An Iranian enrichment gambit

If New START has fallen into the abyss of partisan politics within the U.S., the issue of Iran’s effort to achieve nuclear weapons capability has fallen into the abyss of U.S.-Iranian relations, which seem capable of oscillating only between bad and worse, with an occasional move towards catastrophic.  The Stimson Center and USIP have attempted to fish it out with a study group report advocating “strategic engagement.”

The approach is sagacious:  while discounting the likelihood of any regime change stemming from the Green Movement in the near future, the expert group focuses on what can be done to strengthen those conservatives with reason to regret international sanctions and to want them ended, at the expense of hardliners who want nuclear weapons at any cost and have no interest in normalizing relations with the U.S. and the rest of the world. It rightly sees the tightening of sanctions as part of strategic engagement.

The group wants the U.S. (and the rest of the world) to acknowledge Iranian rights to enrichment, in the hope that doing so will enable an agreement that limits the degree and/or quantity of enrichment, hoping even for a phase-out.  Here is the key sentence from the report:  “Washington should signal its clear—if also clearly conditional—acceptance of Iran’s enrichment rights, providing that Tehran negotiates verifiable limits on the degree of enrichment and on the volume of enriched fuel stored in Iran.”

This is not a new idea, as a quick search reveals Matthew Bunn of Harvard put it out a year ago. Making a virtue of necessity is a tried and true approach in diplomacy.  Iran is already enriching, why imagine you can stop it altogether?

It is easy to imagine how this idea will go over in some quarters, where even a substantial cut in Russian nuclear weapons is having a hard time getting a hearing.  There are three rational criticisms likely:  1)  Iran has lost its “right” to enrichment by violating its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), 2) what reason is there to believe Iran will agree to anything on enrichment once its right is acknowledged, however conditionally? 3) what would prevent Iran from reneging on the agreement and enriching beyond the specified limits, either overtly or covertly?

Iran appears to have agreed to restart nuclear talks December 5.  Will the enrichment gambit be tested then?

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