Nuclear talks with Iran could transform geopolitics in the Middle East

Nuclear talks with Iran could transform geopolitics in the Middle East
From left to right, Joseph Cirincione, Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Mike Shuster. (Photo: Catherine Schuknecht/UCLA.)

A recent Burkle Center event explored the ramifications of nuclear negotiations with Iran and the challenges that remain ahead.

by Catherine Schuknecht

At a panel discussion at UCLA on March 6, 2014, United States Career Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Ploughshares Fund President Joseph Cirincione discussed the implications of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action agreed by Iranian negotiators and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (known as the “P5+1”). The Burkle Center for International Relations event was moderated by former NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster, who is a Senior Fellow at the Center.

Historical moment

Alluding to the high-stakes nature of the nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers (United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, and Germany), Cirincione remarked, “This is Nixon goes to China.” Ambassador Pickering agreed, adding that the negotiations may be “one of the most important initiatives since the turn of the century.”

Despite recent success, negotiating prospects between Iran and the P5+1 group were almost nonexistent until 2013.

Iran has had a nuclear program since the Shah, explained Pickering, and although the original program died with the Iranian Revolution, it was rekindled after the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s.

Since 2007, the American intelligence community has concluded annually that Iran is pursuing militarily significant nuclear capabilities: amassing materials, information, and technical knowledge that would allow it to make a nuclear weapon.

Although there has been no evidence that the Iranian government has decided to make such a weapon, Iran has continued uranium enrichment to the 20-percent level. This concerns the international community, explained Cirincione, because a sufficiently large stockpile of such enriched material could be turned into bomb-grade uranium in a matter of weeks.

Over the past two decades, U.S.-Iranian relations have been stymied on this issue and the resulting sanctions created an impasse where it seemed no agreement would ever be reached. However, since the election of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency in Iran in June 2013, the new regime has displayed an unprecedented commitment to reaching a compromise that satisfies the objectives of the international community.

The current nuclear talks have already produced an interim agreement that lays the groundwork for a future comprehensive agreement, a success that Pickering said he hoped would open the door to resolving issues beyond nuclear security.

Joint Program of Action

The Joint Program of Action dated November 24, 2013 is a first-stage agreement. “The program did several things that I think are extraordinary and extremely important,” said Pickering, identifying five commitments that Iran made in the interim agreement. These are its pledges to:

  1. Cease enrichment to the 20-percent level, while eliminating existing stockpiles of uranium enriched to this level over a six-month period;
  2. Cease enrichment above a five-percent level;
  3. Maintain the amount of uranium enriched to five percent or less exactly the same over the next six months;
  4. Freeze the building of a reactor designed to make plutonium (another route to a nuclear program); and
  5. Allow daily IAEA inspections of its centrifuges — a condition that has never previously been a requirement of IAEA inspections.

Iran has also agreed to pursue a more comprehensive agreement with the P5+1 group over the subsequent six months. The major objectives of the comprehensive deal are to: limit the production of uranium and plutonium; examine the history of Iran’s nuclear program (particularly the period between 1998 and 2003, when the program seemed to take on a military objective); tighten inspections by implementing the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, an extended inspection system; and introduce a phased program to reduce sanctions on Iran.

“The interim agreement buys time,” said Cirincione, ensuring that “while we are negotiating, the Iranian program is not advancing.”

Part of the current interim agreement is that the United States will release the $4.2 billion of Iranian funds that have been bottled up by sanctions over time. Specifically, it will release installments of $540 million each month as Iranian stockpiles of enriched uranium decrease. “We're paying them to do something we want,” observed Cirincione, “and the . . .beauty of this is we’re paying them with their own money.”

Challenges ahead

Referring to a comparison made by David Ignatius of The Washington Post, Cirincione noted that when China transformed its relationship with the United States, other countries were concerned that this would happen at their expense. In the case of Iran, improved relations with the United States could result in pushback from Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in the region.

Israeli mistrust of Iranian promises to end its nuclear program may prove detrimental to nuclear negotiations with Iran, warned Cirincione. However, Pickering believed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not reject an agreement in favor of the alternatives, which he defined as war, a nuclear-capable Iran, or both.

Iran’s involvement in Middle Eastern geopolitics could also influence how the nuclear talks proceed. The Israel-Palestine dispute, the Syrian civil war and unpredictable activities within Iran could each complicate negotiations.

In addition, political opposition within both Iran and the United States could prevent a comprehensive agreement. Opponents of the interim agreement in both countries could easily introduce what Cirincione calls a “poison pill” by forcing a goal on both parties that neither one can agree to. When asked who in Washington would have to buy into the agreement, both speakers identified congressional support as key.

Despite obstacles that threaten to paralyze negotiations, the Joint Plan of Action represents a huge step forward in resolving one of the most difficult nuclear security problems in the world. “[E]ven the harsh critics agree that Iran is implementing the agreement; they're not cheating,” observed Cirincione.

The Iranian elite has arrived at a consensus that places economic concerns above the nuclear program, he said, noting the potential for a future trade relationship between the United States and Iran. “That’s power; that’s security,” asserted Cirincione, “That’s something that a nuclear weapon will never give you.”

If economic and political relations can be restored between the United States and Iran, he continued, it could mean the end of post-Hiroshima nuclear proliferation and a transformation of regional geopolitics. A U.S.-Iranian relationship based on step-by-step verification may be the key to continued diplomatic success.