It appears increasingly likely there will not be a comprehensive agreement on Iran's nuclear program by the late-November deadline, says nuclear expert Gary Samore. Washington and Tehran, he says, remain too far apart on how large Iran's enrichment program should be, but they are interested in working out an extension of talks. An extension could be possible given progress in halting parts of Iran's nuclear work as well as the common aim Washington and Iran have in defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Samore says. "Both sides will have an interest in not allowing a confrontation or increased tension over the nuclear issue interfere with the campaign against ISIS," he says.
There have been several U.S.-Iranian bilateral talks about the Iranian nuclear program, but we have no agreement in sight and the negotiations are supposed to end on November 24. How would you describe the overall U.S.-Iranian relationship?
It's become very clear that [President Hassan] Rouhani is on a tight leash. People had hoped that he would be able to deliver a nuclear agreement and that that would open the door to much broader and better relations with Washington. But he's under very strict constraints in terms of what he's prepared to agree to and it's clear that that's very short of what the United States needs for a nuclear deal. So right now people are anticipating that there won't be a comprehensive agreement at the end of November. On the other hand, the rise of ISIS has given the United States and Iran a common enemy, at least tactically, and that may increase the incentive for both sides to avoid a confrontation over the nuclear issue at least as long as they're going to try to work together to defeat ISIS in Iraq.
Do you sense that there is any major compromise in the U.S. nuclear position to get Iran aboard to strengthen the alliance against ISIS?
[T]he status quo, even though it's not perfect, is certainly tolerable.
I don't think so. It's a standard Iranian gambit to ask for flexibility on the nuclear issue so they will cooperate on some other issue, whether it's Afghanistan or now fighting ISIS in Iraq, but the U.S. position is that Iran has as much of an interest as the United States does in defeating ISIS, so I don't think Washington is prepared to pay Iran to do something that it should do in its own interest.
Let's talk about the nuclear talks themselves. What's holding up an agreement?
The central issue in these talks has always been Iran's capacity to produce weapons-grade material, and that's determined by the scope and scale of their enrichment program, which is translated into technical details, like the numbers and types of centrifuges, stockpile of low-enriched uranium, limits on research and development, and so forth. And as the negotiators have gotten into those details, it's really become clear that the two sides are extremely far apart. The United States is demanding that Iran significantly reduce its current stockpile of centrifuges.
Which is about ten thousand?
It's about ten thousand that are operating. They have an additional ten thousand or so that are actually installed but not operating, and the United States, at least in its opening position, is seeking to reduce those ten thousand to about 1,500, which would be more consistent with Iran's needs to produce fuel for its research reactors. Secondly, the United States wants to keep those limits in place for as long as twenty years. The Iranians, on the other hand, are under very strict instructions from the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] not to agree to any reduction in their current enrichment capacity, and to insist on being able to build up to a much larger industrial scale capacity by 2021. Given that huge difference and little evidence of flexibility on either side, it's hard to see how a comprehensive agreement can be reached at the end of November.
Is it your expectation that the two sides—that is the P5+1 nations (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) and Iran—will be able to work out an extension as they did this past summer?
Both sides will have an interest in trying to see whether it's possible to work out an extension, because the status quo, even though it's not perfect, is certainly tolerable. From Iran's standpoint, they're getting a respite from additional sanctions and they're not having to sacrifice their nuclear program. From the standpoint of the United States, we're freezing most elements of Iran's nuclear program and we've been able to keep the overall sanctions regime in place. Furthermore, both sides will have an interest in not allowing a confrontation or increased tension over the nuclear issue interfere with the campaign against ISIS. I expect an effort will be made as we get down to the deadline to see if there's a basis for another partial agreement. Since there's been progress on a number of issues—like conversion of the Arak heavy-water research reactor and the Fordow enrichment facility into research and development facilities—in theory, there are areas of progress that you could pluck out as another stand-alone partial agreement in exchange for additional sanctions relief, and then presumably set a new deadline for trying to reach a comprehensive agreement.
The negotiations are due to conclude on November 24, after the U.S. Congressional elections. Will Congress be willing to go along with another interim step?
The Supreme Leader, given his world view, thinks that Iran needs to have a nuclear weapons option.
It's very difficult to predict because it will depend on the details of an extension and the extent to which it really does achieve additional concrete limits on Iran's nuclear program, in exchange for a reasonable amount of sanctions relief. The Joint Plan of Action, which has been in effect now for almost a year, has worked very smoothly. It's worked very effectively in freezing many aspects of Iran's nuclear program and easing sanctions without letting the entire sanctions effort be undermined. So there is a good track record to justify an additional extension, but certainly there will be many in Congress who will be suspicious that this is just delay and buying time and [that it] isn't really solving the problem. And, obviously whether or not the Republicans control the Senate will affect the ability of Congress to pass legislation against the wishes of the White House. And frankly, it'll also depend in part on the view of other countries like Israel. The Israelis have become relatively satisfied that the Joint Plan of Action has been effective in slowing down Iran's nuclear clock without sacrificing the sanctions regime. The Israelis will certainly prefer some kind of extension versus a bad deal that allows Iran to retain a significant enrichment capacity, and so far the administration is not showing any flexibility on that issue.
Iran constantly claims publicly they have no interest whatsoever in nuclear weapons, yet why do they need so many centrifuges?
They argue that they need to have a large number of centrifuges to produce low-enriched uranium fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Right now, the power plant is fueled by the Russians who have a contract through 2021 and the Russians are clearly willing and happy to sell fuel for the lifetime of the reactor. The Iranians argue that they can't trust the Russians to deliver on the fuel, and therefore they need to have an indigenous ability to produce low-enriched uranium. That argument—the need for nuclear energy independence—unfortunately has become a very popularly accepted narrative inside Iran, but frankly outside of Iran, nobody believes that that's the primary purpose of having a large-scale enrichment program. Instead, it would give Iran the ability to quickly produce large amounts of weapons grade uranium if they decided in the future to build nuclear weapons, or it would provide a very effective cover for the them to try to build secret enrichment facilities, which of course they have done in the past to build nuclear weapons. So there's this deeply competing narrative between the Iranians, who say that they need large-scale enrichment for their peaceful nuclear energy program, and the view of the United States and everybody else that that's just a pretext, a ruse to develop a nuclear weapons option.
Do you think the Iranians really want to keep a nuclear weapons option in their pocket?
Absolutely. The Supreme Leader, given his world view, thinks that Iran needs to have a nuclear weapons option, if not nuclear weapons themselves, both to defend Iran against the Great Satan [the United States], and all the little Satans, and also to assert Iran's dominance in the region. As long as the Supreme Leader Khamenei has been in power, he's seen the acquisition of nuclear weapons capability as a key element of Iran's foreign policy, and that's very unlikely to change as long as he's in charge.