Five Principles for a Nuclear Deal with Iran

Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program will soon morph into technical discussions about levels of uranium enrichment, nuclear inspections protocol, and fuel swaps. As the negotiations proceed, policymakers – particularly in Washington – will grow increasingly nervous about the prospects for a nuclear deal.

It is therefore essential that policymakers keep in mind five core principles about these negotiations to give our diplomats enough space to do their critical work, to increase prospects for preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb and to avoid a disastrous war.

First, war talk is counterproductive to our strategic interests. Talk of military strikes raises the specter of economic calamity and provides ammunition to those in Iran who want a nuclear weapon. Oil prices are so high that Iran’s leaders continue to enrich themselves while their population suffers. At the same time, Americans are feeling real pain at the pump and risking an economic slowdown. A strike on Iran would strengthen those inside Iran who argue that nuclear weapons would protect their country from attack, while also legitimizing such a potential program in the eyes of the international community if Iran were to decide to weaponize.

Second, sanctions work best if they are in the service of diplomacy. Sanctions can be a useful tool for furthering negotiations, if used properly. Ultimate authority over their implementation must be in the hands of the President, and by extension, his negotiators. As yet, the President has not relieved any pressure on Iran, but should have the inherent flexibility to use sanctions as leverage, making adjustments as the negotiations warrant. If sanctions are inflexible, we risk tying the President’s hands by preventing him from executing his constitutional responsibilities to protect our security.

Third, to get Iran to come clean, we must be willing to close the nuclear file. To prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, we need to extract binding commitments from Iran about its peaceful nuclear intentions that are verifiable. We also need to understand what Iran has done in the past – including bad behavior - to fully close this nuclear file. A key incentive for Iran to come clean and committing to stay clean is the knowledge that they will not be counterproductively penalized for past transgressions. Punishing Iran for its past behavior would ensure that Iran’s program would remain in the shadows, undercutting our goal of preventing a future Iranian nuclear weapon.

Fourth, Iran has the right to a verifiably peaceful nuclear program. The international community should recognize that right as long as the program is vigorously monitored and the program’s most dangerous nuclear material is either removed or safeguarded. We know that Iran is enriching uranium to a level – just under 20% -- that deeply concerns the West, and that Iran has a large stockpile of uranium enriched to under 5%. Iran has a need for both levels of enrichment. In order to accept Iran having a peaceful nuclear program, the more highly enriched material must be secured. Future enrichment to that level, if necessary for peaceful purposes, should be closely monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency and based upon agreements with the international community. This arrangement would ensure that Iran does not acquire the fissile material necessary to make a nuclear bomb, thus allaying the West’s deepest concerns, while also providing Iran with sufficient fissile material for its peaceful nuclear power and medical needs.

Fifth, nuclear negotiations will not solve all of our concerns about Iran. Talks between Western powers and Iran over its nuclear program are rightly focused on the most urgent matter for international security – the possible development of nuclear weapons. However, nuclear negotiations will not resolve all of our concerns about Iran, such as terrorism, human rights, and democracy. A parallel diplomatic track, similar to the approach we took with the Soviet Union during the Helsinki Process, should be established with Iran. Iran’s critics will point to its multiple transgressions as cause for halting nuclear diplomacy, but failure to resolve all of these issues in the near term should not become an excuse for refraining from advancing our immediate security interests through nuclear negotiations.

What is clear from the past week of diplomacy is that these negotiations are entering a politically sensitive phase.  One meeting in Istanbul will not be enough to resolve all the issues on the table.  Yet despite the deep challenges surrounding the negotiations, it’s ironic that the nuclear standoff with Iran may actually be the easiest issue to negotiate, as the disagreements are technical in nature.

Nonetheless, it will take time to build confidence between the West and Iran. A sustainable process is therefore essential.  Fortunately, the successful international cooperation built against Iran’s nuclear program has created significant leverage for obtaining a deal that meets our security objectives. So if policymakers can find the political will to adhere to these five principles, they just might help to provide the political support needed for a nuclear deal that will constrain Iran’s ability to ever acquire a nuclear weapon – and have a political win to crow about.

Photo by Joel Rubin, 19 April 2012