An Iran nuclear deal is a good step forward
, November 20, 2013
By Kelsey Davenport
For the first time in decades, there is momentum in the nuclear talks with Iran. A deal looks within reach.
In the recent round of negotiations in Geneva, six world powers and Iran made significant progress on an agreement that will verifiably limit Tehran's nuclear program. But maintaining this progress and reaching an agreement is by no means a sure thing. In Washington, hawkish members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, could sabotage a deal by demanding Iran make concessions that are unrealistic.
The deal discussed in Geneva is a good first step toward addressing the international community's concerns over Iran's nuclear activities. This agreement between Iran and the P5+1 - the five permanent United Nations Security Council members (the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China) plus Germany - would limit Iran's most dangerous nuclear activities and lead to a transparent, verifiable compact that would guard against a nuclear Iran. It would also be a good deal for US national security interests, solving the Iran nuclear standoff without resorting to military action that would likely provoke another costly conflict in the Middle East.
It should come in two phases: an initial agreement followed by a comprehensive deal. The first part would pause Iran's nuclear progress, limit the most proliferation-sensitive activities and impose more stringent monitoring and verification mechanisms. This is a realistic formula that will give the international community the assurance that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful. It would also establish early detection of any potential deviations.
In return, Washington should put meaningful sanctions relief on the table to address Iran's most pressing concern - its devastated economy. The relief reportedly proposed in Geneva would amount to less than $10 billion - a small fraction of the amount Iran has lost under the crippling economic sanctions imposed by the international community, but enough to allow Iran to sell a deal domestically.
The first-phase agreement does not need to address every concern that Washington and its partners have about Iran's nuclear program. Rather, it should focus on both sides' most pressing concerns, while building time and trust to negotiate a comprehensive deal.
Capping Iran's nuclear enrichment and limiting its stockpile of enriched uranium would drastically increase the time it would take Tehran to produce enough nuclear material for a bomb, from months to years. More intrusive and short-notice inspections would also alert the international community to any deviation from peaceful activities.
This would all put time on the clock to negotiate a deal that could significantly reduce Iran's overall enrichment capacity in the coming months. It could also deal with less time-sensitive issues like the reactor under construction at Arak. Though this reactor could produce plutonium for weapons in the future, it is months away from operation and years away from producing enough material for a bomb.
It would be foolish for Washington and its partners to sacrifice a good deal that freezes Iran's nuclear program and allows time for a comprehensive agreement by making unreasonable demands.
A decade ago, for example, requiring Tehran to dismantle its fledgling nuclear program may have been viable. Today, there is little support for it because insisting on zero enrichment will push Tehran away from the negotiating table and closer to a decision to pursue nuclear weapons - which risks starting a regional war.
Despite the progress made in Geneva, some Congress members in Washington are now calling for new sanctions against Iran. The leaders of this effort include Senator Lindsey Graham, who has also hinted at a bill authorizing military force against Iran, and Senators Robert Menendez and Bob Corker. The sanctions advocates argue that increasing economic pressure will induce Iran to make further concessions. In fact, Congress' effort to dictate the terms of the deal undercuts US diplomats at the negotiating table and threatens to drive Iran away from the talks.
Congress will send the wrong message to Tehran if it moves forward on restrictions while the details of a good deal are being finalized. Let's give our diplomats a chance to negotiate a verifiable nuclear agreement with Iran and not sabotage the process with further sanctions and unreasonable demands.
A deal remains our best chance to guard against an unrestrained and unmonitored Iranian nuclear program.
* Kelsey Davenport is the non-proliferation analyst for the Arms Control Association. The opinions expressed are her own.