Is a Deal with Iran Finally Taking Shape?

Rupert Murdoch's Times of London appears to have scored a scoop yesterday by reporting that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been "secretly negotiating a deal to persuade world powers to lift sanctions and allow Tehran to retain the bulk of its nuclear programme [including enrichment of uranium] in return for co-operation with UN inspectors."

The negotiations are reportedly being led by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winning Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), "in an effort to break the stalemate over Iran's nuclear programme before he stands down at the end of this month."

The Times claims the negotiations have produced a 13-point draft document that was "leaked to the Times by one of the parties alarmed at the contents" (a.k.a. someone who wants to scuttle the talks by prematurely revealing them).

The Times story goes on to report that the agreement "coincides" with an IAEA report warning that the recently-disclosed nuclear enrichment facility at Qom may well not be the only reason for concern. Iran could be hiding multiple secret nuclear sites.

At first glance this seems bizarre. Why would the IAEA be exploring the contours of a possible deal to allow enrichment in Iran when it has concluded that Iran may well be concealing clandestine nuclear facilities around the country? Isn't that the height of folly?

Meanwhile, yesterday's New York Times served up another conundrum: according to the latest IAEA report, Iran started the secret Qom facility as early as 2002, suspended work on it in 2004, and then resumed work in 2006. Why would Iran start, stop, and start on this timetable?

It turns out both riddles have good answers. In fact, the two answers are closely related, and together they point to what may be the only hope for settling the standoff with Iran without another futile war.

To see the answers clearly, you'll need a bit of background. (For more details, as well as the big picture, visit our website at

Begin with what we all know: Iran is widely suspected of pursuing either a nuclear weapon or the capability to produce one on short notice. Iran, however, denies any such intention and says it is merely determined to exercise what it sees as its legal right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

Experience has shown that getting Iran to give up that right will be tough, to say the least. Six years of western threats and sanctions under the Bush Administration have made enrichment practically a symbol of Iranian independence--supported by moderates and hardliners alike. In fact, President Ahmadinejad's arch-rival Mir Hossein Moussavi recently excoriated Ahmadinejad for being too forthcoming in nuclear talks with the West! Ending enrichment seems not to be negotiable for Iran.

However, accepting broad IAEA safeguards and inspections -- designed to detect any misuse of enrichment for weapons-making--apparently is negotiable: Iran has said since October 2003 that it will accept these as part of a larger settlement that respects Iran's right to enrich uranium to low levels for peaceful use.

The monitoring measures such a deal might entail are highly intrusive. They include, at a minimum, the "Additional Protocol" to Iran's Safeguards Agreement, which gives IAEA inspectors short-notice access to all nuclear and nuclear-related facilities nationwide, whether officially declared or not. Other provisions might include: allowing IAEA access to facilities at early stages of construction, remote camera surveillance of all sensitive facilities, storage of enriched uranium in proliferation-resistant uranium oxide form, etc. (We'll call the package "Nationwide Surveillance" for short.)

With this background we're now in a position to solve the two riddles. Why would ElBaradei propose to allow enrichment under a regime of nationwide surveillance in Iran while expressing concern that there may be other Qom-like facilities out there? Perhaps because he understands something most of the hawks in the West don't: the biggest risk is not that Iran will block access to IAEA inspectors, re-configure the openly-declared Natanz enrichment facility, and proceed to transform the low-enriched uranium into higher-enriched uranium for a bomb. Natanz is heavily safeguarded. That move would be detected promptly, and then would take weeks to implement. During that interlude, the Natanz facility almost certainly would be bombed, by Israel if not others.

No, the main nuclear risk from Iran comes from clandestine facilities like Qom that we now have no reliable means of monitoring--including, quite possibly, some facilities that we haven't yet detected.

Nationwide surveillance -- under which on-the-ground inspectors would get access to any suspected but undeclared sites--offers by far the best prospect for detecting clandestine facilities. A known and high probability of early detection followed by the credible prospect of a very forceful international response offers the key to effective deterrence. However, most of the measures that make up the national surveillance package are voluntary under international law, and have to be bargained for -- which is why it makes sense for ElBaradei and the West to bargain for them.

How good is nationwide surveillance as a deterrent to clandestine activities? That brings us to the second riddle, the one posed by the New York Times story. It turns out that the dates bracketing Iran's suspension of work on Qom correspond very closely to the period (early 2004 - 2006) in which Iran voluntarily subscribed to the Additional Protocol in hopes, later dashed, that the West would accept some enrichment in Iran. So apparently in Iran's view -- and Iran, you'd think, would know -- the additional protocol makes it pretty hard to do clandestine nuclear work in Iran. A full national surveillance package would make it even harder.

Will Iran accept the kind of deal ElBaradai is said to be seeking -- a deal that gives Iran limited enrichment in exchange for a form of nationwide surveillance? The answer is, no one knows for sure. However, Iran has said it would do so, and it has done so in the past. Our intelligence community believes that Iran has not yet made a firm decision to build a nuclear weapon. So, whereas threats of sanctions or outright attack have provoked resistance and subterfuge, Iran may well deal away the weapons option for a package that respects Iran's rights and replaces those threats with positive incentives.

In any case, if the deal is good for us, shouldn't we force Iran to choose? ElBaradei can't bind the West or Iran to do anything. All he can do is help suggest a possible deal that the various parties can either accept or reject.

What the two Times stories reveal is that the "secret deal" that ElBaradei is supposedly trying to work out, provisionally, with Iran is actually the arrangement that is most achievable and will make us most secure. Horrors! Stop him before it's too late!

Richard Parker is the Founder and Executive Director of the American Foreign Policy Project (AFPP). The AFPP's Iran Policy Group has studied all aspects of the Iran foreign policy conundrum to produce a comprehensive website offering rigorous analysis and policy recommendations on the critical question, "What to do about Iran." The views expressed in this blog are his own.