Iran: Can the U.S. Take 'Yes, But' for an Answer?

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Raheb Homavandi / Reuters

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, welcomes IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei in Tehran on Oct. 4, 2009

President Barack Obama on Oct. 1 gave Iran two weeks to open its hitherto secret nuclear facility at Qum to inspection. Iran eventually agreed to allow officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit the site on Oct. 25. That 10-day gap between what Obama demanded and what Iran was willing to concede symbolizes the looming dilemma for the Administration on Iran nuclear diplomacy — even if a solution is achieved, it's unlikely to be the solution that the West has been demanding.

An air of gloomy skepticism descended on Washington in the days after the Geneva meeting, with many suggesting that Iran was simply playing for time and not with open cards. The deeper reality, though, is that even if Iran cooperates, it won't necessarily do so on Western terms. The progress made in Geneva, for example, skirted the primary demand that the U.S. and its European allies have pressed since 2006: that Iran freeze and eventually give up its uranium-enrichment program in exchange for a package of political and economic incentives.

What Iran did agree to was inspections at Qum and an arrangement to send low-enriched uranium to Russia to create fuel rods for its medical-research reactor in Tehran. The terms on which those inspections and the deal for enrichment abroad will be implemented remain to be seen. But they may well strengthen safeguards against Iran's turning nuclear material into weapons, even as they bypass the demand for Iran to halt uranium enrichment.

U.N. Security Council resolutions, backed by limited sanctions, require that Iran suspend enrichment until transparency concerns raised by the IAEA are settled. But the Western demand that Iran cede the right to enrich its own uranium is a more ambitious goal that doesn't have U.N. backing — because enrichment under safeguards to prevent weaponization is a right of all signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). When Iran insists it won't negotiate over its "nuclear rights," that's a signal that it has no intention of giving up enrichment. And the Iranians have thus far declined to discuss the "freeze for freeze" proposal that was offered by the West last summer, in which no further sanctions would be adopted if Iran simply refrained from expanding its existing enrichment capacity.

That doesn't necessarily mean there's no diplomatic solution in the works or that Iran is simply playing for time. What it does mean is that Iran will try to focus the diplomacy on strengthening safeguards against weaponization of nuclear material, rather than on halting the production of such material in the first place, as the Western powers have demanded. The U.S. and its allies had sought to prevent Iran from achieving a "breakout" capacity — i.e., assembling sufficient civilian nuclear infrastructure to allow it to move relatively quickly to build a bomb should it choose to break out of the NPT, in the manner that a country like Japan is capable of doing. That goal required Iran to give up exercising its right to enrich uranium. There's no sign of Iran moving in that direction, but if it shows new flexibility in negotiating further safeguards against weaponization of its nuclear output, that will create a new dilemma for the Obama Administration: whether or not the U.S. and its allies, particularly Israel, can live with an outcome that leaves Iran with "threshold" capacity, even under greater safeguards.

While under attack in a Senate subcommittee from Republicans who are skeptical over the Geneva talks, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg suggested on Tuesday, according to CNN, that "one reason for the Obama Administration's engagement toward Iran was to secure international support for sanctions if Iran continued to defy international demands." The argument works if Iran stonewalls; but if it offers counterproposals deemed reasonable by China, Russia and some Europeans, winning support for further sanctions would become even harder. And that's a game the Iranians may be ready to play, by refusing to give up uranium enrichment but at the same time showing new openness to measures aimed at strengthening international confidence in the peaceful intent of its nuclear program. Tehran is far more likely to tailor its positions to what will be acceptable to Russia, China and some of the Europeans than it is to heed the demands put forward by the U.S. and its key allies. (Neither Moscow nor Beijing believes Iran is building nuclear weapons, even if they're sympathetic to Western concerns over the need for greater safeguards against it doing so.) The question would then become whether the West is prepared to take Iran's less than satisfactory "yes" for an answer.

The dilemma is sharpened because the position taken by the U.S. and its closest allies may have been rendered redundant by events. The Bush Administration, backed by France, Britain and Israel, had insisted that Iran could not be trusted to enrich uranium, even for peaceful purposes, and that it should be prevented from even attaining the "know-how" to do so. But know-how is a milestone Iran passed long before Bush had even left the Oval Office, and enrichment has been a fact on the ground in Iran for the past four years. And whether that reality is, in fact, reversible, has increasingly come into question, even in Western capitals. The Iranians appear impervious to the sanctions already implemented, and as long as they cooperate with efforts to strengthen safeguards against weaponization, it's unlikely that there will be sufficient international support to significantly strengthen the sanctions regime.

The West would prefer that Iran did not have the civilian nuclear infrastructure that would give it the option of building weapons, but the more likely outcome of a diplomatic process is one that strengthens safeguards against weaponization rather than reversing Tehran's existing enrichment capacity. And the question of whether that's acceptable to the West will ultimately be answered by a cost-benefit analysis of the available alternatives.