The case for recognising a limited Iranian nuke programme

The P5+1 should float a new proposal that recognises Iran’s right to a limited and safeguarded nuclear programme.

Iran, as a Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory, is entitled to enrich nuclear material for civilian purposes [Reuters]

After the negotiations in Istanbul between Iran and five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the “P5+1” group), many analysts were optimistic that progress might finally be obtainable. However, after two unsuccessful follow-up talks in Baghdad and Moscow, these sanguine attitudes have largely disappeared. Without significant adjustments in negotiating positions, there is little to suggest the next round of negotiations – now downgraded to “technical talks” – will be any more successful.

The problem with negotiations to date is not only the existence of a huge trust deficit, but that the proposal being pushed by the P5+1 is not perceived by the Iranians as being sufficiently equitable. In the words of a former Iranian nuclear negotiator, the P5+1 wants “diamonds for peanuts”.

The deal calls for Iran to give up its three biggest trump cards by requiring them to stop enrichment of 20 per cent uranium, ship their stockpile of 20 per cent uranium out of the country and shut down their underground nuclear facility at Fordow – or “stop, ship and shut” in diplomatic short speak.

In return for these major concessions, the P5+1 is offering Iran an incentive package of badly needed parts for their civilian aircrafts, and fuel plates and safety upgrades for their ageing research reactor. Absent from the deal, however, is any offer to move on Iran’s two key demands: substantive sanctions relief and recognition of their right to a peaceful nuclear programme.

Given such asymmetry in the current proposal between what is required of Iran and what is offered in return, to get negotiations back on track, it is essential that the P5+1 makes a new offer that includes one of these two requirements.

With the US and the EU unwilling and/or unable to ease sanctions and risk losing the little leverage they have, the P5+1 should float a new proposal that offers to recognise Iran’s right to a limited, fully transparent and safeguarded nuclear programme.

And with US officials having already stated that they may be willing to recognise such an Iranian nuclear programme, such a concession by the P5+1 is a viable option.

Necessary safeguards

Recognition of Iran’s nuclear programme would not be nearly as big a concession as it may appear. For the P5+1 would not be offering carte blanche recognition, but would require Iran to cap enrichment at five per cent and agree to ratify the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), or a similar arrangement, to create the necessary safeguards and transparency to assuage international concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 

 Iran meets world powers to discuss nuclear programme

Additionally, Iran’s right to enrich for civilian purposes is something that is already guaranteed by its having signed the main text of the NPT. It has only been Iran’s unwillingness to co-operate with the IAEA and fully demonstrate that their programme does not have a military component that has thus far prevented them from enjoying these rights.

This deal, if accepted, would also stop Iran’s progress towards acquiring the ability to build a nuclear weapon, if they decide to pursue one, thus expanding the time available for diplomacy. This additional time would allow for the US presidential elections to pass, removing a major obstacle to offering the type of sanctions relief necessary to reach a final agreement with Iran.

Offering this deal does risk Iran reneging on their end of the agreement once receiving recognition. However, not only would such action strengthen the P5+1’s position by showing that Iran was negotiating in bad faith, but it would have little negative impact. Recognition would be contingent on Iran’s continuing to adequately demonstrate that their nuclear programme was peaceful and that they were not enriching above five per cent. If, at any point, Iran ceased to meet these requirements, the P5+1 could revoke its recognition of Iran’s right a nuclear programme and the situation would return to where it is currently.

As receiving recognition of their nuclear programme is extremely important to Iran, in exchange, the P5+1 could reasonably require Iran to end 20 per cent enrichment, implement greater safeguards on its nuclear programme, and possibly even ship out its stockpile of 20 per cent uranium – if the sale of fuel for their reactor were guaranteed. This would achieve two of the three “stop, ship and shut” requirements. And as 20 per cent enrichment activity would end, and the Fordow facility is primarily a 20 per cent enrichment site, this offer could be said to partially achieve the “shut” demand as well.

Given the importance of finding a peaceful solution that avoids potentially disastrous military options, a bold move is needed to get out of this diplomatic purgatory. Recognition of a limited Iranian nuclear programme is that move. This concession comes on the cheap, being high in symbolic importance to Iran but low in real costs for the P5+1.

Offering recognition may or may not be the silver bullet needed to untangle the Iranian nuclear Gordian knot. But at the very least, by showing Iran that there are important gains to be had through diplomacy, such a proposal may provide a much-improved starting point to relaunch otherwise stalled negotiations.

Loren White is a researcher for the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force. 

Folow him on Twitter: @lorenwhite7