Why you should care

Because if these negotiations don’t work out, there may be no avoiding the ultimate dilemma: a nuclear Iran.

There’s an old saying among foreign affairs specialists that “problems have solutions, but dilemmas have horns.” Iran definitely belongs in the dilemma column because there are no really inviting options for solving the problems it represents.

Nonetheless, after many false starts over many years, serious negotiations are now in their third day in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 — the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom, plus Germany.

The package on the table would obligate Iran to suspend enriching uranium, reduce its existing stockpile (especially uranium enriched to 20 percent, an easy jumping-off point to 90-percent weapons grade), stop work on its plutonium reactor at Arak and agree to intrusive inspections to verify all of this. In return, Iran would get relief from some of the economic sanctions the West has clamped on in recent years.

And this interim agreement would open up about six months of follow-on negotiations aimed at a more comprehensive settlement.

So far, Iran and the P5+1 have struggled to reach even an interim deal. Although some of the initial optimism about the talks has begun to fade, foreign ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, were rushing to join their negotiators in Switzerland yesterday, suggesting that some progress has been made. Both sides say they are committed to bargaining.

How did we get to this point? Three developments were key.

Rouhani standing on right, showing his left profile, wearing a black robe.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani

Source Ebrahim Noroozi/AP/Corbis

1. Sanctions

First, the economic sanctions leveled at Iran by the United States, European Union and others have stung badly. Iran’s oil exports, its key source of earnings, have fallen by 60 percent; inflation is over 50 percent, the country’s currency is sharply weakened and shortages have hurt every part of the economy.

2. Hassan Rouhani

Second, the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president brought a more reasonable tone to Iranian foreign policy. Whether there is substance behind the tone remains to be demonstrated, but he did stop the rabble-rousing rhetoric favored by his predecessor, Mahmoud Achmadinejad — and that helped get us here.

3. Significant enriched uranium

Third, Iran in the last couple of years has enriched so much uranium to significant levels — 20 percent — that it is now on the threshold of having enough to get to a bomb. At last year’s U.N. General Assembly session, Israeli prime minister Netanyahu drew a “red line” at 250 kilograms; Iran is now at about 200 kilograms, having jumped from about 160 at mid-summer. Estimates of how long it would take for Iran to amass enough 90-percent enriched material for a bomb vary from one to six months. Iran’s sprint on enrichment added much urgency and was another spur to negotiation.

Will inspection provisions be robust enough to assure skeptics that Iran is not cheating on its committments?

If an agreement emerges, it will open up another series of talks over the next six months, and during that period the key will be the inspection provisions. Will they be robust enough to assure skeptics in the U.S. and the Middle East — mainly Israel and Saudi Arabia — that Iran is not cheating on its committments? This remains to be seen and details will be contentious. Skeptics will also wonder if Iran has undiscovered sites, and they will want assurances on that score.

If negotiations fail or drag on, Iran presumably would keep enriching uranium, which it claims as a “right.” It could race to accumulate enough for a bomb — or it could stop just barely short of that and achieve “break-out” status — the ability to get to a bomb in a very short period. The latter is probably the most agonizing outcome for Western decision makers.

Iran nuclear power plant

A file picture dated 21 August 2010 shows a general view of the Iranian nuclear power plant in Bushehr, southern Iran. Media reports state on 11 May 2011 that Iran has received a further shipment of nuclear fuel from Russia for use in the Bushehr nuclear power plant. EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH

In those circumstances, debate would heat up on the merits of a military strike to halt or delay Iran — something Netanyahu hints he would not hesitate to do. But the rationale would be arguable, especially if Iran was still technically short of having a bomb. (Talk of a strike will likely continue even if there is an agreement, given that a comprehensive settlement would still be months away.)

Part of the argument would revolve around an issue that has largely disappeared from public discussion — whether Iran has the ability to fashion enriched material into a weapon and the means to deliver it — steps that can be as hard and time-consuming as enriching uranium.

Could we live with a nuclear Iran?

The last public pronouncement on this by the intelligence community was in 2007, when it said in a declassified assessment that Iran’s work on “weaponization” had ceased in 2003. Although it has not declared publicly on this since then, the Director of National Intelligence said early this year that the community “did not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” even though it believed Iran had the capacity to do so.

In short, there is probably still room to debate how much time Iran’s opponents have to stop its program.

Beyond the issue of time, there will also be debate on the consequences of any military operation. Would it merely strengthen already strong public support in Iran for nuclear status and spur public coalescence around the regime? Would it lead to a tit-for-tat retaliation syndrome of escalation at a particularly volatile moment in the Middle East? There are good arguments on both sides of these questions — one of the reasons Iran is a dilemma.

The longer negotiations or debate among Iran’s opponents drag on, the more likely it is that we will end up with an Iran that is either nuclear or near-nuclear. This leads to another theme that has pretty much disappeared from public discussion: Could we live with a nuclear Iran?

To be clear, this writer is among those who hope the question never arises. But if circumstances conspire to create that ultimate dilemma, we would not be without tools. Three strategies come to mind, centering on the notion of deterrence.

Man on far right sitting at a control room, facing left. Color

Technicians of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation supervise at the Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan.

Source Corbis

1. Declaratory policy

First, we would need what diplomats call a “declaratory policy” strongly cautioning Iran not to consider using a weapon. This does not have to be overtly threatening but would need to carry clear meaning.

For example, then-Secretary of State James Baker in 1991 warned Saddam Hussein not to use chemical or biological weapons on the eve of the Desert Storm campaign, saying U.S. objectives would not be “just the liberation of Kuwait but the elimination of the current Iraqi regime.” Baker later admitted his intent was to signal the likelihood of a nuclear strike, and the Iraqis apparently understood his message.

2. Offer help to rivals

Second, in a related move we would need to signal Iran’s rivals in the region that the U.S. would help them resist any Iranian aggression.

3. Diplomatic effort

Third, we would need a vigorous diplomatic effort to persuade those regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, not to embark on their own nuclear weapons programs — the regional “nuclear cascade” that many fear would come in the wake of an Iranian bomb.

All of these steps would be contentious and hard to implement, in part because U.S. influence in the Middle East has ebbed sharply in recent years. Nonetheless, if negotiations fail and support is lacking for a military operation, this is the road that Iran’s opponents will have to travel.

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