Panel Discussion “Time to Move from Tactics to Strategy on Iran”

Remarks as delivered by Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association at the launch of the Atlantic Council Task Force report on U.S. immediate and long-term strategy in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. (To watch the complete event online go to
Washington, D.C.
April 4, 2013

I’m very happy to help launch the latest publication of the Atlantic Council’s Iran Task Force.  I want to thank the Council for this report, as well as the “issue briefs” and panel discussions, which preceded it.

Today’s release is the latest in a number of quality reports on the Iran nuclear issue that have been published in the first quarter of 2013.

The Arms Control Association released a “briefing book” in February: “Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle.”  I would also mention: the International Crisis Group’s “Spider Web” report on the Iran sanctions; the National Iranian-American Council’s report on how Iranian stakeholders view the sanctions; and the Carnegie Endowment’s report on the “Costs and Risks” of Iran’s nuclear program.

Building on its own previous findings, the Atlantic Council’s Iran Task Force now recommends a long-term strategy to guide our policies on Iran.  I believe this report makes an important contribution to shaping an emerging consensus on how we should deal with Iran.

I will be offering some of my own perspectives today on the very difficult policy decisions we face in trying to strengthen the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and dissuade Iran from building nuclear weapons.

In deference to proclivities developed during seven years as a State Department intelligence analyst, I will also try to register at least one dissenting footnote to the views of the majority.

Obstacles to negotiating a solution

It’s easy to get discouraged by recalling the history of our bilateral relations with Iran.  Both sides have missed opportunities.  Some of Iran’s grievances toward the United States predate any arguments over the nuclear program, but they are still obstacles to a nuclear solution.

If the historical baggage is heavy, contemporary concerns don’t seem very light either.  We are constantly reminded by the press and commentators that the sanctions have failed to convince the Iranians to change their policies and that time is running out.  Every quarterly report of the International Atomic Energy Agency informs us how many more centrifuges Iran has installed, how much more enriched uranium Iran has accumulated and how uncooperative Iran has been in addressing the agency’s questions about suspicious past activities.

A political consensus seems to have formed in the United States around the notion that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be “unacceptable,” even as a debate rages about how close Iran should be allowed to get.

Although even Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to have extended his red line to next year, a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed co-authored by David Albright warns that Iran on its current trajectory will be able, by mid-2014, to assemble sufficient fissile material for a bomb within one to two weeks of an order from the Supreme Leader.

Some of you may have heard this past Monday at Brookings of the low expectations for the next round of negotiations from former White House official Gary Samore.  Samore predicted that there would be no agreement before Iranian elections in June, commenting that we have a long way to go before even a confidence-building-measure is possible.  Former EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana opined at the same event that it will be very difficult to resolve the nuclear issues while the Syrian political crisis rages.

Where are we now in negotiating a solution?

Samore did not, however, rule out a narrowing of differences when the parties meet tomorrow in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  And this is exactly what I would like to discuss next.  Where are we in negotiating necessary constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities?

By all accounts, February’s six power talks with Iran and the March meeting between the parties’ technical experts in Istanbul were constructive.  In a real sense, these talks are beginning to resemble real negotiations.

The initial focus of the six powers is on halting the growth in Iran's stockpile of 20-percent-enriched uranium that would provide the fastest route toward producing the fissile material needed to build a nuclear weapon.

Iran's principal objectives are to establish the legitimacy of uranium enrichment and to gain as much sanctions relief as possible, while keeping its future options open.

With Iran’s presidential elections less than three months away, it does not seem likely Iran would be inclined to cut a deal – even on a small, interim step.  Nonetheless, it is reasonable to hope for a further narrowing of differences that would bring the sides closer to taking that first step – an agreement that would build confidence and buy time for a more comprehensive settlement.

Agreement on dates and venues for continued talks would be a minimum acceptable outcome.  I expect at least this to happen, because neither side has an interest in giving the impression that the negotiating process had stalled.

What kind of an agreement?

This brings us to the task of identifying the substantive and procedural requirements for an interim agreement.

I would first suggest conceding Iran’s conditional “right” to enrichment.  Anyone interested in a negotiated settlement of the Iran nuclear issue knows that we cannot successfully achieve exceptional transparency measures and exceptional limitations on Iran’s nuclear program without accepting Iran’s ability to enrich some uranium for civilian power reactor fuel.  It would be helpful to more clearly telegraph this willingness to accept the obvious.  Demanding a halt to all enrichment does not give the United States leverage when the Iranians know full well it will ultimately be withdrawn; it just gives Tehran an excuse for diverting attention from the real issue -- Iran’s noncompliance with its obligations to the IAEA.

We must, of course, continue to stress the conditionality of uranium enrichment rights.  Though inalienable, NPT Article IV rights must be “in conformity with Articles I and II” of the treaty.

I would also suggest trying hard to separate the perfect from the good.  As an interim measure, it is more important to quickly achieve a modest but useful agreement that can be easily monitored than seeking up-front a better, more extensive and permanent limitation.

For example, there appears to be agreement in principle to stopping expansion of Iran’s 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile.  I would argue that achieving this immediate goal is more important than Tehran agreeing to move its stockpile to another country.  While imperfect, even conversion of the existing stockpile of uranium gas to the solid form used for fuel in the Tehran Research Reactor, would be a step forward.

Similarly, it seems to me that ending the production of medium grade uranium anywhere in Iran is more important than winning agreement to shutter the deep underground facility at Fordow.  The key question is frequency and ease of IAEA access to uranium enrichment facilities, not their location.

Finally we should drop the demand to shut down Fordow. It’s not very persuasive to argue for closure “because Fordow is too difficult for Israel to destroy.”

Although details are sketchy, the six powers are offering some relief to the ever-expanding web of sanctions, relaxing restrictions on gold trading and the sale of petrochemical products.  Perhaps implementation of certain EU sanctions could also be suspended, but the core sanctions must be maintained until Iran is ready to seal the deal.

The key for an interim agreement will be to find a package of sanctions relief proportionate to the concessions offered by Tehran – both in scale and reversibility.

The Big Picture

When an interim agreement has been achieved, negotiations can begin in earnest on measures to ensure transparency, resolve questions about past military activities, and on unwinding the sanctions.

We need to dwell not on what we most want, but on what we must have.  Maintaining six power cohesion remains a priority.  And we need to spend at least a little time worrying about how Iran’s negotiators will sell a negotiated agreement in Tehran, not just how it will go over in the U.S. Congress.


And now for the footnote I promised.

The “military option” section includes, on the one hand, thorough lists of “grave” implications for a nuclear Iran, and on the other, of  “dire” consequences for a “premature military strike.”  I’m sure I join everyone in our audience today in fervently wishing for neither rather than either.

But I personally think the consequences of a nuclear Iran are somewhat overdrawn and description of consequences a little too torrid.

-- Why would an Iranian success in violating UN Security Council resolutions “shred” the NPT when North Korean violations have not?

-- Why should we believe an Iranian bomb would “threaten the very existence of Israel” when Yehud Barak does not?

Moreover, I’m not sure what it means to “ensure that the option of military strikes remains credible.”  Given the ramifications of an attack that would delay but not even prevent an Iranian bomb, I doubt that the United States hitting first with a unilateral “preventive attack” can ever be very credible.  Constantly repeating that “the military option is on the table” won’t make it so.