War Stories

Diplomatic Overtures

What the latest U.S. and Iranian statements really mean.

This week, the Bush administration and the Iranian government each took an intriguing step toward diplomacy. But unless both sides take a few more steps—unless they both change their attitudes and their goals—the overtures will amount to nothing.

Here’s where things stand:

Today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the United States would join European negotiations with Iran “as soon as Iran fully and verifiably suspends” its enrichment of uranium. The key word here is “suspends.” In the past, she and other Bush officials have insisted that Iran fully halt and dismantle its enrichment program before an American envoy deigns to sit down at the table.

On Tuesday, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the chief of Iran’s atomic energy organization, said that his scientists had managed to enrich uranium to a level of 4.8 percent purity and that there are no plans to go beyond 5 percent. The key here is that 3 percent to 5 percent enrichment is needed for nuclear power plants, while nuclear bombs require 80 percent enrichment.

Rice’s statement followed several days of consultation with top diplomats from Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and China, all of whom have urged the United States to get involved in the talks.

Aghazadeh’s remark followed several communiqués from top Iranian officials to President Bush—public letters and private back-channel missives—requesting direct negotiations and expressing readiness to make a deal.

The very fact of these exchanges is significant. The United States and Iran, after all, haven’t had diplomatic relations since the 1979 hostage crisis. (Low-level diplomats did meet briefly in the run-up to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001—the two countries shared an interest in toppling the Taliban—but the sessions didn’t advance. In the spring of 2003, through an intermediary, Iran conveyed an interest in holding far-ranging talks, but Bush—flush from his apparent victory in Iraq and possibly mulling a sequel next door—ignored the approach.)

However, Rice and Aghazadeh each stopped short of what the other wants and needs to hear.

Rice said there would be no one-on-one talks between the United States and Iran; all discussions would include the Europeans. Nor, she said, would Washington entertain the idea of a “grand bargain”; Tehran would receive rewards for halting its nuclear program and penalties for resuming it, but security guarantees or a nonaggression pact would be off the table.

For his part, Aghazadeh not only insisted on Iran’s right to enrich uranium but announced that Iran was moving ahead with its program to build a cascade of 3,000 gas centrifuges.

Here are the problems:

In the case of Rice’s caveats, the Iranians are not going to abandon their nuclear ambitions unless they have concrete assurances that they won’t be attacked. They might not abandon their ambitions anyway, but they certainly won’t without a set of political, economic, and security incentives that only the United States has the resources and armed might to offer.

In Aghazadeh’s case, the Americans will not—and should not—let up on their pressure if Iran maintains any real capability to enrich uranium. If Iran’s enrichment program really is meant solely for nuclear power or scientific prestige, there is no need for 3,000 centrifuges. An argument might—might—be made that Iran should be allowed to keep its current cascade of 164 centrifuges, but only if Tehran allows international inspectors unlimited access to all suspect facilities—a highly unlikely condition.

If Tehran is allowed any amount of reprocessing, any number of centrifuges, its activities would be extremely hard to monitor. Centrifuges break; they have to be replaced. Therefore, the Iranians could argue, they need to maintain a production plant. And if they have the resources and technical talent to maintain one production plant, they might maintain another one covertly. It’s not an insuperable problem to verify the threshold between no production and some production; it’s very nearly so to distinguish some production from a lot of production, especially in a closed society. Given the Iranians’ record of deception and covert sites—for instance, they denied doing any enriching until an exile group alerted U.S. intelligence agencies to the secret plant at Natanz—they cannot be blindly trusted on this score.

David Albright, the nuclear physicist who heads the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, advocates a diplomatic solution to this conflict, but he, too, firmly believes that any deal must prohibit Iranian enrichment. “I don’t generally agree with the Bush people,” Albright said in a phone conversation today, “but I agree with them here.”

It may well be that both remarks—Rice’s and Aghazadeh’s—are but the opening maneuvers of a protracted bargaining match. That’s the optimistic view. How might such a game play out successfully?

Iran would have to suspend enrichment and reopen its facilities to international inspectors for the entire duration of the talks. The U.S. delegate would, at some point, have to hold one-on-one talks with the Iranian delegate—perhaps at first informally, after hours or during lunch. (The United States did this in the six-party talks with North Korea, during the brief period when they seemed to be going somewhere.) The American delegate would also have to indicate, at one of those private talks, that everything is on the table if Iran gives up its trump card and starts cooperating on other issues, too. The Europeans (and Russians and Chinese) have to stay onboard and threaten to enforce sanctions, to some degree, if Iran resumes enrichment. The Russians might renew their offer to provide as much uranium as Iran might need for nuclear power—as long as they take the stuff away once it’s spent.

Ultimately, the hope—the whole point of this sort of arms control—is that, once the rewards start flowing (diplomatic recognition, expanded trade and investment, and so forth), the Iranians will come to value the benefits of forgoing nukes and eventually give up the dream in exchange for a place in the community of nations.

Of course, all this may be a pipe dream. The Iranian leaders—whichever ones are in control this month—may simply want a pocketful of A-bombs. The Bush administration may simply want to destabilize, or even attack, Iran. The tests of intentions will begin soon.