When the US and its allies resume negotiations with Iran in the coming weeks, they should quickly put Iran to the test by accepting an offer by Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadinejad to obtain highly enriched uranium from the West for Iran’s nuclear medical research in return for Iran halting its own enrichment program at the 20% level.
On September 21, 2011, Ahmadinejad said: “If they give it [20% enriched uranium] to us, according to international law, according to IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] laws, without preconditions, we will cease domestic enrichment.” He repeated the offer several times during last year’s UN General Assembly session.
Iranian officials indicated privately that the offer had been vetted in Tehran.
Although Ahmadinejad’s proposal was ignored at the time, and then overtaken by US accusations of an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in the United States, it may now hold the key to getting traction with this latest round of diplomacy.
The endgame with Iran is of course not to provide enriched uranium for Iran’s nuclear medical research. It is for Iran to fulfill its obligations as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and assure the world that its nuclear program is for civilian and peaceful purposes. An earlier fuel-swap proposal was considered by all parties not as an end in itself, but as a confidence-building measure to allow further nuclear cooperation and compromise by Iran.
Iran needs political cover to halt enrichment, as called for by UN Security Resolution resolutions. Iran’s leaders cannot be seen to capitulate to US demands without some saving of face or quid-pro-quo, including recognition of its right to enrichment within the context of a civilian nuclear program. Iran’s declaration that it has the domestic enrichment capability and that it would willingly, and not under pressure, purchase the enriched uranium from the West might provide that cover.
In her letter to Saeed Jalili, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton wrote that the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the P5+1) sought a “sustained process of dialogue aimed at producing concrete results.” In other words, the latest round of negotiations with Iran should not be considered a one-off. If these talks are successful they would be the beginning of a process that could take months, if not years. For Iran to remain engaged, it needs to see a path to an eventual lifting of UN and US sanctions, and assurances that the US is not trying to change or undermine the government of the Islamic Republic.
The US presidential elections might complicate US diplomacy. Although President Obama has both rallied the international community to unprecedented sanctions on Iran and just this week reaffirmed his willingness to use force to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, his Republican opponents have labeled him misguided for pursuing a diplomatic track.
While differences over national security policy are the stuff of presidential campaigns, the US should approach the use of force with some humility and caution, especially after Iraq. There is something unnerving about bluster and threat on a matter of such seriousness, and in a region of such volatility. Neither a US or Israeli attack on Iran, nor an Iranian nuclear weapon, are desirable outcomes. We are in the realm of least worse options. The Middle East is ablaze with uncertainty. It can get much worse before it ever gets better.
This is not to say that diplomacy will succeed. If Ahmadinejad, perhaps weakened even further by losses in the Iranian parliamentary elections last week, cannot deliver on his own offer, than it could be game over for any broader agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.
But diplomacy, like the use of force, is an essential tool of statecraft. Negotiations can and should test Iran’s nuclear intentions. All US options should remain on the table. Preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon may be the most urgent national security challenge facing the United States. It should therefore not be material for a crass political play in an election year.
Andrew Parasiliti is executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US, corresponding director of IISS-Middle East, and a member of the Board of Al-Monitor.