As a November 24 deadline looms for a nuclear deal with Iran, some influential voices in Washington—including President Obama’s former Iran adviser Dennis Ross—have argued that “muddling through” without an agreement, postponing things yet again, is preferable to signing an imperfect deal. The premise of that argument—that we all still have time, and a better deal could be achieved at a later date—is almost certainly wrong.
It fails to recognize that Iran and other nations would react in ways that are beyond the control of U.S. policymakers. The evidence suggests, in fact, that failure to conclude a deal now will see Iran’s position grow less accommodating, while Western leverage through sanctions will decline dramatically.
Putting off a deal yet again would, in fact, produce a perilous slide back towards crisis and confrontation.
To understand what’s at stake, it’s worth remembering both what has been gained through the past year’s negotiations as well as the consequences that followed the time the United States turned down a nuclear compromise offer from Iran.
The temporary agreement of November 24 last year deescalated the sense of crisis surrounding the Iranian nuclear program. The agreement resulted in Iran eliminating its entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium—which can quickly be purified to weapons grade. Iran also greatly reduced its stockpile of reactor-grade uranium and accepted the most rigorous inspection regime imposed on any country in the history of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In return, Tehran received limited relief from the severe sanctions imposed by the United States and the international community—with the promise of more substantial easing of sanctions in a final agreement. U.S. and Iranian diplomats have also opened a channel of sustained communication for the first time in three decades.
But a failure to conclude a permanent deal now could easily undo any progress that was made and instead send relations spiraling downward as happened after the 2005 breakdown in talks between Tehran and European powers. It’s worth noting that two of the key figures in the rapprochement that began last year—President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif—also led Iran’s previous failed effort to negotiate a nuclear deal. From 2003 to 2005, when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was president, Rohani had headed Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, while Zarif had served as ambassador to the United Nations. During that time, the pair made a similar offer to negotiate limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for normalization of relations, but were rebuffed by European negotiators—actively encouraged by the Bush administration—on the grounds that they could not tolerate Iran keeping a single centrifuge enriching uranium. Tehran’s offer, at that time, proposed maintaining 500 centrifuges for R&D purposes with an option to increase the number to 3,000 over time. At the time, Iran had only a few operating centrifuges, which they refused to dismantle.
Today, Tehran is in possession of some 20,000 centrifuges, half of which are operating.”
After the collapse of those negotiations, Rohani and Zarif were accused by hardliners of humiliating Iran by making excessively accommodating offers to the West, only to have those rejected. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rode the wave of opposition into the presidency, Zarif was fired and removed from public sight, while some of his most prominent colleagues were hauled into court on spurious charges of espionage, or were forced to flee the country. Iran began a concerted acceleration of its nuclear development.
Today, Tehran is in possession of some 20,000 centrifuges, half of which are operating, in addition to a backup uranium enrichment site buried deep in a mountainside to protect it from air strikes. Tehran entered talks with a stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium that inspired Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu to flourish a cartoon bomb at the United Nations, and with construction under way on a plutonium-producing reactor. Those, and other worrisome developments in the nine years since have made Tehran’s 2005 offer look very good in retrospect.
Over the same period, domestic political opposition to compromise hardened in Tehran and in Washington. Israeli leaders spoke publicly of launching a military strike against Iran, while the U.S. leadership used more muted threats (“all options are on the table”). And the United States put in place a series of financial sanctions that put Iran’s economy in a chokehold.
The dynamic changed again with the 2013 election of Rohani as president and his appointment of Zarif as foreign minister. New negotiations began shortly after, presenting all parties with another opportunity to retreat from confrontation—but with the cost of failure potentially far higher.
This article was written by Gary Sick for Politico Magazine on NOV. 19, 2014. Gary Sick, a scholar at Columbia University, served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis.
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