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Two Reasons Why Iran Resumed Nuclear Negotiations

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Much has been made of the Islamic Republic of Iran's new posture in nuclear negotiations, too much of it focused—approvingly or derisively—on the sartorial, linguistic, or temperamental aspects of this new posture: They dress better, laugh more, tweet cleverly, speak better English, or are more pragmatically open to direct negotiations with the erstwhile Big Satan. (A popular joke in Iran today: How sweet it is that suddenly the Big Satan has become the Cutesy Sweetheart!) 

But a far more important change has been overlooked: For years, Iran’s nuclear strategy was defined by the effort to buy time by obfuscation, wasting meetings by waxing rhetorical about the litany of the Big Satan’s past errors. They also used Chinese desire for oil, Turkey’s thirst for profits, Russia’s penchant for bellicosity towards the U.S., and occasionally even European companies’ need for oil and market shares to further their strategy. In the meantime, they used the time gained to create a nuclear reality on the ground. President Hassan Rouhani, once Iran's lead nuclear negotiator, was the first official to openly lay bare the nuances of this buy-time-create-reality strategy. Today, however, Islamic Iran’s nuclear negotiators can’t wait to reach a deal. Just this week they signed a new agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to allow inspection of Arak’s heavy-water reactor and a uranium mine. They are suddenly eager to fast-dial a new relationship with the U.S.—the same country they had demonized for almost three decades. 

Two conflicting realities have helped bring about this sudden change of strategy, and unless we understand both, then the ways to a potentially enduring solution to the now-snagged negotiations can’t be found.

First and foremost, the nuclear reality the Iranian regime apparently hoped for was to have a break-out capacity: the ability to have not the bomb, but the ability to build one in short order. All evidence is that such a break-out capacity is now a virtual fait accompli. Iran now has some 19,000 centrifuges, ready to churn, an ample supply of both 5- and 20-percent-enriched uranium, even the technology to build new generation of centrifuges. Once and if they decide to build the bomb, they can have the requisite highly enriched uranium for at least one bomb in about a month. Enriched uranium is of course only one aspect of having a break-out capacity. Other components include weaponizing the uranium, miniaturizing the bomb, learning to detonate it, and finding a delivery mechanism. There are different estimates on how far they have developed along each of these components. When the Arak heavy-water reactor becomes operational, the regime might have an even shorter time to break-out. The fact that only this week the regime announced new developments in their missile technology—including testing a missile with solid fuels—has not helped quell anxieties about the regime’s break-out capacity.

The second important fact to consider is the cost of this break-out capacity. With the increasing bite of sanctions, and with eight years of utter corruption and incompetence during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tenure, the Islamic regime has suddenly faced the reality that their long-sought break-out capacity has been bought at an exorbitantly high price. With oil revenues drying up, and increasing competition among factions within  the regime for a bigger share of the shrinking pie, Iran urgently needed an agreement to end the sanctions. Those who oppose any deal with the regime believe that not only making no deal at this time, but increasing sanctions, will either bring about the collapse of the regime or convince it to roll back its nuclear program. That argument, however, overlooks a critical point: The regime, particularly Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his allies, are surely inept but not suicidal. They have spent so much political and economic capital on achieving the break-out capacity that any agreement they could not sell to the Iranian people as a victory—or, in their new language, a "win-win"—would be tantamount to political suicide for them. It is thus as much folly to think that the regime will, in desperation, accept any deal—including one that requires a complete dismantlement of their enrichment program—as it is to think that any deal they offer is worth making. 

The many sides directly or indirectly involved in the nuclear negotiations have widely different endgames in mind: On the one hand the regime wants to give up as little of its break-out capacity as possible—a “hedge,” in the parlance of nuclear experts—in return for quick relief from sanctions. At the same time, caught in their own rhetorical prison-house, they cannot admit that the urgency they desire for an end of sanctions is because the sanctions are hurting. Countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and France believe that any concession, short of complete dismantlement of Iran’s program, is a dangerously bad deal. It will help the regime solve its current crisis, and embolden the radicals to further develop their break-out capacity.

Ironically, the radicals in Iran have been increasingly vociferous in their attacks on the recent Geneva talks. The West, they claim, is desperate to make a deal with Iran, and they want a return to the yesteryear policies of no concessions. Some even demand an apology for the West’s temerity in suggesting there were any legitimate concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Khamenei, who has publicly, albeit half-heartedly supported the negotiations, has allowed his minions to rip into anyone who expresses hope for a thaw with the West and a resolution of the nuclear crisis.

In between these extremes—the regime wanting to be let off the hook, its foes insisting Iran face stricter sanctions, and radicals in Iran quixotically denying sanctions are hurting while insisting that continued intransigence is the only way through this impasse—what is needed is a prudent negotiation strategy with Iran that achieves several goals. First: Any deal should maximize the difference between the time a political decision to build a bomb is made and the time the device is made and deliverable. Second: Only sanctions that hurt the people of Iran, as opposed to those that hurt the regime, should be reduced before a final agreement is reached. Third: While Iran's regime must not be unnecessarily embarrassed for its gross mismanagements of nuclear negotiations in the past (for example, the outlines of the deal on the table now are apparently not different than what Iran could have had six years ago, thus sparing its people much agony) and even be allowed to declare that it has arrived at a win-win agreement, it must not be allowed to hide all the facts from the people of Iran.

While the regime has been showing its moderate posture internationally, it has gone on a killing spree at home—about 150 executions since Rouhani took office less than a hundred days ago. And thus, as a final goal, the international community must continue negotiating with Iran on the nuclear issue while never losing sight of the critical issue of human rights. President Reagan and Secretary Shultz did it with the Evil Empire, and today the Great Satan–turned–Cutesy Sweetheart must be able to do it with a far less powerful regime.

Abbas Milani is a contributing editor at The New Republic, the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Shah.