Is a Historic Nuclear Deal With Iran Now in Sight?

Military analysis.
Oct. 16 2013 6:40 PM

A Reasonable Iran?

It’s hard to believe, but the U.S. and Iranian nuclear talks may be close to a historic breakthrough.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani in New York on Sept. 26, 2013.

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Readers glancing away from the debt ceiling showdown may have noticed the hopeful headlines on some other unlikely negotiations in Geneva over the fate of Iran’s nuclear program. Two points are missing from most of the stories about these talks. First, the chances for a truly historic breakthrough are pretty good—which, at this stage in talks of such magnitude, is astonishing. Second, the Iranians’ main demands—at least what we know of them—are pretty reasonable.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Toward the end of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s ground-shaking trip to New York last month, it was announced that his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, would meet Tuesday and Wednesday in Geneva with delegates from the P5+1 states—the five nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain) plus Germany—with the goal of finishing an accord within a year.

Many saw this timetable as way too ambitious, and given how talks of this sort typically proceed, it was. But these talks—the first round anyway—turned out to be far from typical. Rather than recite boilerplate principles and opening gambits, Zarif presented an hourlong PowerPoint briefing—in English, so there would be no misunderstandings—laying out a path for negotiations and a description of a possible settlement, replete with technical detail.

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Not only that, but after the first day of meetings, the U.S. and Iranian delegations broke away for an hourlong bilateral session, which American officials described as “useful” in clearing up ambiguities. After the second day, another meeting was set for Nov. 7–8. Some said it would be at the “ministerial” level, which, if true, would mean Secretary of State John Kerry would head the American delegation. A U.S. secretary of state doesn’t usually become so visibly involved until much closer to the end of a negotiation, suggesting that maybe we’re closer to the end than anyone could have imagined.

This is remarkably fast work for any set of nations negotiating any issue—much less for nations that haven’t had diplomatic relations in 34 years, and on an issue that ranks among the globe’s most perilous and contentious.

Now for some caveats. The biggest one is that we don’t yet know the full substance of Zarif’s hourlong PowerPoint presentation. The Iranians went into the talks, requesting that they be kept secret until they were finished—and so far very little has leaked out, beyond a statement issued by Iran’s official press agency (the substance of which has been confirmed by Western reporters on the scene in Geneva).

However, it can be said that the Iranians’ chief demand—that any accord must allow them to continue enriching uranium, at least to some degree—is perfectly valid. Officials and pundits who say otherwise are, at best, disingenuous.

The basis for the past several years of pressure on Iran to give up its apparent quest for nuclear weapons—the legal and diplomatic foundation for the U.N. resolutions and U.S.-backed sanctions—is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The NPT, which has been signed by 189 nations (including Iran), is a grand bargain between the five big nuclear powers and the rest of the world. Basically, the other signatories to the treaty have pledged not to develop nuclear weapons. However, in exchange, they are permitted to develop—in fact, the Big Five promise to help them develop—nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

The deal is stated explicitly in Article 4:

Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination,” as long as they allow inspectors to verify that they’re not using the energy for military purposes. In fact, the article goes on, all parties have “the right to participate in the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials, and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. (Italics added.)

So, when the Iranians insist on their “right” to enrich uranium for peaceful nuclear energy, they aren’t asserting some self-contrived privilege; they are quoting the NPT.