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Should the U.S. offer sanction relief in return for Iran nuclear suspension?

November 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The U.S. and Iran are likely to reach an interim agreement soon, but will relieving sanctions in exchange for nuclear suspension be a mistake in the long-term dismantling of Iran's nuclear program? Jeffrey Brown gets views from Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group and Reuel Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

JEFFREY BROWN: We get two views now. Cliff Kupchan is Middle East director at the Eurasia Group. And Reuel Gerecht is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies:

Welcome to both of you.

Cliff Kupchan, let me start with you.

While we’re waiting for this possible interim, what is called an interim agreement, the question is whether it’s a good — it would be a good first step.

CLIFF KUPCHAN, Eurasia Group: It would be a very good first step.

The key goal for the U.S. and the West is to make it harder for Iran to dash to a nuclear weapon. What We’re trying to do is to limit their enrichment capability, their ability to enrich uranium, lengthen the amount of time it would take them to dash to a bomb, more verification, take steps that would make it really hard the worst for occur. And I think there’s a good chance of that.

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JEFFREY BROWN: Reuel Gerecht, you’re more skeptical.

REUEL MARC GERECHT, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies: Yes.

I didn’t — I mean, we have to depend on the press reports and what officials here have suggested, but I don’t think they’re doing anything to actually dismantle the program. I mean, that’s the real objective.

And I’m highly skeptical. If they don’t go after such issues as the production of centrifuges, where centrifuges are manufactured, converting the Arak plutonium facility, the heavy water facility, to a light water facility, to being honest about past weaponization — weaponization efforts, and, also very importantly, getting a grip on their — how they could abuse the system, i think the odds of this turning out well are very poor.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you — those are the kind of things you think the U.S. should be demanding, and short of that, no deal is better?

REUEL MARC GERECHT: Well, I think you should be very, very clear that the — right now the United States is in a very strong — relatively very strong position.

If you start dismantling sanctions, our position is going to get weaker and weaker and weaker.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, what about that?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: I think any deal with an opponent is going to be an ugly deal. We should not expect it to be…

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean by definition?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: By definition. You don’t get something that you’re really thrilled about when you’re dealing with more or less an enemy.

And I think letting the good be the enemy of the perfect is a big, big, big danger here. Now, I agree with Mr. Gerecht that the things he mentions are very important part of any deal we’re going to come to, but when you get to monitoring centrifuge production capability or uranium milling capability, the ability to make raw uranium, that’s the kind of thing that we’re only going to be able to get to in a final status agreement.

And I think trying to front-load that really risks detonating what could be a very productive initial interim agreement.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what — let me just follow up on the other thing he said, which is that — the notion that if you make concessions now, even small ones, they’re harder to take back later on.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: It depends what the concessions are.

What the administration is planning on doing is unfreezing Iranian assets, not sanctioning the automotive sector, and providing small relief on petrochemical exports and the export of precious metals. Those to me do not touch the underlying architecture of sanctions, which depend on oil sanctions which depend on financial sanctions. We’re not going to touch those.

So, to me, we’re on the verge of what would be a — we’re hopefully on the verge of what would be a very good deal for the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Mr. Gerecht.

REUEL MARC GERECHT: Well, I would say, first and foremost, if you do not even have the means up front of verifying the — where the Iranians are doing their nuclear research, if you don’t have an additional protocol at the very beginning, you are depending upon the Iranians to be honest.

And they have lied and cheated ever since 2002, when we discovered the Natanz facility. And I would say again on the sanctions, if you give them any type of cash benefit, what you’re essentially doing is giving them hard currency that they could turn back around and invest in the nuclear program, they could invest in supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria, that they could invest in supporting the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

To give them any kind of hard currency I think is a serious mistake.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is the — your — how do you see the position of the Iranians now? Because part of this, of course, is, how much can you trust what they say?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: I don’t think this is about trust. Nobody’s going to trust Iran. It is a fact that they…


JEFFREY BROWN: So the questions he was raising about earlier things, you just — you don’t worry about right now?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: This agreement can’t be based on trust. It would be based on verification.

One of the first things that the United States, the P5-plus-one is going to be looking for is an increased and very stringent inspection regime. But I do not think that looking for everything up front is going to work. I don’t think we’re going to be able to, again, get them to let us into their — their — their physics lab, their research institutes up front. I think it would be a big mistake to go for that.

REUEL MARC GERECHT: Well, essentially, what you’re saying is that you’re allowing them to determine the structure of these negotiations here.

If they say no, you stop. Well, the United States shouldn’t say no. It should say, listen, we intend to ensure the dismantling of this program. All options are on the table. Either you agree to these terms or in fact all options are there. We will increase sanctions, and we will also consider a preemptive military strike.

You have to be willing to say to the Iranians that this position is unacceptable. You have been to be able and willing to say that you must sign the additional protocol. We know that they have done weaponization research in the past. We’re 99.9 percent sure of it. We need to be able to get into the facilities where we think that happened. We need to be able to talk to your scientists who undertook that research.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, where do you — if you start — if you think of this as an interim agreement, where does it go from there? How do you get — what is the goal and how do you get there?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: It goes towards in the end state agreement sharply constraining, sharply constraining Iran’s nuclear program and being very, very sure that they can’t break out, that they can’t get a nuclear weapon.

But, look, we are in a very strong position right now. Iran is economically very, very weak. Their economy contracted by 5 percent to 6 percent last year. So I think we should take a good deal. We should take what we can get. We shouldn’t go for everything because we’re not going to get it.

These guys, when you really press them, they get their backs up against the wall and they can walk away. We shouldn’t risk at this critical juncture, when we have them in a very tight space, make the mistake of going for everything and losing everything. That would be a huge mistake.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, you get a last word.

REUEL MARC GERECHT: I just think it would have to — it has to pass the pinch test.

And I don’t think, if the press reports are true, that we have under discussion something that really passes, that we’re not really setting back the program much at all, that they’re maintaining the nuclear weapons infrastructure, and we’re really not pushing them when we do have the stronger hand. If you have the stronger economic hand, use it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does your gut tell you that they are going to reach some kind of agreement this weekend?

REUEL MARC GERECHT: I think likely so, because I think the president, most importantly, wants to avoid a binary choice between surrendering and having to engage in a preemptive military strike.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re agreeing? You think something is going to happen?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: I think something is going to happen this weekend. I think both sides want it, which means it will probably get done.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cliff Kupchan, Reuel Gerecht, thank you both very much.