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Iran: Is a Nuclear Deal Possible?

Negotiations between Iran and the 5+1 group over Iran's nuclear program may resume in the next few weeks; and the Obama administration has reaffirmed its readiness for direct negotiations with Iran over a range of issues. From Tehran, however, the response has been mixed, with senior officials both rejecting and signaling a willingness to engage in direct talks with the United States. Is a nuclear deal with Iran possible, or are the two sides moving toward a confrontation? Three top experts in the field debate the issue.

Date & Time

Dec. 17, 2012
12:00pm – 1:15pm ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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A group of experts discussed the current context in which negotiations with Iran are being considered and the views held by both the United States and Iran on the prospect of a nuclear deal.

On December 17, the Middle East Program hosted a meeting, “Iran: Is a Nuclear Deal Possible?” with Shaul Bakhash, Clarence J. Robinson Professor of History, George Mason University; Robert Litwak, Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations, Woodrow Wilson Center; and Trita Parsi, Founder and President, National Iranian American Council. Haleh Esfandiari, Wilson Center Middle East Program director, moderated the event.

Bakhash opened the event by focusing on the impact of sanctions on the Iranian economy, signs that the solidarity of leadership in Iran over the nuclear issue is "cracking,” and the mindset of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who will make the ultimate decisions on Iran's nuclear policy. Bakhash noted that sanctions have helped severely disrupt the Iranian economy and that these economic pressures have encouraged more open discussion within the ruling elite over the desirability of negotiations, both with the P5+1 and the United States. Some in the leadership are warning that it would be a grave mistake to ignore the possibility of an American or Israeli attack and are arguing that diplomacy and negotiation with the United States and the EU are the low-risk and preferable means for resolving issues over Iran's nuclear program. A struggle is under way between hardliners and moderates to win over Khamenei,   the “ultimate decider in Iran,” Bakhash said. Khamenei, however, is reluctant to engage in nuclear talks, especially with the United States. He sees Iran as locked in an “epic struggle” for dignity and independence in the face of a hegemonic America. He is concerned to maintain what he sees as Iran's standing on the Arab street, among Muslims, and among the oppressed everywhere as the only country that has refused to bend to American pressure. He mistrusts the United States and doubts it will adhere to any undertakings it gives Iran if an agreement is reached over the nuclear issue. He thinks Iran can ride out the sanctions. He remains sensitive to the hardline views of Iran’s military commanders. Bakhash said that if Khamenei allows negotiations to proceed, he will do so with "reluctance, skepticism, and wariness,” and is unlikely to grant concessions regarding enrichment or inspections without achieving equally strong concessions from the United States.

Litwak then discussed the view of negotiations as seen from Washington, noting that the Obama administration has recast Iran as an “outlier" state to be judged by international norms. Drawing comparisons to the attempts to make nuclear deals with Iraq and Libya in 2003, Litwak said that the Obama administration offered Iran “the full Libya deal”—that is, a security assurance that if WMD demands are met, the United States would desist efforts to encourage regime change. However, because of its support for the 2011 Libyan Revolution, “Washington has essentially priced itself out of the security assurance market.” Litwak cautioned against a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, noting that an attack would only set back the program rather than end it, could escalate into a regional war, and would provide a nationalist backlash that would garner more support for the Iranian regime—the very entity the United States wishes to weaken. Furthermore, even if diplomatic engagement falters, Iran has no urgent need to weaponize its nuclear program, leading to “containment in form if not in name.” According to Litwak, Iran now faces a dilemma: if Iran opens up to nuclear talks, it may achieve greater integration into the international community and the economic opportunities that provides, but such integration also threatens regime survival by exposing Iran to outside political forces. The nuclear debate has thus become a “proxy for the fundamental debate in Tehran” over the role Iran should have in the outside world; Iran must choose whether it wants to be “a revolutionary state or an ordinary country” within the international community.

Parsi followed up by discussing the view of negotiations as seen from Tehran, noting that it is a “mirror image” of Washington’s. Where the United States is concerned over Iran’s ability and desire to reach a deal, Iran is concerned over President Obama's ability to strike a deal with Iran under its current rulers, mindful of the political resistance from Congress. Both countries face considerable “political constraints” on negotiations. Parsi encouraged policymakers not to look for “politically feasible” solutions, but to “redefine the status quo” and change what is considered feasible. Iranians have already broken the taboo of talking to the United States; now they debate whether or not bilateral talks with the United States should be “for the purpose of establishing a relationship.” Iran can signal its willing to compromise by agreeing to to bilateral talks with the US, which in turn can give President Obama the encouragement "that it’s worthwhile to spend political capital” on Iran and pave the way for future discussions without both sides having to pay a high domestic political price every time they want to open negotiations on an issue. Parsi outlined several conditions that Iran would want met in any such discussions, including “some sanctions relief” proportionate to the degree of concessions made, an acceptance of Iran’s “right  to enrich,” and a venue for “more ongoing conversation with the United States.” However, Iran fears that the United States will continue to push for regime change even if a nuclear deal is reached and that it might not be willing or capable of lifting sanctions—Iranians note President Obama’s inability to convince Congress to solve the fiscal cliff, let alone lift nuclear-related sanctions in the event the executive branch does reach a compromise with Iran. Both sides, Parsi argued, must “redefine what is politically feasible,” or else the limited range of future options will be “stark and gloomy.”

By Laura Rostad, Middle East Program


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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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