Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Finding Compromise in Iran

| June 15, 2006

IRAN IS considering the package of incentives the major powers presented in an effort to resolve the crisis over Iran's nuclear program. The US willingness to talk — under certain conditions — is an overdue step in the right direction. But for diplomacy to work, the United States needs a strategy that gives Iranian advocates of compromise a chance of winning the internal Iranian debate.

Iran is a proud country with a strong culture of resistance to foreign pressure. Constantly calling Iran's government a "regime," threatening military action, and campaigning for international sanctions are as likely to strengthen hard-liners rallying the public to resist foreign threats as they are to produce compromise. Indeed, that has been the result so far, with Iran's early 2006 decisions to restart enrichment and cut back international inspections to the minimum Iran is legally required to accept.

Any verifiable and lasting agreement will have to be a compromise that serves both sides' national interests. If the United States wants Iran to address some of its concerns, some of Iran's concerns will have to be dealt with as well.

The essential elements of a deal that both sides could support include multi-layered guarantees of a reliable fuel supply for a peaceful Iranian nuclear program; Iranian agreement that large-scale enrichment will occur elsewhere, not in Iran, at least for a period; full Iranian cooperation with international inspectors, including ratification of the Agreed Protocol to safeguards and voluntary additional steps to clarify remaining questions about its past activities; a new Trade and Cooperation Agreement between Iran and Europe; and assurances from the United States and the other major powers that they will not attack Iran or attempt to overthrow its government as long as Iran complies with its nuclear obligations and does not commit or sponsor aggression against others.

At the same time, a new multilateral forum should be established where each side can list and discuss all the issues it wants to see addressed — terrorism, sanctions, the peace process, Persian Gulf security, and more.

Unfortunately, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice effectively ruled out US security assurances, or even moves toward diplomatic recognition. Where there is a will to find agreement, however, smaller steps in these directions by both sides can be used to build an atmosphere for accord.

The opening Rice created should not be allowed to founder over the 164 centrifuges now spinning at Natanz. These are far too few to produce any substantial amount of bomb material, but they have become a point of pride in Tehran, and the West's insistence that even these few centrifuges be stopped may lead Iran to reject Rice's opening.

From the perspective of US national security, zero centrifuges in Iran would be better than 164; with the knowledge of how to build and operate centrifuges, Iran might be able to make more covertly. But Iran has largely crossed that divide, and it now appears that zero is unobtainable.

If Iran is willing to agree to a deal under which it would remain legally committed not to build nuclear weapons, no more centrifuges would be added, and extensive verification would be allowed, that would be far better for US security than letting insistence on zero propel a drift toward confrontation. After all, failure to reach agreement would mean no limit on Iran's centrifuges, and a drift in the direction of sanctions and potential military strikes, with all the dangers they would hold.

There are a variety of options for assuring Iran that foreign supplies of nuclear fuel will not be cut off, as they were after Iran's Islamic Revolution. These could include a multinational enrichment center to produce fuel, possibly in Russia, with Iran playing a central role in its management; a commercial consortium of the major nuclear fuel suppliers that would guarantee fuel supply if problems arose with the multinational facility; an international fuel bank, with rules that would require it to step in and provide fuel unless the Security Council specifically voted to bar it from doing so; and, as a last resort, a stockpile within Iran itself.

The distrust between the United States and Iran is deep. But with persistence and creativity, there are means to resolve the nuclear crisis and begin addressing the other concerns that have fostered hostility for so many years. Success will require putting together a package that gives Iranian advocates of compromise what they need to win the day.

Abbas Maleki, a former deputy foreign minister of Iran, and Matthew Bunn, a former nonproliferation adviser in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, are senior researchers at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.   

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Maleki, Abbas and Matthew Bunn.“Finding Compromise in Iran.” The Boston Globe, June 15, 2006.

The Authors