between U.S. and Iranian delegates; and identifying common interests outside the nuclear portfolio and opportunities to discuss them.
  • We should not expect a breakthrough at Istanbul, but look for another useful step in a long process of persistently pursuing a negotiated agreement.