The Fool’s Errand for a Perfect Deal with Iran
[ Page 71 ]
At the same time, the sanctions regime does not appear to be weakening: Iran’s best efforts to circumvent U.S. financial sanctions have failed to provide it with much relief.27 Admittedly, Iranian oil exports were on the rise in the first months after the JPA, however more recently this trend has reversed. A further easing of oil sanctions in future interim agreements, as we suggest above, should also prove comparatively stable. Unlike many other sanctions, the oil-related sanctions currently in place against Iran are comparatively easy to restore once they are waived should Iran renege on the deal. Oil imports can be cut immediately and––given the current energy market––importers should be able to switch to competing suppliers. In addition, with the exception of China, all of the main importers of Iranian oil are U.S. allies (India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey), which should facilitate U.S. diplomacy. The threat of continued sanctions and their re-imposition should continue to provide Iran with the motivation to pursue a negotiated settlement.
[ Page 70-71 ]
Time, however, does not in fact work to Iran’s advantage. The JPA both freezes the development of Iran’s nuclear program and provides more effective assurances against Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon than is commonly acknowledged. Under the JPA, Iran cannot increase its enrichment capacity and as eliminated its stocks of uranium enriched to 20 percent. At the same time, the safeguards and inspections regime monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities is substantial—significantly greater than what had been in place prior to the agreement, and very likely nearly as comprehensive as anything the P5+1 will ever achieve. Existing safeguards are certainly not perfect, but no verification mechanism will ever provide complete assurances. More to the point, the combination of the “limits on infrastructure” and “activities with increased safeguards” provisions in the JPA make it virtually impossible for Iran to carry out a nuclear breakout without providing the United States and its allies time to detect the attempt and to intervene. The Obama administration’s estimate of a two-month breakout time sounds scarier than it is, especially if one keeps in mind that this is the minimum amount of time, under highly ideal conditions, it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a single weapon. Even having achieved that, Iran would still lack a credible nuclear deterrent and be substantially far from acquiring one. Therefore, the current risk of an Iranian breakout attempt, let alone a successful one, has to be judged extremely low.
[ Page 72 ]
We have argued that the Obama administration can sidestep this problem by reframing the nuclear dispute as a long-term issue needing management rather than a near-term crisis needing resolution. The conditions of the JPA are more stable and more favorable to the United States than most analysts have recognized, and each interim agreement would contribute to building trust and giving Iran additional incentives to stand by its commitments. Such an approach could also be easier to sell politically at home, as a grand bargain must win domestic support for every element of a nuclear deal, whereas incremental agreements require support on a much narrower set of issues at any given time. Incremental deals are also less likely to become hot-button issues that dominate the headlines in the way that a grand bargain would. Finally, the longer a successful incremental process continued, the harder it would become for hardline opponents to advance alarmist claims or to threat-monger. As a result, setting its sights on building upon the JPA through a series of incrementally deeper agreements would enable the Obama administration to stand a greater chance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and winning domestic support for its course.
[ Page 62 ]
To avoid this outcome, we suggest an alternative approach. The P5+1 should set aside the effort to craft an all-at-once comprehensive bargain and instead adopt a strategy of negotiating incremental agreements. An incremental approach has a number of advantages. The negotiators could focus on one sticking point at a time, without having to coordinate agreement on all of them at once. Negotiators could defer currently intractable issues, like enrichment capacity, until greater trust is built or new opportunities arise. Most importantly, the compromises already achieved under the JPA could be maintained and consolidated, independently of the ups and downs of ongoing negotiations. Critics would likely argue that such an approach only provides Iran with an opportunity to stall. We argue that, on the contrary, so long as the conditions of the JPA are in effect, Iran is unlikely to benefit from delay. If anyone benefits, it is the United States and its allies.
[ Page 71-72 ]
Most importantly, the real threat to the sanctions regime is not continued negotiations, but their failure. If the failure to reach a comprehensive accord produces a breakdown of the JPA— particularly if the international community views U.S. hard bargaining as the cause—Washington would likely have a difficult time maintaining international support for sanctions. This is particularly problematic for critics of the JPA who support a more coercive U.S. strategy. Without a clear path back to the negotiating table, and in the face of waning international support for sanctions, the remaining U.S. options would be acquiescence or military force.
[ Page 63-64 ]
Perhaps the largest point of disagreement between the two sides is Iran’s capacity for a nuclear “breakout”—i.e., the time it would require for Iran to complete an all-out dash to acquire at least one nuclear weapon. The size and scope of Iran’s uranium enrichment program will have a substantial impact on the country’s breakout options, and the confidence the United States and its allies will have that they have sufficient time to detect a breakout attempt and consider their response. Once Iran produces enough weapons-grade uranium to fuel a weapon, U.S. options for military intervention become greatly reduced.
Estimates of Iran’s breakout time depend chiefly on the number of centrifuges Iran can use, the efficiency and reliability of those centrifuges, and the initial stocks of uranium on hand needing enrichment. Experts hotly contest these estimates. They typically present Iran’s best case for a breakout dash and consider only the time required to enrich uranium to weapons grade. U.S. government analysts currently estimate it would take two months for Iran to enrich a single bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium, given its current inventory of about 19,000 installed centrifuges, of which about 10,000 are actually operating.4 The estimate likewise takes into consideration Iran’s elimination of its stocks of uranium enriched to 20 percent and the cap that has been put on its stock of 5-percent low-enriched uranium (LEU) under the JPA.