Diplomacy as a rule occurs out of sight. Messages are delivered in hushed conversations in U.N. corridors, through back channels or in tightly choreographed discussions on the sidelines of summit meetings. The language is subtle and the tone well-mannered, but the message is usually clear.
Recently, however, in the span of only two days, the public was treated to what amounted to a diplomatic collision of major proportions. On May 17, after months of relative silence from Tehran, came the announcement that Brazil and Turkey had persuaded Iran to relinquish approximately half of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, send it to Turkey for safekeeping and await delivery within a year of the equivalent quantity of fuel for a small research reactor that produces medical isotopes.
A scant 24 hours later, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — who rarely reach consensus on Iran — were joining in support of a sanctions resolution. The new round of proposed sanctions would incrementally squeeze Iran harder for failing to halt uranium enrichment and cooperate more fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The back-story of how and why this time-compressed diplomatic high drama took place has not been fully told. But apparently the United States didn’t have much confidence in the Turkish-Brazilian prospects for success, had been working diligently to get Chinese and Russian support for the new sanctions resolution and didn’t want to risk that support fading even a little once the deal was announced. So Secretary of State Clinton moved with haste to announce the sanctions deal.
What’s important is that the episode captures the dilemma faced by America and its allies over Iran’s nuclear ambitions: whether and when to deploy sticks over carrots, and what combination of the two will persuade Iran to set aside its uranium enrichment program until the IAEA can establish that Iran is not working to develop nuclear weapons.
The timing of the sanctions announcement made the United States appear tone deaf, and a bit desperate to nail down a fragile accord. But the deal announced by Turkey and Brazil is certainly not worthy of a Nobel Prize. Iran announced it would continue enriching uranium for its Tehran Research Reactor up to a level of 20%, a significant step toward weapon-grade. Moreover, shipping half its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Turkey would still leave Iran with enough uranium for a nuclear weapon (if diverted from IAEA safeguards and further enriched).
The deal provided little comfort for those concerned about Iran’s nuclear program. After all, Iran’s actions do not suggest a country intent on a purely peaceful nuclear program. Far too many questions have been raised about work on weaponization, and Iran has clearly mastered the enrichment part of the fuel cycle, an important hurdle for establishing a nuclear weapons capability (and without any reactors to make energy with all the uranium being produced).
But it is important to be honest about what Iran has not achieved. There is no evidence suggesting the existence of secret facilities to process uranium prior to enrichment (though the disclosure of the Qom enrichment facility last fall demonstrates that Iran has at least attempted to build a secret enrichment plant). Experts also believe that Iran cannot yet deliver a nuclear warhead with one of its missiles. And IAEA inspectors are on the ground regularly, providing an important level of transparency for at least Iran’s declared nuclear activities.
Moreover, the timing of Iran’s deal with Turkey and Brazil suggests that the regime’s swagger about not being bothered by sanctions may actually mask profound anxiety.
Iran is reportedly having trouble off-loading its crude oil, which is piling up in a record number of super-tankers off its coast. Financial transactions with Iran simply have become too complicated for many buyers and there is plenty of oil elsewhere thanks to the sputtering global economy.
So now that Iran has seen the resolve of the Security Council’s five permanent members on more punishing sanctions, and Tehran has blinked just a little in its deal with Brazil and Turkey, we just may have reached a magic moment in which we can find room for engagement and a negotiated resolution to the nuclear standoff.
There is no other option. Military strikes would do little to set back Iran’s nuclear program, and if anything would only strengthen the Iranian government’s determination and the Iranian street’s affection for centrifuges. They could also spark a region-wide conflict with disastrous consequences for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for Israel and its neighbors.
The international community’s goal is to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is verifiably peaceful. The IAEA must be able to resolve troubling questions about Iran’s weapons-related research, and Iran must abide by Security Council resolutions calling for a suspension of uranium enrichment until those concerns have been addressed. The best way to achieve this outcome in the near term is to maintain the threat of sanctions (without ruling out the use of force under extreme circumstances), with a focus on engagement.
The stand-off over Iran’s nuclear program is complicated by the essential bargain of the current nonproliferation regime, embodied in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which promises all signatory states access to peaceful nuclear technology, not excluding the full nuclear fuel cycle. Iran has done what few countries opt to do (because of the high political and economic costs) and developed the full fuel cycle while raising serious questions about its peaceful intentions.
This situation underscores the urgent need for curbs on technology that can be used to bring a state to the brink of a nuclear weapons capability. But this would entail fundamental changes to the NPT, and lining up international support for such reforms is no simple matter. It would require progress toward comprehensive disarmament by declared nuclear powers, steps toward making the Middle East a region free of nuclear weapons and frank discussions with non-NPT members (Israel, India and Pakistan) about their own nuclear capabilities.
In the meantime, we face the immediate challenge of keeping Iran honest within the existing NPT framework. That means the international community must act in concert to find the right mix of pressure and incentives to persuade Iran that its brightest future is a non-nuclear one.
Jacqueline Shire is a senior analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security and a former official in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.