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A Nuclear Deal Can Be a New Starting Point for US-Iranian Relations

Former US Special Advisor for Nonproliferation Robert Einhorn talks about the possibility of a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.

Iran’s nuclear program and the related sanctions against the country were a key issue at this year’s United Nations General Assembly. Iranian officials maintain that the country’s nuclear program, which started in the 1950s with the help of US President Dwight Eisenhower, has been planned to provide a sustainable energy resource for Iran in the future and decrease its excessive dependency on fossil fuels. The US and its European partners remain suspicious that Iran intends to produce nuclear weapons, and want to prevent Tehran from reaching break-out capacity. The controversy that began to intensify in the early 2000s has severely strained relations between Iran and the West. Several rounds of negotiations have failed to resolve the dispute.

In an interview with Fair Observer, Robert Einhorn, a former special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control in the US State Department under the Obama administration, says Iran and the P5+1 — comprising Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US — can move toward ending the impasse and taking practical steps to reach a long-term settlement.

According to Einhorn, if Iran accepts certain constraints on specific aspects of its nuclear program, it will be allowed in the long-run to pursue a more advanced and ambitious nuclear venture. On the possible reconciliation between Iran and the US, he says: “I personally would very much like to see an eventual reconciliation between Iran and the US, but as officials in both Washington and Tehran understand very well, the level of mistrust that has developed in recent decades is so great that it will take some time to rebuild trust and establish more productive relations.”

Kourosh Ziabari and Einhorn talk about the potential for a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the obstacles ahead.

Einhorn is a senior fellow with the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institute. From 1999 to 2001, he was the assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation. Einhorn previously served as the director of Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies from 2001-09.

Kourosh Ziabari: As my first question, I would like to ask you about the outreach by President Hassan Rouhani to the international community following his victory in Iran’s presidential election in June 2013. What do you think about his new approach to Iran’s foreign policy, his reconciliation efforts with the West and the response by the international community to his new foreign policy approach?

Robert Einhorn: Well, I prepared primarily to discuss the nuclear issue, but I can say a word about President Rouhani’s outreach efforts. Understandably, Iran wants to break out of its recent international isolation and Rouhani and his team have made concerted efforts to reach out to other countries and reestablish productive relations. And they have made some progress in doing so, but until the nuclear issue is resolved, Rouhani will have difficulty in ending Iran’s isolation.

The Obama administration has no difficulty with Iran pursuing its civil nuclear energy program; it just wants to ensure that Iran does not have the kind of capability that will enable it to move quickly toward nuclear weapons.

I think the improved rhetoric and policies that have been practiced by Rouhani have helped Iran reestablish productive relations with other countries. But until the nuclear issue is resolved, there will be a continuing impediment to Iran playing its rightful role in the world.

Ziabari: On the nuclear issue, what do you think are the main obstacles to the conclusion of a comprehensive deal between Iran and the P5+1? The recent round of talks in Vienna and the subsequent discussions in New York actually ended without the two sides reaching a comprehensive agreement as they had foreseen in the Joint Plan of Action. What are the main reasons that marked this failure, and how can the two sides go ahead with the talks in order to succeed and reach a final agreement?

Einhorn: The differences between the two sides, and in particular between Iran and the US, remained very wide on a number of issues. I think it’s important for both sides to have a realistic outlook on what is possible. I think for Iran, that means focusing both on Tehran’s mid-term needs for civil nuclear energy, as well as its longer-term needs and to differentiate between the two. And I think that means accepting a more limited uranium enrichment capacity in the near-term, so Iran can satisfy the P5+1 countries and address their concerns about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

It also means focusing on the longer-term needs of Iran’s civil nuclear program, and it can achieve those longer-term needs by pursuing activities in the near-term that better prepare it to result in more advanced nuclear energy capability in the longer-term. So it’s the question of timing I think, and focusing on near-term constraints that permit a longer-term achievement of a more ambitious nuclear program.

Ziabari: Some decision-makers in Washington, including a number of Congressmen, believe Iran should not have a nuclear capability at all, whether civilian or military. Do you think it’s a realistic approach to demand Iran to dismantle all of its nuclear activities, even for peaceful and civilian purposes? And do you think that with such an approach, the talks can lead to a successful result?

Einhorn: There are critics both in the US and in Iran that have adopted unrealistic positions. It is unrealistic to expect Iran to give up its civil nuclear energy program. The Obama administration has no difficulty with Iran pursuing its civil nuclear energy program; it just wants to ensure that Iran does not have the kind of capability that will enable it to move quickly toward nuclear weapons. But the administration is quite comfortable with Iran having a very effective civil nuclear energy program. In fact, the P5+1 countries have proposed various ways they can cooperate with Iran in ensuring that its civil nuclear energy goals can be achieved.

