An Iranian girl carries an anti-U.S. placard with an image of U.S. President Barack Obama, January 13, 2012.
An Iranian girl carries an anti-U.S. placard with an image of U.S. President Barack Obama, January 13, 2012.
Morteza Nikoubazl / Courtesy Reuters

This week, Iranian and U.S. diplomats raced to Geneva for unscheduled, high-level bilateral talks. The news might have come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t have. The deadline to reach a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran -- July 20 -- is fast approaching, and the parties still have significant differences to overcome. In particular, unless Tehran changes its tune on the all-important issue of uranium enrichment, and does so soon, the prospects for a peaceful diplomatic solution are nil.

Five months ago, Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) reached an interim nuclear agreement known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), which froze and then modestly rolled back Tehran’s nuclear program. The JPOA was designed to buy time for both sides to negotiate a final accord that would ensure that Iran would not weaponize its nuclear program. Iran and the P5+1 have made some real progress since then, but they remain very far apart on the critical issue of enrichment: the process of purifying uranium to produce fuel for nuclear reactors and, potentially, atomic bombs.

The Obama administration and its negotiating partners are demanding that Iran substantially roll back its enrichment capacity. The purpose, U.S. officials say, is to extend Iran’s breakout capacity -- defined as the time it would take Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon -- from about two months, where it sits today, to at least a year. The longer it takes Iran to make one bomb, the thinking goes, the more its leaders will be deterred from building one, and the more time the international community would have to discover and stop the process if they aren’t deterred. Outside analysis, including from some former U.S. officials, suggests that a somewhat shorter breakout cushion, perhaps even six months, may be enough. In either case, Iran would have to scale back its nuclear program from 19,000 centrifuges (10,000 of which are currently operating) to just a few thousand first-generation centrifuges or even fewer of the more advanced models. It would also have to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU, which can theoretically be further enriched to bomb-grade) and place limits on centrifuge research and development. 

Iranian officials, in contrast, insist that the Islamic Republic’s enrichment infrastructure be maintained and even expanded by tens of thousands of additional centrifuges, including more efficient next-generation machines, to fuel Iran’s Bushehr power plant and additional power and research facilities that Iran plans to construct. Their argument is that Iran’s practical need for an expansive enrichment infrastructure is substantial, both now and in the near future. But a “civilian” nuclear program on that scale would also theoretically allow Iran to shrink its breakout timeline to a few weeks. For Iranian officials, however, the breakout concept is largely irrelevant; after all, they are quick to point out, the Islamic Republic is committed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa years ago prohibiting the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Instead, Iranian negotiators have apparently favored a final deal that relies on transparency and verification procedures to confirm the peaceful nature of Tehran’s program, without placing constraints on the country’s centrifuge capacity, LEU stockpile, or future research and development. “We have nothing to put on the table and offer to them but transparency,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently stated. “Iran will not retreat one step in the field of nuclear technology.” 

Objectively, Iran’s case for a large-scale enrichment program is weak. Russia is committed to providing fuel for Bushehr through 2021, and has indicated its willingness to renew the supply contract for the life of the reactor. Further, Iran has enough enriched material to fuel its Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes, for many years to come. And if the heavy-water research reactor under construction at Arak is eventually modified to use LEU, as the P5+1 are reportedly requesting to address concerns about plutonium output, Arak’s fuel requirements could be met by fewer than 2,000 first-generation centrifuges. Beyond this, the need for additional domestic sources of nuclear fuel -- and, therefore, tens of thousands of spinning centrifuges -- remains purely hypothetical. And, in any case, construction of any new reactors is likely to take at least a decade. Tehran’s current negotiating position is therefore more about political symbolism -- a nationalist assertion of expansive nuclear rights -- than practical, near-term requirements.

The P5+1’s recognition five months ago that Iran will ultimately possess a limited enrichment program under a final agreement was a huge, and long sought after, concession to Iran. The Obama administration and its partners rightly saw the move as a way to provide the regime with a face-saving exit from the nuclear crisis. As talks enter the final stretch, all sides will have to make additional tough compromises for diplomacy to succeed. But after years of repeated Iranian violations of their obligations under NPT safeguards, the greater onus is now on Tehran to take the steps necessary to assure the international community of the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program. 

