Webcast Recap

The Iranian nuclear crisis has entered its endgame, with the Obama administration playing its last card short of military action – sanctions, according to scholar and journalist Michael Adler. While a nuclear deal with Iran is still possible, Adler noted that it is unlikely to transpire any time soon but could happen in the months or years to come.

On July 19, 2010 the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion with Adler, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center and former correspondent, Agence France-Presse News Agency, Vienna. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

In his presentation, Adler laid out how the Iran nuclear issue has developed to its present state and where it is going. Adler provided a historical look at how intractable the problem has been and, consequently, how difficult it will be to resolve. He discussed how Iran's nuclear program has been advancing not just since the August 2002 discovery of a nuclear facility at Natanz but in the past two decades since the Iran-Iraq War. Adler also reviewed notable developments including the nuclear fuel swap deal, initially proposed in October 2009 and recently brokered by Turkey and Brazil.

Despite the stalemate with Iran, the United States and its allies believe there is time yet for diplomacy, largely because Iran has stalled in its work on enriching uranium. There has been a drop from 4,920 centrifuges operating at is sole enrichment plant in June 2009 to 3,936 centrifuges operating there as of May of this year, according to IAEA reports. Moreover, U.S. intelligence feels that it would take Iran 18 months to two years to make enough high-enriched uranium for one weapon. Although some experts disagree with this assessment, it continues to form the basis of U.S. diplomatic efforts.

Adler said that export controls, sabotage programs, and other operations designed to limit Iran's capabilities continue to cause problems for Iran but will not stop Iranian leaders' desire to enrich uranium.

Adler also discussed the military option, noting that a military strike is a possibility but not one that looms in the present.

Following this discussion of Iran's nuclear program, Adler talked about the shape of a future deal with Iran. While mistrust between the United States and Iran continues to hamper a potential deal, Adler indicated that flexibility remains possible and is actually enhanced because the situation is moving slowly.

Adler detailed three U.S. criteria in a possible compromise nuclear deal with Iran: 1) keeping low-enriched uranium in Iran limited, 2) monitoring with intrusive inspections, and 3) verifying weaponization work. He indicated that Iran's primary goal is a settlement that recognizes the country's right to enrich uranium, and Iran would likely be open to inspections. The most difficult and most sensitive issue is the third because verification of weaponization work could be used as a wedge to spy on Iran's military program.

While no one knows definitively whether the countries involved want a genuine compromise, Adler noted that despite the frustrating stalemate, there is surprisingly enough groundwork to make a deal happen.

By Kendra Heideman, Middle East Program
Haleh Esfandiari, Middle East Program