Ziabari: So for the comprehensive deal to take place, the P5+1 demand that Iran provides assurances that it will not deviate toward producing nuclear energy for military purposes or producing an atomic bomb. On the other hand, Iran demands that all nuclear-related sanctions should be lifted. This is what the two sides expect. Do you think the US and its European allies are willing to reciprocate Iran’s confidence-building steps, by lifting the sanctions and removing the nuclear-related sanctions altogether, if a final and comprehensive deal is concluded?

Einhorn: Yes, I’m sure that is the intention of the US and its P5+1 partners. In fact, it was already agreed in the Joint Plan of Action in November 2013 that the outcome of a comprehensive deal would be the complete removal of nuclear-related sanctions. But there are some critical details that have to be worked out; for example, the phasing of the removal of the sanctions. I think it’s well-understood that the practical way forward is initially to suspend nuclear-related sanctions and then eventually to lift them on a permanent basis. So, there are critical details but the end result is already understood, which is the eventual removal of all of nuclear-related sanctions.

Ziabari: But, as you know, in order for the US to remove and lift nuclear-related sanctions, some of the legislation that Congress has already passed and ratified would need to be retracted. Will Congress cooperate with the Obama administration to make the necessary legislative arrangements to remove sanctions and make the comprehensive deal possible?

Einhorn: If the parties can agree on a good result, one that provides confidence and the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, then I think Congress will take the necessary legislative steps to remove the sanctions. I think the sanctions removal process has to proceed in stages.

So, for example, early in implementation there can be a suspension of nuclear-related sanctions, so no nuclear-related sanctions would be imposed and then, later on, when Iran has demonstrated its faithful compliance with the deal and taken the necessary steps it must take, then Congress would be called upon to take legislative action to remove sanctions in a more fundamental way. I think this is the soundest way to proceed.

Ziabari: What steps should Iran take in order to convince the international community that its nuclear program is solely aimed at peaceful purposes? Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has issued a religious decree stating that the production of atomic weapons is forbidden according to the Islamic jurisprudence, and that it is not part of Iran’s defense doctrine. Do you think Iran can build upon and capitalize on this fatwa to provide assurances that it doesn’t intend to produce nuclear weapons? And do you think the other side — the US and the West — will accept this as a basis for the continuation of the talks?

Einhorn: The fatwa is very important, but it must be supplemented by concrete measures that can enhance the credibility of the decree. The measures would involve specific monitoring measures to be carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]. It would include certain restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities for a specific period of time, which is designed to assure the P5+1 that Iran is not developing the capability that would allow it to break out of an agreement and proceed toward nuclear weapons. I think those steps would be very important in reinforcing the fatwa.

Ziabari: Do you think the relations between Iran and the US can come to a point of normalization following the conclusion of a possible comprehensive deal? And do you consider a possible comprehensive deal to be a starting point for the settlement of further disputes between Iran and the US?

Einhorn: I personally would very much like to see an eventual reconciliation between Iran and the US. But as officials in both Washington and Tehran understand very well, the level of mistrust that has developed in recent decades is so great that it will take some time to rebuild trust and establish more productive relations. So, even if there is a comprehensive nuclear deal, one cannot expect a rapid improvement of bilateral relations. It will take time; it will need to proceed step by step. But I think the nuclear deal would be a critical first step. Without a nuclear deal, reconciliation is impossible.

Ziabari: Iran says it needs a certain number of centrifuges for producing fuel for its research nuclear reactor in Tehran, while the US and the P5+1 say Iran should not be allowed to maintain up to, for example, 5,000 or 6,000 centrifuges. Do you think this major point of difference can be resolved in the near future?

Einhorn: I think the difference on enrichment capacity can be bridged. It will be difficult, but I think it can be bridged. I think it requires that in the near-term, while a comprehensive agreement is enforced, Iran accepts a reduction in the current number of centrifuges. Even with the reduction, it can continue to meet its civil nuclear energy needs. It will have enough enriched uranium to fuel the research reactors that it is planning to build. Even with a reduced number of centrifuges, it would be able to generate electricity at Bushehr nuclear plant by continuing to import safe and economical Russian fuel.

The US sees a difference between countries that never joined the NPT and kept their nuclear options open, on the one hand, and countries on the other that have joined the NPT, and some of which have violated their NPT obligations in order to have an option to have nuclear weapons.

