The nuclear talks with Iran, resumed this week in Baghdad, face a risky and uncertain future. While this round of talks will not resolve the problem posed by Iran’s nuclear weapons push, it could help clarify whether Tehran’s steady progress toward a nuclear weapon can be halted without military action.
Certainly, Iran has good reason to come to terms. International economic sanctions are squeezing Tehran hard, and the screws will soon turn tighter. U.S. sanctions on Iran's central bank will take full effect June 28, and a European Union embargo on Iranian oil comes into full force July 1.
Getting relief from these sanctions is certainly a top Iranian goal at the Baghdad talks. But Iran’s leaders long have sacrificed the economic interests of Iran’s people to advance their own revolutionary Islamist goals.
Tehran is a master of exploiting diplomatic talks to forestall international pressure, ease sanctions and gain time for advancing its nuclear program. Despite more than three years of “engagement” by the Obama administration, Iran continues to defy U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding a halt to its uranium enrichment efforts and other nuclear programs. Worse, Iran was caught red-handed in September 2009 building a covert uranium enrichment facility at Fordow, and its nuclear efforts have only accelerated since then.
Today, Iran has enough enriched uranium to build at least four nuclear weapons, if it was further enriched — four times what it had when President Obama was inaugurated. In 2010, it began enriching uranium to 20 percent, ostensibly for medical research. That dramatically shortens the time Tehran needs to reach the 90 percent level needed for nuclear weapons.
The stakes for these talks, then, are higher than ever. The U.S. must stand firm and be prepared to prevent backsliding by the international coalition mobilized to pressure Tehran into halting its nuclear weapons program.
Given Tehran’s long record of duplicity on the nuclear issue, any agreement must require Iran to take concrete and irreversible steps to reduce the military threat masked within its civilian nuclear program. Specifically, Washington should not agree to any easing of sanctions until Tehran agrees to:
• Halt uranium enrichment, and transfer its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to an outside power. This is the chief short-term nuclear proliferation concern.
• Close and dismantle the uranium enrichment facility at Fordow. This hardened facility, built deep underground on a military base, is enriching uranium far beyond what is needed for a civilian nuclear program.
• Come clean with the IAEA and allow unfettered inspections. IAEA experts must have full access to documents, scientists, and facilities — including the top-security Parchin test site.
These three actions will immediately reduce Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium and diminish Tehran’s ability to stage a rapid nuclear breakout. But a credible agreement must also focus on maintaining the long term barriers to nuclear proliferation. This will require other Iranian concessions, such as scrapping the heavy water reactor being built at Arak, which could produce enough plutonium for two bombs a year.
To encourage Tehran to accept and abide by these conditions, the U.S. must make clear that there is a time limit to the diplomatic track. Negotiations must produce results quickly if Tehran is to avoid further sanctions or a preventive military strike.
Of course, Iran will not accede meekly to these terms. It will try to drive a diplomatic wedge in the P5+1 coalition (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) by peeling away Russia and China. Both nations have extensive economic ties with Iran and would likely support lifting sanctions in return for minor concessions that don’t significantly limit Tehran’s uranium enrichment program.
But Washington must keep the coalition focused on reaching a verifiable agreement that creates long-term barriers to Iranian nuclear proliferation. And it is crucial that sanctions be maintained until Tehran takes concrete and irreversible steps to halt its nuclear weapons program.
James Phillips is senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times