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Nuclear Flashpoints: U.S.-Iran Tensions Over Terms and Timetables

A final deal with Iran will have to sort out a dizzying array of timetables and disparate interpretation of terms. To assess this period of pivotal diplomacy, an unprecedented coalition of eight Washington think tanks and organizations is hosting three discussions to coincide with the last three rounds of talks This second event explores key conflicts and possible trade-offs.

Date & Time

Jun. 10, 2014
9:30am – 11:00am ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Four experts discussed potential issues over the terms and timetables of a nuclear deal being negotiated between Iran and the P5+1. This event, the second in a series of three meetings on the nuclear talks with Iran, was co-sponsored by a coalition of eight Washington think tanks and organizations, including the Woodrow Wilson Center, the U.S. Institute of Peace, RAND, the Arms Control Association, the Center for a New American Security, the Stimson Center, the Partnership for a Secure America, and the Ploughshares Fund.

On June 10, 2014, a panel discussion, “Nuclear Flashpoints: U.S.-Iran Tensions over Terms and Timetables,” was held at the Woodrow Wilson Center featuring Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association; Jon Wolfsthal, Deputy Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies; and Robert Litwak, Vice President for Scholars and Director of International Security Studies at the Wilson Center. Stephen Hadley, Chairman of the Board of the U.S. Institute for Peace, chair of the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy, and former National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush, moderated the panel. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, gave opening remarks.

Hadley started the discussion by emphasizing that any nuclear agreement with Iran will only mark the beginning of a “decades-long process of implementing any agreement, and it will be a huge challenge of keeping that implementation process on track.” Hadley went onto to describe the format of the discussion, with each speaker focusing on one of three issues: the duration of any agreement, the breakout period, and sanctions relief.

Wolfsthal focused on the duration of a potential nuclear agreement with Iran. He emphasized that because there has long existed considerable distrust between Iran and the United States, it will take time to rebuild trust. Therefore, a long agreement would be preferable, one that holds all sides accountable long enough for trust to be built. Hadley emphasized that the idea of placing permanent restrictions on Iran would be impossible, because Iran wants to eventually gain nuclear normalcy and be treated as any other member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Iran’s goal is also valuable to the United States, according to Wolfsthal, because it provides leverage and negotiating power.

Kimball spoke on the issue of Iran’s breakout capability—how long it would take Iran to attain enough highly enriched uranium to build one bomb. Given Iran’s current stockpiles of low enriched uranium and its number of centrifuges, Kimball said it currently would take Iran three months to attain this amount of highly enriched uranium. In this regard, he said that negotiators need to find the formula that both limits Iran’s enrichment capability but also allows for it to operate a peaceful nuclear program. A possible solution would be one that limits Iran’s enrichment to levels under five percent, limits stockpiles of enriched uranium to 1000kg, and halts Iran’s enrichment work at Fordow and other such facilities.

Litwak discussed the issue of sanctions relief and mentioned that the nuclear issue has a proxy status for both sides. In Iran, the nuclear issue is a proxy for a broader debate about Iran’s relationship with the outside world, about whether to be a nation-state or a revolutionary cause. On the American side, the nuclear issue is a surrogate for how the United States should deal with “rogue” or “outlier” states. Litwak stated that Iran’s nuclear program “is not a crash program to get nuclear weapons” and that along with phased sanctions relief, any agreement should also take into account the surrogate nature of this issue.

By Sina Toossi, 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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