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Time for Diplomatic Offensive against Iran

Author: Matthew Fuhrmann, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow, 2010-2011
January 21, 2011


The United States is negotiating from a strengthened position as the P5+1 talks on Iran's nuclear program (NYT) resume today in Istanbul. This derives, in part, from revelations that Tehran has encountered technical difficulties at its uranium enrichment plants. It is likely that a combination of factors--including sanctions and the Stuxnet computer worm--have produced delays.

Iran may also be reaching a critical juncture about its willingness to build nuclear weapons. Acquiring the bomb requires considerable economic resources and a robust political commitment that must be sustained for decades. Tehran initiated a nuclear weapons program during the Iran-Iraq War. Nearly twenty-five years later, it has yet to produce even a single bomb. This is especially remarkable given that Iran received assistance from Pakistan beginning in the late-1980s via the A.Q. Khan network. North Korea revealed that it is possible for the poorest of countries to build nuclear weapons--if they are willing to starve the population and forgo even modest economic growth.

Yet it is not clear that Iran is willing to pay this price. Tehran has continued the dual-use uranium enrichment program but appears to have curtailed weapons-specific research and development. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who have presided over an underperforming economy since 2005, are certainly aware of the impact economic collapse would have on the regime's viability. The recent events in Tunisia are likely on the minds of Persian elites.

Crisis Guide: Iran

Amidst this backdrop, the P5+1 group has a real opportunity to curtail Iran's nuclear program. The United States and its allies should continue to press Iran, as there are indications that international pressure has at least modestly delayed the nuclear program. Yet the status quo of harsh rhetoric, gradually tighter sanctions, and covert actions will not solve the problem; it will only buy time. The occasion is ripe for a diplomatic offensive.

Providing Iran with meaningful economic incentives could cause the regime to abandon the enrichment program. The United States and its European allies offered Iran incentives in the past, most notably in 2006 and 2008. These included support in constructing light water reactors, the normalization of trade relations, and the removal of restrictions on civilian aviation equipment. These overtures failed. Some of the incentives the Western powers were willing to provide were not all that attractive for Iran. But more importantly, Iranian elites had doubts about the sincerity of Western assurances, a perception reinforced by the vague nature of the promises.

A reiteration of earlier offers, with more substantial security assurances that go beyond restating U.S. obligations under the UN Charter, could produce a different outcome this time around. Economic malaise, continued technical failures, and concerns about regime survivability have raised the costs of continuing the enrichment efforts. The P5+1 group would help its cause by alleviating the credibility problem that made potentially lucrative incentives seem unattractive. Providing modest incentives at the outset as a gesture of good faith and other confidence-building measures could help accomplish this. Such policies are not without risk but history suggests that they can be effective, as exemplified by the Argentine-Brazilian rapprochement of the 1980s and both states' subsequent abandonment of their nuclear weapons programs.

A major deal is unlikely to be announced over the weekend. But the United States has more time to negotiate than was previously believed. The P5+1 should keep the incentives option ready. The likelihood of success will only increase over time, as the economic and political costs of Iran's enrichment program mount.

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