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Opinion | A Window of Opportunity

by MICHAEL MINER

11 Oct 2012 23:14Comments

After U.S. presidential race and before Iranian one, time will be ripe for a nuclear deal.

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Michael Miner is a teaching fellow at Harvard University. He is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and International Society for Iranian Studies. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College. All opinions are his own.
[ comment ] Iran has raised a proposal to limit uranium enrichment to less than 20 percent in exchange for the loosening of economic sanctions. Though likely a nonstarter with the United States until after November, the offer suggests that the Iranian establishment is starting to feel the repercussions of a faltering economy. In the modern history of Iran, the harbinger of political change has been the convergence of powerful social movements with economic disruption of the bazaars. Sanctions are compounding skyrocketing inflation, worsening deeply rooted social stratification that undermines the foundation of the Islamic Republic. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will be looking for a way out, and Washington might face a window of opportunity whose existence challenges the conventional narrative. Negotiators should consider pragmatic incentives that can draw Tehran back to the table and effectively sideline the nuclear program. From the Iranian perspective, limiting enrichment to below 20 percent would help its leaders navigate a series of pressing difficulties that, if left unaddressed, might upend a carefully orchestrated political system.

Primarily, any successful deal will provide relief from crippling economic sanctions and a windfall for the international market. Second, this secures a form of deterrence essential for an Iranian state fearful of Western aggression. Enrichment above zero yet below 20 percent provides a higher starting point in nuclear weapons development and a nominal form of nuclear latency -- or the capacity to weaponize if presented with overwhelming necessity and desire. Succinctly, this can secure a lighter shade of deterrence without the operational dangers many argue are unacceptable. Finally, it would not cede the nuclear issue to either side in its entirety. Tehran would be able to proclaim victory and maintain a face-saving image that could bolster a regime on the cusp of a tumultuous election season. More importantly, Washington can effectively check the operational dangers of an active nuclear program via continuous monitoring of all nuclear material within the state.

Latent nuclear capability garners international prestige in the vein of established great powers and common among middle powers. If Tehran seeks the credibility of a nuclear deterrent without the harsh consequences of actualization, it should be willing to increase levels of international verification and maintain all enrichment activities well below 20 percent. It would also offer the United States a closer look at its program and better integrate Iran within a community of states committed to reducing proliferation. Both governments can secure national interests and set a historic precedent for global responsibility and cooperation between adversaries.

Sanctions relief and free market victory

Crushing sanctions on Iranian oil dramatically reduces the overall strength of the international economy, a market built on the principle of supply and demand. For the United States, this puts a strain on allies around the world and creates an unnecessary burden on businesses and individuals. Saber rattling or even the slightest hint of conflict drives oil futures upward, challenging sustainable growth. While current supply at cost may remain steady for the time being, any major disruption in the Persian Gulf would cause at least a brief dramatic price spike and regional production downturn, likely compounded by Iranian asymmetrical retaliation. At a time when global oil prices deepen economic stagnation, major disruptions could prove catastrophic. There may be no better option than taking the inverse approach and flooding the market with an abundance of affordable energy by eliminating sanctions on the Iranian oil trade.

With increased domestic production in the United States, complemented by record levels in Saudi Arabia, energy prices could fall below modern historic lows. This would cut costs significantly and generate productivity able to stave off potential shortfalls for energy producers. The consequential reduction in OPEC production remains a near certainty, but the short-term net positive would outweigh the drawback of reduced supply and minimal economic growth. Iran can reap the benefit of reintegration on the international market, and the United States would receive a major boost in economic activity as Washington and its allies increase access to a greater supply that drives down costs across the board.

Nuclear latency

There is a strong argument that Iran does not seek a nuclear weapons program in physical form, but the strategic effect it provides. The track record since the dawn of the atomic age persuasively suggests that no other military tool approaches the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. As a state beset on all sides and subject to increasingly hostile rhetoric, it is both rational and reasonable that Iran perceives itself under threat and would seek to deter aggression. Nuclear latency could provide this theoretical deterrent without the actualization of a nuclear weapons program that worries its neighbors to the point of belligerent preventive action.

In the case of Iran, the credible capability to produce nuclear weapons has quickly become as important as an actual weapons program. Indeed, uranium enrichment at a figure below 20 percent would dramatically expedite breakout capability simply by maintaining critical technological infrastructure. Even without an actual nuclear weapons program, this form of latency can accomplish core goals inherent within most nuclear programs since 1945: credibly deter major threats to the homeland and achieve international prestige as a nuclear-capable state. These two primary criteria should be enticing enough for Iran to accept nuclear latency as a realistic option that increases its own security and respects international security norms.

There is a history of stable dynamics between America and prior antagonists that went on to develop strong civilian nuclear programs and achieve various forms of nuclear latency. Germany and Japan are among its strongest allies. So too are middle powers such as South Korea and Brazil. There are a host of other reasons why these relationships have been successful, and all are radically different in geography and culture, yet any of these states could theoretically push ahead in weaponization if there was a desire and overwhelming impetus. As long as Washington and its allies respect this lighter shade of deterrence, and in combination with quasi-permanent nuclear inspectors based in Iran, the risk of conflict should go down considerably. Latency is a stage of nuclear development the United States can live with, even as it maintains the right to preemptive action in the event of unwarranted aggression against American interests.

The nexus of international and domestic politics

Neither the United States nor Iran is willing to cede the nuclear issue as it plays an important role in domestic and international politics alike. Contentious electoral politics prevent President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney from mentioning a scenario under which the United States would reach an agreement with Iran. Likewise, Supreme Leader Khamenei and Iranian conservatives desire to sustain and promote their sanctimonious view of the West. For each side, a confrontational posture lends heft to its core political platform on national security issues that will not be overcome in the next month. Where there might be an opportunity for intensive negotiation and resolution would be in the winter or early spring -- after the United States presidential election but before the height of the Iranian political season.

Any American president able to finish this chapter of the Iranian nuclear standoff could proclaim a significant foreign policy achievement. Conversely, the ruling political establishment in Iran would strengthen their core platform and achieve a major rhetorical victory against a foreign antagonist. Securing the effect of nuclear deterrence without operational necessity achieves their strategic goals and pairs nicely with Khamenei's fatwa on nuclear weapons. Succinctly, there would be a net gain on economic and security interests for both sides easily converted into political capital for competitive domestic politics. The establishment in Tehran will require such grounding for the upcoming presidential election season, and the West can finally turn the page.

Securing the future

Failure to reach a middle ground suggests neither side is committed to a peaceful resolution. Despite the rhetoric of some foreign powers, and the sway of a small group of influencers in Washington and Tehran, both sides of the equation are rational and reasonable in consideration of their national interests. There is room for diplomatic negotiation that should be framed as an ethical imperative for both parties given the economic, security, and political achievements that can be gained in this window of opportunity. Nuclear latency can give Iran the deterrent effect it so desires without frightening its neighbors into a cascading spiral of proliferation and conflict -- a vital interest the United States must consider as essential for stability of the region and long-term protection of our friends and allies.

by the same author | Strategic Clarity and the Prospect of a Nuclear Iran

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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