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Unnecessarily ‘Weaponising’ the Iran Talks will Scuttle Them

Timothy Stafford
Commentary, 19 November 2014
Iran's Nuclear Programme, Iran, UK Project on Nuclear Issues, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy, Global Security Issues, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy, Middle East and North Africa
Demanding that Iran come clean on all military dimensions of its nuclear programme will kill any hope of a negotiated settlement.

Time is now against the US and Iranian negotiators seeking to resolve the long running dispute over the latter’s nuclear programme. The two sides must not only produce some form of accord before their interim agreement lapses on 24 November. They must now contend with the consequences of Congressional Republicans’ mid-term election gains. Bipartisan support, sufficient to pass additional sanctions with a veto-proof majority, was in place for the entirety of the 113th Congress.

However, with Democrats in control of the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid protected the administration’s negotiating flexibility by barring any such legislation from coming to a vote. Incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will offer the White House no such protection. Senator Lindsey Graham made that clear in a recent address to the Israeli American Council, stressing that ‘in January of next year, we’re going to stop talking and start voting’.

Firmer Republican Demands

Renewed sanctions would almost certainly drive Iran away from the negotiating table. Accordingly, the changed political calculus in Washington means that the negotiators must not only secure a deal which satisfies themselves, but one that is of sufficient substance to deter the incoming Congress from taking up new sanctions legislation. That will be a tall order. Incoming Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker and Senator Matt Kirk are both in the process of drafting new sanctions legislation, and little short of a comprehensive agreement will satisfy them.

Some of the measures they are considering are reasonable. For instance, ‘freezing in’ existing sanctions by tying their removal to specific Iranian concessions is an appropriate response to the administration’s tendency to waver on previously agreed red-lines, and a sensible check against an excessive watering down of the US position. However some of the measures that might find their way into legislation serve little purpose other than to scuttle any hope of an agreement.

Avoiding Catch-22

Chief among these is the demand that Iran provide a fulsome declaration of any military dimensions that its nuclear programme has ever encompassed. Past IAEA reports have offered circumstantial evidence that Iran has conducted experimentation of some kind, such as with nuclear triggers. However, tying sanctions relief to past flirtations with weaponisation would be ill conceived, for it would insert a ‘Catch-22’ into the talks.

Were Iran to prove unwilling to comply, its refusal would trigger new sanctions that would strengthen hard-line factions in Tehran, thereby undermining the negotiating position of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Yet if Iran were to comply, its declarations would bolster the factions that are building a case for a further round of sanctions. In a recent report, former Deputy Director of the IAEA Olli Heinonen stressed that the purpose of requiring an extensive declaration on weaponisation ‘would be to re-establish Iran’s non-proliferation records, and not to lay the basis for further punitive measures’. While that may be the intention, the fact that the next Congress will keep authorisation of further sanctions on a hair-trigger means the likely consequence of Iranian compliance would be the same: further US sanctions, a strengthening of Iranian hardliners, and the likely collapse of any agreement.

In order to avert such an outcome, US and Iranian negotiators should quietly set aside discussion of past military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme, and instead focus on securing an agreement that guards against Iran’s capacity to weaponise in future. Such an accord must: reduce Iran’s existing stocks of enriched uranium; limit Iran’s capacity to enrich, through a reduction in its number of operational centrifuges and a decommissioning of its centrifuge production facilities; ensure wide-ranging inspections under the auspices of the Iranian ratification of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, so as to guard against any future weaponisation activity; and resolve plutonium-related concerns, either by converting Iran’s Arak facility into a light water reactor, or through an agreed approach that has the same effect.

In offering extensive sanctions-relief in exchange for concessions in these areas, the administration need not fear the Congressional backlash that will result. Whilst hawkish elements in Congress will continue to insist that any deal must commit Iran to ‘coming clean’ on past weaponisation work, such arguments can be effectively countered. After all, it was Washington’s hawks that were previously the strongest proponents of the view that weaponisation was one of the least important aspects of the Iranian programme.

In the years in which opponents of Iran’s programme sought to strengthen the sanctions regime, suggestions that Tehran had shown goodwill by suspending work on the military dimensions of its programme were rightly cast aside. For instance, when the US intelligence community asserted that ‘with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme’ — the headline claim in its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate - leading hawks were contemptuous. Then Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton dismissed the findings, noting that it is the ‘enrichment of uranium... [that] is critical to civilian and military uses’, and that ‘it has always been Iran's ‘civilian’ programme that posed the main risk of a nuclear breakout’.

Such statements were true seven years ago, and remain true today. In order to ensure or finalise a comprehensive agreement, negotiators must not dwell on Iran’s historic record, but instead focus on depriving Iran of the capacity to attain nuclear-armed status in future.


Timothy Stafford is a Research Analyst at the Royal United Services Institute.

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