Robert Zarate writes at the Foreign Policy Initiative:
Eager to jumpstart stalled negotiations for a “nuclear deal” with Iran, President Obama is reportedly mulling direct talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when world leaders converge at the U.N. General Assembly next week. Yet despite a decade’s worth of diplomacy and non-military pressure, the United States and other world powers have failed so far to persuade Iran to halt its drive to nuclear weapons-making capability. Instead, the potential threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program has only grown. Even if it is true that Iranian leaders have not made the final decision to assemble a nuclear weapon, Iran not only holds all of the raw ingredients required for an atomic bomb, but also is making technical advances that could rapidly shorten the amount of time it would need to build a nuclear weapon to a matter of months, if not weeks.
While Obama has repeatedly said that it would be “unacceptable” for Iran to get nuclear weapons and that he is keeping the military option “on the table,” it is clear that he remains open to an Iranian nuclear deal. However, if the United States wants a nuclear deal that does not simply paper over the problem of Iran’s efforts to get rapid nuclear weapons-making capability—but actually resolves that dangerous problem—then U.S. policymakers and lawmakers should debate now what hurdles a nuclear deal ought to clear for it to effectively and durably cap Iran’s destabilizing nuclear ambitions.
High Standards for an Iranian Nuclear Deal
If the United States chooses to resume nuclear talks with Iran, it should negotiate with clear purpose and without any illusion. Any Iranian nuclear deal should serve to punish Iran for continually violating the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons of 1968 (NPT), NPT-required International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear safeguards agreements, and numerous resolutions by the IAEA Board of Governors and the U.N. Security Council, and moving dangerously close to nuclear weapons-making capability in defiance of the international community. The deal should also impose and enforce changes to Iranian nuclear behavior that provide a model for other NPT signatories as to what constitutes responsible nuclear behavior.
For any proposed nuclear deal with Iran to be effective and durable, it therefore should meet the following high standards:
(1) Any Iranian nuclear deal should require “zero enrichment” to close off Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb using centrifuges to produce weapons-usable high enriched uranium.
“Zero enrichment” should also require Iran to verifiably ship out all high enriched uranium and low enriched uranium, as well as all uranium hexafluoride and uranium tetrafluoride, and to verifiably ship out or destroy all uranium enrichment centrifuges.
(2) Any Iranian nuclear deal should require “zero reprocessing” to close off Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb using plutonium that could be separated from a reactor’s spent nuclear fuel.
(3) Any Iranian nuclear deal should require Iran to fully comply with its international obligations through “complete and total transparency”—that is, by allowing nuclear inspection activities far beyond those required by its NPT-required IAEA safeguards agreement. The goal would be to ensure that the United States and the international community have both a correct and complete picture of Iran’s nuclear activities—especially those with weapons potential.
As Iran implements the Additional Protocol, it should be required to submit a complete set of documents on all of its activities, sites, and locations related to research, production or use of enrichment and reprocessing. The IAEA’s Board of Governors first urged Iran to ratify and implement the Additional Protocol in September 2003. The U.N. Security Council reiterated calls for Iran to ratify the Additional Protocol in December 2006.
Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran is a Means, Not an End
The question of what standards any Iranian nuclear deal should meet in order to be effective and durable is an important and timely one, especially given how President Obama—who on many occasions has laid down a red line on Iran getting nuclear weapons—recently responded to the violation of his red line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. After publicly threatening to use military force when dictator Bashar al-Assad repeatedly used chemical weapons in Syria, Obama eventually backed off. Instead, he ended up embracing a controversial U.S.-Russian deal aiming to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons by mid-2014—a “chemical deal” that even Secretary of State John Kerry concedes will be challenging to implement, verify, and enforce.
Given what’s at stake in the debate over a nuclear deal with Iran, the United States and allied nations should learn the right lessons from Obama’s chemical deal with Assad. One key lesson is the need to set the bar high—not low—for any potential Iranian nuclear deal. If the United States and Iran resume nuclear negotiations, Iranian diplomats will surely try to lower the standards for any deal. U.S. and Western diplomats should not aid and abet their Iranian counterparts. The more an Iranian nuclear deal fails to meet high standards for effectiveness and durability, the greater the risk that Iran could circumvent the agreement and covertly, if not overtly, build a nuclear weapon—just as North Korea did under the Agreed Framework nuclear deal in the 1990s and 2000s.
Efforts to get a nuclear deal with Iran should not be a race to get to “yes,” but to meet or exceed high standards, lest the deal risk doing far more harm than good. Because the goal of the United States is to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, it is therefore critical that U.S. policymakers and lawmakers view nuclear diplomacy with Iran as one of several means to an end—and not as an end in itself.