Why you should care
Because what happens at the diplomatic table in the coming weeks will determine the shape and stability of the region for the foreseeable future.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
This week, the United States begins one of the most complex and challenging set of arms control talks the country has ever undertaken.
No surprise: It’s with Iran.
Here’s what will happen. High-level representatives from Iran, plus the six nations negotiating to limit its nuclear program — the United States, Britain, China, France Germany and Russia — are gathering in Vienna for the most crucial phase of talks that began in January. The atmosphere? Guarded optimism. The countries have made more progress than most expected.
Getting a nuclear agreement would be the brightest spot in Iranian-U.S. relations since the 1979 revolution and the violent takeover of the U.S. embassy the same year.
But still to come are the most contentious issues: gaining access to and neutralizing Iran’s most sensitive nuclear capabilities, dealing with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s political environment and handling the U.S.’s skeptical and nervous diplomatic partners in the region. And this time, there’s a deadline: Negotiators want to finalize an agreement before July 20 (which will be six months since the talks began).
The stakes could not be higher.
A successful deal would mean Iran gives up any capability to build a nuclear weapon. That outcome could help ease rancorous relations between Tehran and Washington.
Failure would mean the U.S. and Iran’s bitterest rivals in the region remain on edge, afraid that Iran could still quickly achieve nuclear weapons status. A Middle East rife with suspicion and instability would be left even closer to boiling over.
So far, there’s been more good news from the talks than most experts expected. But what’s on the table for the next few months could cast a shadow over what we’ve heard so far.
The nitty-gritty of working out an arms control agreement is never pretty.
Before January, negotiators worried most about Iran’s growing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. That percentage matters because it’s an easy jump from 20 percent to 90 percent enrichment, the amount required for a bomb; experts calculated that Iran could make the 70 percent upgrade in anywhere from one to six months. But since January, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) say Iran has reduced that stockpile by 75 percent and begun to convert the remainder into a form useful for non-weapons purposes.
Inspectors say that since January, Iran hasn’t enriched any uranium above 5 percent — the level for peaceful uses — at any of its declared facilities. Nor is it operating facilities capable of preparing uranium oxide for enrichment to higher levels.
Caught between Western requirements and a home front of hardliners, President Rouhani may be limited in his ability to reach an agreement.
That’s progress. But many hurdles lie ahead. Namely, Iran could easily reverse everything it’s just done to comply with the IAEA. And many want to know how we verify Iran’s compliance, and how to secure Tehran’s agreement to very intrusive and frequent inspections. So how long can the international community continue to watch to keep Iran in line? Should an agreement go for five years? 20 years? Its duration is still on the bargaining table.
Remaining Nuclear Questions
Unsettled questions still hang like a cloud over the negotiations.
Take one of the most divisive issues on which negotiators have yet to gain traction: explosives tests Iran carried out at Parchin with detonators that many experts say could only be meant for nuclear weapons research.
Then there’s the heavy water nuclear reactor at Arak which Iran claims is for medical research but Western experts reckon is a production site for plutonium (an alternative to a uranium-derived bomb). Arak has come up but hasn’t yet been resolved.
Last but not least, Iran’s missile program is not formally on the agenda but could come into play. More specifically, at stake is the Shahab-3 missile (which can hit targets as far away as 1,000 km) and longer-range missiles in development. These could be fitted with a nuclear warhead capable of reaching Israel and parts of Europe.
Oh – and no minor matter – the negotiating nations will have to be sure that Iran isn’t hiding any more covert facilities. There’s a recent history of this; it was only in 2009 that Western intelligence discovered a hidden underground uranium enrichment facility at Fordow.
Inside Iran, a political slugfest is underway over President Rouhani’s conduct of the negotiations. Heralded as a moderate, Rouhani was elected a year ago largely on a pledge to revive Iran’s economy in the wake of anti-nuclear sanctions. But distinctly non-moderate Supreme leader Ali Khamenei has Rouhani on a short leash. And hardliners, too, are demonstrating against the talks, which they view as a ruse to “harness and contain” Iran.
The talks aren’t even touching on Iran’s strong support for the Assad regime in Syria, its condemnation of Israel, or its use of terrorism.
Rouhani, in turn, must assure them and his public that he will not surrender Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear programs. He’s also promising to find a way to end the sanctions — which have slashed Iran’s oil exports, its key source of foreign earnings — by 60 percent, pushed inflation close to 50 percent, driven unemployment into the 12 percent range and caused severe shortages of consumer goods.
Caught between Western requirements and a home front dominated by hardliners, Rouhani may be limited in his ability to reach a final agreement.
A third set of issues preoccupying the U.S. revolves around America’s two principal regional partners: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Both are skeptical about the talks. Both resent being excluded from the early deliberations that occurred prior to today’s negotiations. And both distrust Iran: Israel because of Iran’s consistent hostility to Tel Aviv, and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia because it sees Iran as its principal Shia rival.
President Obama’s stop in Saudi Arabia and NSA Advisor Susan Rice trip to Israel last week were surely in part about reassuring these nervous partners.
And even if there is an agreement…
If all these hurdles are surmounted and there is an agreement, that still won’t resolve all the U.S.’s concerns about Iran. The talks aren’t even touching on Iran’s strong support for the Assad regime in Syria, its condemnation of Israel, or its use of terrorism. Recall that Iranian backed operatives tried to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington as recently as 2011.
But, getting a nuclear agreement would be the brightest spot in Iranian-U.S. relations since the 1979 revolution and the violent takeover of the U.S. Embassy the same year. It could act as an opening wedge for eventual progress on all the other issues that divide Iran not only from the United States, but from many of its regional neighbors as well.
There’s yet a long road to that eventuality, and one that starts getting a lot steeper in Vienna.