How the West and Iran can build mutual trust?
By Reza Yeganehshakib
One of the most important recent transformations in the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the Six Powers is the four-month extension. It seems that both sides need this extra time in order to resolve a number of issues, including those that may negatively affect a possible deal.
For instance, the U.S. team may want to wait to see the results of the forthcoming congressional election on Nov. 4 to make sure any deal with Iran will not adversely impact the election results. Likewise, the Iranians need more time to deal with the hardliners who oppose the negotiations and are pushing to proceed with the nuclear program regardless of the sanctions.
Yet, this extension is very different from those in the past. For example, Said Jalili, the former Iranian chief negotiator reluctantly came back to the negotiations after each round. This might be attributed to Iran's former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's policy, or the state's policy, to prolong the negotiations and the gaps between them so that they had enough time to increase the number of centrifuges.
Nowadays, the economic situation threatens the sustainability of the state's internal and external power. So there is now a determination among the high level of decision makers in Iran to resolve the nuclear issue, lift the sanctions, and join the global market and economy.
Now why are the Iranians insisting on having 150,000-190,000 separate working units (SWU) of uranium enrichment capacity?
One reason is what the Iranian officials have frequently mentioned as their concern: to ensure Iran's ability to produce nuclear fuel if the market refuses to provide it in the future, particularly after the end of a decade-long Russian promise to provide the fuel and dispose the waste.
The other motive is actually the very reason Iranians extended the negotiation, Rohani; so that they can have the 19,000 centrifuges that they have now.
If they had started the negotiations when they had 1,500 centrifuges, they would have stopped at that level while now they have a stronger hand in the negotiations so at least for now they could be stopped at 5000 centrifuges, if not 19,000. As a Persian proverb says, "tell him about the death so that he will accept the fever."
Now that the Iranian supreme leader talks about their need of 150,000-190,000 SWU centrifuges, they may be able to come to an agreement for 20,000-25,000 SWU, for example. We still need not to forget that the issue here is not the quantity of the centrifuges, but the amount of the output based on the amount of energy input, or in other words, how many kilogram of the product and in what enriched percentage their output would be.
This extension could also be a tactical move so that both sides have enough time to determine their long-term strategic plans. At least in this stage both sides know what are the exact issues or the very subjects of disagreement. In particular, they know that they have to come to an agreement about the period of restrictions, the level of enrichment, and the function of Arak heavy water production plant, and Fordow uranium enrichment site.
However, we should try to see the big picture rather than the short-term disagreements, such as those mentioned above pertaining to the Arak heavy water facility and Fordow facility. The bottom line is that assertion and trust should be built between the two parties, which has been lacking for the last 20 years.
Now, both sides realize the need for such mutual agreement and feel the need to create trust. So, they will do their best to make it because they need it.
One of the areas that encourage this need is widespread dissatisfaction of the sanctions. Not only are the Iranians not happy about the sanctions but also several U.S. economic partners, particularly those importing Iranian oil, are dissatisfied. China increased its energy import from Iran in 2014 about 40 percent to 50 percent.
China may not need to import oil from the U.S., at least this year, since they secured a deal with Iran for the next few years. This is because Iran provides cheaper oil ($5-8 cheaper per barrel) than the regular price of the market, so is the case for Japanese and Korean customers. They buy cheaper oil from Iran which is more suitable also for their refineries and oil facilities while they use the U.S. oil in blends because their refineries are not designed for U.S. concentrated oil.
The hope of lifting sanctions has already created excitement in that part of the West that prefers Iran's oil, as well as gas, and potential trade with the diverse and powerful market of Iran. For instance, the Iranian market has a huge capacity to absorb foreign products in its diverse consumer market and various economic sectors such as auto manufacturing, petroleum industries, vessel manufacturing, and airplanes and offers enormous opportunities to foreign investors.
However, there is another possible outcome for a likely agreement and lifting sanctions that makes the West more anxious about an Iran with industrial-size enrichment capability and no sanctions. If the sanctions are lifted, their re-imposition, or rather the West's response time, may take as long as a year. Hence, it would be really hard to respond to Tehran's violations in a timely fashion.
The crucial question is how Iran can establish sustainable confidence with the West so that there is no need to consider a time consuming, risky, and costly response to its possible violations. Re-imposition of the sanctions in the future may also hurt U.S. allies which are Iran's oil consumers now. This is because after a possible removal of the sanctions in the future, consumer dependency on Iran's oil increases due to the potential increase of oil import from Iran. So is the case for those who invest in Iran or export to Iran. If they increase their economic cooperation with Iran and sanctions were re-imposed, their economic interests would be badly damaged.
Iranians are also worried about the permissible scope that the West wants from them and the 10 years of restriction on Iran's nuclear program to keep it at current levels or restrict it more. Iran feels it has already made acceptable concessions by turning its 200 kilograms of 20 percent enriched Uranium stockpile into plates to install in Tehran's research-medical reactor, as well as partially freezing enrichment activities, and keeping it at 5 percent level.
They still have several other concerns. One is what if Russia fails to provide the fuel during these 10 years. Or what is going to happen if no one will give them fuel while the Bushehr plant is connected to the electricity power transmission network of the country, and therefore there are several regions depending on its electricity supply? Or, how about the massive loss of investment in this power plant if it's not functional?
They want to make sure they have the fuel without a need for an outside supplier. It is very unlikely that Iranians freeze all their activities up to the period that the West wants, or dismantles the major elements of their uranium enrichment since they have these fears.
The question is how the West and Iran can build mutual trust after a 20-year period of skepticism and suspicion? Building mutual trust is a key point to making any agreement.
If the restriction period is shortened, for example 3-5 years, and the enrichment capacity rises in a gradual manner, this may satisfy the part of the West that wants to make sure Iran is not able to rapidly make high level enriched uranium and create its first nuclear bomb.
This period also needs a sacrifice from the Iran that wants a capacity of 190,000 SWU. Iranians also should accept that the nuclear activities in Fordow are an obstacle for any agreement and cause more suspicion. It is understandable that under the constant threat from the U.S. that "all the options are on the table" or an Israeli unilateral airstrike against Iran's nuclear facilities, that Iranians want to have a safe place for at least a part of their enrichment facility. But, they have to understand the cost of this decision.
In the first few years of the trust-building period, both sides should make some compromises to reassure the other side of their good intensions. During this period of trust-building, the Iranians also have to let the inspectors from IAEA and probably from P5+1 have open access to their nuclear facilities whenever it is necessary. Cameras also should be installed to monitor everything 24/7. The function of some facilities can also be altered in a way that makes it hard for the Iranians to enrich high percentage uranium in a short period of time, at least longer than the West's response time, which is now about a year.
On the other hand, if the sanctions are lifted and Iran is a part of the global market, it would be really hard for the Iranians, even if the hardliners want it, to start high-level enrichment again because they know the heavy cost of this action would be isolation and returning to the economic hardship that could cause social unrest in Iran.
Reza Yeganehshakib holds a doctoral degree in history with a specialization in World and Middle Eastern history from the University of California, Irvine and an M.A. in history from UCI, where he serves as a Research Associate at the Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies.