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Iran Nuclear Talks: The “Asks” and Punishment Must Fit the Threat

By Yleem Poblete

Multilateral talks over Iran’s nuclear activities resume later this week. There is a flurry of speculation about what the P5+1 are prepared to offer but those genuinely interested in preventing a nuclear Iran should be more concerned with what negotiators are willing to accept from Tehran.

Just a year ago, the P5+1 were content with a suspension of uranium enrichment above 5%, as long as uranium enriched to higher levels was shipped out of the country and the Fordow facility closed. There was no mention of the Natanz facility or other nuclear-related sites and activities. Tehran would have been able to keep some enriched uranium, nuclear-related technology, reactors, and spent nuclear fuel. Combined with acknowledgements of Iran’s nuclear “rights” based on flawed interpretations of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), this proposal served to legitimize the regime’s nuclear program and strengthen its negotiating position.

If such an offer was made in the Baghdad and Moscow rounds to an Iran led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, what should we expect now that there is a so-called moderate at the helm—at least as a titular head? Will Iran continue to have the upper hand?

The answer would have to be yes, looking at the proliferation (pun intended) of nuclear cooperation agreements negotiated by the Administration, that do not require recipients and beneficiaries of American know-how in this field to forego indigenous enrichment and reprocessing. This has been explained away by citing the sovereignty of foreign governments to decide the best approach. This is a problem.

U.S. officials further argue that these 123 agreements, as the bilateral nuclear accords are commonly referred to, will vary depending on the region and country that seeks to partner with us. Now, this, the U.S. could use in multilateral discussions concerning Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Here are three steps that should be considered.

Step One. Rather than accepting Tehran’s claims about its absolute nuclear “rights,” refute them. Draw a stark contrast between Iran and other countries. Iran is different from other parties to the NPT by virtue of its decades-long pursuit of a covert nuclear program, ongoing deception when it was uncovered, and experimentation with materials and methods that are only applicable for weaponization, rather than civilian uses.

Iran is not in good standing due to its continued violations of its treaty obligations, as well as its agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency and UN Security Council resolutions. Iran differs from other nations in the Middle East, as it foments instability and threatens the security and survival of others in the region. It is the leading state-sponsor of terrorism in the world and, as affirmed by successive U.S. administrations, including President Obama who has repeatedly extended the national emergency with respect to Iran, the regime constitutes “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to a range of American interests.

On May 2, 1995, then Secretary of State Warren Christopher said that “in terms of its organization, programs, procurement, and covert activities, Iran is pursuing the classic route to nuclear weapons which has been followed by almost all states that have recently sought such a nuclear capability.” The U.S. took limited steps to address this problem while our allies continued their policy of engagement and dialogue. The threat grew. Eighteen years later, there is a general consensus that an Iran capable of producing a nuclear weapon poses enormous dangers.

Why, then, are global powers insisting on following the same script that has failed before in negotiations with Iran and failed with North Korea? Temporary halts or “suspensions” are unacceptable, as is the focus on certain nuclear activities while ignoring others.

Step Two. If the objective is prevention through peaceful means, rather than delay or containment, responsible nations must demand full, verifiable dismantlement of all nuclear facilities and permanent halt to nuclear-related activities. The Bushehr reactor could be exempted, as long as Iran allows unfettered inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste is to be removed from Iran under IAEA seal.

Step Three. Diplomatic and economic escape valves for the regime need to be closed immediately. This must go beyond targeted sanctions. Tehran should be denied privileges and benefits from the UN and affiliated agencies, other multilateral organizations, and international financial institutions until it is in continued compliance with all agreements and obligations relating to its nuclear and other WMD programs.

Breakout estimates for Iran now range from months to weeks. Let us hope it is not already too late to prevent a doomsday scenario.

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