THE BLOG

Iran Nuclear Gridlock Is Political, Not Technical

06/20/2014 10:20 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2014

The Iran nuclear talks present a rare opportunity for a major American diplomatic victory. If negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran bridge the remaining political gaps, they will resolve a major national security threat -- a potential Iranian nuclear weapon -- without a shot being fired.

Ostensibly, the talks have reached an impasse over technical issues surrounding the size and scale of Iran's enrichment program. While this is the issue on which each side has chosen to make a stand, the challenge is political, not technical.

A final deal is expected to dramatically expand monitoring and inspection of Iran's nuclear program. Near-constant monitoring of Iran's enrichment facilities would continue, and Iran would be expected to ratify the IAEA's Additional Protocol to ensure snap inspections of all nuclear facilities. Additional measures could ensure monitoring of Iran's centrifuge assembly and uranium such that Iran would find overt or covert nuclear breakout nearly impossible and enormously risky. As numerous nonproliferation analysts have indicated, this is the real value of a deal. Regardless of the exact scale of Iran's enrichment program, robust transparency and verification measures would be an enormous disincentive to Iran pursuing a weapon and would ensure that any ill-advised move to break out would be swiftly detected.

There is little basis to scuttle a possible deal over the enrichment issue if such verification measures are in place. But right now, the negotiations appear to be in a game of who beat whom on centrifuges, and by how much. Members of the P5+1 appear to want to cap Iran's centrifuges at a few thousand at the start of a deal, and perhaps for the deal's entire duration. Iran appears to want what it is currently operating, 9,000 centrifuges, at the start of a deal and to gradually increase that number over the course of an agreement.

If Iran concedes and accepts the P5+1's proposal, the U.S. could notch a win on centrifuges and likely have an easier time selling the deal to a recalcitrant Congress. But if that happens, Rouhani would likely have a more difficult, if not impossible, time selling the deal to the Supreme Leader and hardliners in Iran's political system. Of course, this dilemma is also reversible. If the P5+1 bends completely, an Iran win is perceived as a loss for the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1.

This presents each side with a bind. Like it or lump it, both sides have to bend on this issue. That's the only way to bridge the impasse and secure a durable deal. Hopefully, each side has not yet presented its ultimate bottom line. Once the impending threat of an extension gets closer, which would open an opportunity for hardliners on each side to scuttle an agreement, concessions could come quickly and rapidly to bridge the remaining gaps. In the end, each side is worse off if this diplomatic opportunity falls through.

Neither side can forget that this issue is about more than centrifuges. For Iran, it helps determine whether forces of moderation or recalcitrance guide the country in a pivotal period for the region. For the U.S., it is clear that this will be a legacy issue for President Obama. But it is also a litmus test for American diplomacy. After the George W. Bush administration demonstrated the fallacy of relying wholly on force to achieve American objectives, a successful Iran nuclear deal would remind America that peaceful alternatives are not just worth exploring, but capable of delivering major national security victories. This could change how America approaches national security challenges well into the foreseeable future and ensure that neoconservatism remains where it should be: the dustbin of history.

To get there, numerous obstacles remain -- not least a recalcitrant Congress that holds the key to lifting nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, which is a key requirement to seal the deal. As we enter what could be the endgame of nuclear talks, both President Obama and President Rouhani would be wise to remind their negotiators of the enormity of the stakes and that they can't afford to let political jockeying stand in the way of a deal.