And that is why Iran’s current nuclear demands are a dead-end street. There is no evidence that the Obama administration would acquiesce to Iran maintaining or increasing its centrifuge infrastructure in the near term. And, even if the administration were so inclined, such a deal would be a political nonstarter in the U.S. Congress -- which could easily torpedo a final deal -- and would face enormous opposition from the United States’ closest allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

For these reasons, if Iran persists in its unrealistic stance on enrichment, there will be no final deal, period, and the glimmer of diplomatic hope this week could quickly be replaced by the shadow of conflict. To be sure, backing down from its maximalist position will require Khamanei and other Iranian leaders to swallow some of their revolutionary pride. But the alternative -- a diplomatic train wreck -- would likely prove far worse for the regime.

For one, only a comprehensive nuclear deal can produce the comprehensive sanctions relief that Iran’s badly battered economy desperately needs. The success of the Rouhani government hinges on economic improvement, as does the domestic legitimacy of Khamenei’s revolutionary system. The White House just barely staved off fresh sanctions last winter, and Congress is already chomping at the bit to impose punishing new sanctions that would drive much of Iran's remaining oil off the international market if a final deal is not reached by July 20. If Iran proves unwilling to make the hard choices necessary to reach a final agreement, the political tide for punitive action would be unstoppable; indeed, even Obama has pledged to support sanctions if Iran fails to negotiate in good faith. And, as a result, the Islamic Republic’s economic crisis and international isolation would deepen.

From there, a tragic slide toward armed confrontation is a distinct possibility. If Iran cannot secure a final nuclear deal, the regime’s Plan B will almost certainly be to double down on economic and nuclear “resistance.” And if Tehran resumes its steady march toward a nuclear bomb, decision-makers in Washington and Tel Aviv are very likely to see military force as the only option. Last week, standing in front of a banner that read, “America cannot do a damn thing,” Khamenei told a crowd that the United States had “renounced the idea of any military actions.” It is possible that he meant to frame for a domestic audience a possible nuclear compromise as emerging from an Iranian choice rather than duress. But if Khamenei actually believes what he says, and is banking on some combination of American exhaustion and Israeli caution to keep the dogs of war leashed in the face of Iranian nuclearization, he might have gravely miscalculated.

In addition, even if Iranian negotiators were somehow able to convince the P5+1 to acquiesce to more centrifuges in the near term in exchange for greater transparency and pledges never to weaponize, such an outcome would paradoxically leave the Islamic Republic much less secure than if Iran accepted greater constraints on its program. In a recent Foreign Affairs article outlining Iran’s national security doctrine, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif admitted that “even a perception that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons is detrimental to the country's security and regional role” because of the reaction it produces among Iran's neighbors. For this very reason, a large-scale enrichment program that leaves Iran only a few weeks or months from producing bomb-grade material would be a highly unstable outcome. The greater Iran’s enrichment capacity, the more difficult it will be for the United States, Israel, and other countries to overcome their long-standing distrust of Iranian intentions. Shorter theoretical breakout times also mean fewer nonmilitary responses to real or perceived Iranian acts of noncompliance. Together, the volatile mix of mutual suspicion and a hair-trigger atmosphere would be a recipe for constant crises, miscalculation, inadvertent escalation, and a significant risk of war. Although Iran’s leaders may bristle at the very concept of breakout, then, it is actually in Tehran’s interest to make sure that the world knows that it could not nuclearize quickly.  

It will be difficult for Iran and the P+5 to overcome their differences by July 20. Other contentious issues such as the investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear research and the phasing of proposed sanctions relief must also be resolved before a final deal is signed. Consequently, there is growing speculation that the JPOA will have to be extended for another six months to allow talks to continue. Nevertheless, news this week that Khamenei and his representatives had instructed Iranian hard-liners to support the Rouhani administration and cease criticism of Iran’s nuclear negotiators, combined with the sudden announcement of bilateral talks with the Americans, may be a sign that the regime is preparing to make some tough concessions. And if all sides are open to compromise, there may be creative ways to bridge the enrichment divide, such as long-term international fuel guarantees, gradually lifting constraints on Iran’s program after a lengthy period of confidence building, or perhaps allowing a conditional expansion of Iranian enrichment capacity contingent on the emergence of actual (rather than hypothetical) energy needs. But whether there are six more weeks or six more months of negotiations, no final deal will materialize unless Iran steps back from its maximalist stance. If it refuses to compromise, the window for a peaceful, diplomatic solution will close, and the regime will have no one to blame but itself. 

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  • COLIN H. KAHL is an Associate Professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. In 2009-11, he was U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East.
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