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3 Questions: Jim Walsh on the elusive U.S.-Iran nuclear treaty

Expert thinks treaty to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program faces more barriers domestically than in negotiations.

Can the U.S. and Iran reach a permanent agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program? For several months, the countries have operated under an interim agreement limiting Iran’s activities, but it expires this fall. MIT will host a public event on the topic this Tuesday, Sept. 30, from 7-9 p.m. in the Stata Center’s Room 32-155, co-hosted by the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT. The forum features Jim Walsh, a research associate in MIT’s Security Studies Program and an expert in international security and nuclear nonproliferation. MIT News spoke with Walsh about the prospects for a deal. 

Q. What is the status of U.S.-Iran negotiations right now, as you see them, with the expiration of the interim agreement just two months away? 

A. I think we’re both very close and far away at the same time. There has been a very successful interim agreement in place, where all the parties have fulfilled their commitments. Iran stopped producing 20-percent-enriched uranium and eliminated the stockpile it had accumulated, and implemented the verification measures in the agreement. So that’s been working very, very well.

In addition, the negotiators appear to have made progress on some of the very tough issues — the Arak heavy-water reactor, the Fordow underground enrichment facility, the issue of monitoring. I’d say there are two main sticking points as we enter the final lap; one is fairly solvable, and the other is solvable in principle, but holding up a final agreement. 

The issue that is resolvable … relates to Iran’s behavior in the past. It had a nuclear weapons program, according to U.S. intelligence, from 1998 to 2003, and then shut it down. But as part of the process of resolving a nuclear dispute, there has to be some accounting for those past activities. We’ve had to do this with South Africa, Iraq, South Korea, and Egypt, and my guess is we will resolve this. Those who oppose diplomacy want Iran to get down on their knees and publicly admit to everything they did, and that is just not going to happen, but it didn’t happen in the other cases, either, and I think they’ll find some resolution to that.

That leaves the major issue of the size and contours of Iran’s enrichment program — in particular, its centrifuges. The U.S. position has been that 1,500 centrifuges [can remain in Iran] … there’s no way that’s sustainable politically in Iran. Iran has about 20,000 centrifuges, of which it operates about 10,000. So their proposals of late have hovered in the 7,000 to 10,000 range. 

That gap has very little to do with nonproliferation. … It’s the politics back home, in Washington and Tehran, that’s making this last issue difficult.

Q. So how can each side settle on some number of centrifuges and sell it politically?

A. The negotiators on both sides have told me that if it were left up to the negotiators, they’d have a deal already. As with all things political, it’s going to come down to the leaders and whether they have the political will to accept the deal and then win support for it. 

There is a burden on President Obama. The reality is, there are people in the U.S. Congress who don’t want any negotiated agreement with Iran. And no matter what the deal is, they’re going to oppose it. My own view is, trying to get an agreement they’ll support is fool’s gold; that’s never going to happen. And so at some point you just have to say, “This is a good agreement, and I’m going to go out and sell it.” 

The political advantage with an agreement in hand shifts to the president. He can say, “Look, I have this. It’s not just me, it’s Britain, France, Russia, China, this is the international community, we’ve come up with an unprecedented agreement, and if you vote against it, that’s a vote for taking us down a path toward war.” Because if there’s no agreement, Iran’s program will now be unconstrained and they can build all the centrifuges they want. … The U.S. will respond with sanctions, and the result will be Iran’s program will grow and then you’ll hear calls for military action. 

So I think the president with an agreement in hand has the advantage, if he is willing to get out and lead on it. But that’s the calculation both President Rouhani and President Obama have to make. My own sense is they will get this done, and then there will be a tremendous battle in each capital. 

Q. So your view is not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, when it comes to nonproliferation?

A. As someone whose core scholarly interest is in the reasons why states who start down the nuclear path stop and reverse course — 30 countries have [done that], three times the number that became nuclear-weapons states — I can tell you this is a moment of opportunity that, if it passes, we may not ever get back. 

The [U.S.] Director of National Intelligence has publicly testified that as it stands today, Iran has not yet made a decision to build nuclear weapons. And so Iran is at a crossroads. An agreement constrains their program, changes the politics within Iran, and has a chance of putting this whole issue on a different trajectory. But if you lose that opportunity, that will help the hardliners and bomb advocates in Iran, and we will end up in a very different place. 

The history of nonproliferation and arms control agreements demonstrates clearly that you don’t need a perfect agreement to have success. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970, in my view the single most important factor in explaining success in nonproliferation, changed the internal politics within states. The treaty has no enforcement mechanism, and the original verification measures were very weak by today’s standards, but they got stronger over time. The NPT was not perfect, but it was effective.

So I don’t think it has to be a perfect agreement with Iran; it has to be good enough. An agreement would likely change the political relationship between Iran and the U.S. as well as the domestic policies within Iran. Rouhani’s status would improve, giving him credibility and the ability to move forward with his vision for Iran. Yes, the numbers [of centrifuges] are important, but they’re not as important as people would think, because agreements are really about political relationships.

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