But, at the same time, while it has reduced its enrichment capacity and the number of centrifuges, it should do research and development on a more advanced civil nuclear energy program. And it should do this research and development during the comprehensive agreement and prepare the way for the execution of that agreement, at which point it would be in a much more capable position to proceed with a more ambitious nuclear energy plan. So the key, in my view, is working step by step, recognizing that Iran’s near-term needs can be met with the kind of approach taken by the P5+1, but that Iranian aspirations for a more ambitious nuclear plan will also be met by doing research and development during the agreement and preparing Iran to expand its capability, if it so desires when the comprehensive agreement expires.

Ziabari: Iranian officials have always complained that the US has adopted a dualistic and inconsistent approach to nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament. For example, it has condoned the production of nuclear weapons by such countries as Pakistan, India and Israel but, on the other side, it pressures Iran fiercely to abandon its nuclear program while it is not confirmed that Tehran has a plan to produce nuclear weapons. If the matter is nuclear nonproliferation, then the US should put pressure on these countries to also abandon their military nuclear programs. What do you think about this inconsistency?

Einhorn: The US has traditionally supported nuclear nonproliferation across the world, even in countries that never joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT]. But the US sees a difference between countries that never joined the NPT and kept their nuclear options open, on the one hand, and countries on the other hand that have joined the NPT, and some of which have violated their NPT obligations in order to have an option to have nuclear weapons. I think that’s the critical distinction. The US will have preferred, for example, for India to join the NPT and not pursue the nuclear weapons. But India never joined the NPT; so it has a legal right — if it so desired — to pursue nuclear weapons. We may not like it, but India has decided to do that in its own interest. Then there are other countries that signed the NPT, but then violated their obligations. Iraq, for example, violated the NPT; Libya violated the NPT; and North Korea violated the NPT.

The IAEA and the UN Security Council also believe that Iran has violated certain parts of its nonproliferation obligations. And so that’s why the UN Security Council has adopted these measures with respect to Iran. The US opposes nuclear proliferation across the world, but it recognizes that some countries never joined the NPT and don’t have an obligation not to have nuclear weapons. But other countries joined the NPT and they must continue to comply with those obligations.

Ziabari: What is your prediction for the future of nuclear negotiations? Do you believe it’s realistic to foresee another extension of the nuclear talks for a period of four or six months, for example?

Einhorn: I think both sides truly would like to finalize a comprehensive agreement by November 24, but it will be very difficult because there are important issues to be resolved and a lot of detailed work to get done. I think both sides will try very hard for a conclusion and I believe it will be difficult for them to accept an extension beyond November 24.

If they have not already made major progress, I think it would be very difficult both in Tehran and Washington for the negotiators to extend the talks, if they cannot demonstrate to their domestic audiences that they have made major progress and that a few weeks of intensive effort is needed to conclude the negotiations. So I think it’s very important for negotiators on all sides not to wait until the last minute. There is an open tendency to wait until Vienna, in the hope the other side will make the required concessions.

I think this is very dangerous in this case, because if they wait till the eleventh hour in order to resolve some of the critical issues, they simply won’t have time to work out all the details. So, I think now is the time to make major decisions to move the negotiations forward — not to wait until November but to make the decisions now. And I think for Iran, that means agreeing to an approach similar to what I outlined in an open letter to the Iranian negotiating team back in August, at which point I suggested that Iran divide its goals between near-term and longer-term, and to ensure its near-term goals are met during the agreement. And, during the agreement, to prepare the ground for achieving its more ambitious goals by being able to acquire more advanced nuclear technology and prepare the way for an expansion in the longer-term. I think that’s the critical decision the Iranian side needs to make. It can achieve its civil nuclear energy goals in a way that is compatible with the objectives of the P5+1. And I think it needs to work closer with the P5+1 to achieve that result.

Ziabari: You referred to your open letter to Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. You also have been part of the US delegation to the nuclear talks in the past. What differences have you noticed in the approach by the new negotiating team under Rouhani and the negotiating team that operated under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Do you think this new team and delegation that was appointed by Rouhani, which is headed by Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, has made achievements in furthering at the talks, moving the talks forward and bringing an end to the stalemate that had existed for about ten years?

Einhorn: I think the current Iranian negotiating team is very skillful and very professional. They have worked hard to find a way forward that is consistent with Iranian rights and interests. I just hope they and their colleagues back in Tehran have the creativeness and courage to move forward on the hard decisions that would be necessary to reach an agreement.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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