In March 2012, Iran and the representatives of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (Russia, China, France, United Kingdom, and United States) plus Germany -- the so-called P5+1 -- agreed to resume negotiations on the nuclear issue without preconditions. The prospects for a successful outcome are doubtful given the two sides' distrust and fundamental antagonisms. But if there's the will, there's a way: a suitable deal is actually within reach.
Iran's fitful approach to resolving the nuclear controversy has thrown up many obstacles, but now it appears ready to find an agreement. The U.S. and its partners, however, have not balanced their tightening sanctions policies with positive inducements to encourage Iran to reach a peaceful accommodation. In the absence of any olive branch, the escalating sanctions, accelerating pace of covert operations, and repeated threats of military attack could only be interpreted by Iranian leaders as indicators that the U.S. and its partners have no serious interest in a negotiated solution to the nuclear program.
It is high time to discard those attitudes and negotiate seriously. The P5+1 will meet Iran's representatives on June 18 and 19 in Moscow. The previous two rounds of negotiations this spring in Istanbul and Baghdad made some progress. The crucial issue is Iran's capacity to enrich uranium to the 90 percent purity needed for weapons. It can now enrich to 20 percent, which critics fear enables Iran to reach weapons grade in a few months if it wished.
At Baghdad, the P5+1 demanded that Iran suspend all activities regarding enrichment of Uranium 235 to 20 percent. Under their plan, Iran would also expatriate 140 kilograms of 20% U235, suspend activities at the Fordo uranium enrichment facilities plant near Qom, and comply fully with IAEA, the global nuclear watchdog, over Potential Military Dimensions (PMD) -- activities that look like they are weapons related. In return, the P5+1 promised no new sanctions on Iran, help to build a new light water reactor, and shipment of aircraft spare parts to Iran.
Iran countered by demanding to have their right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes affirmed, and for some sanctions to be lowered in addition to no new sanctions. Importantly, Iran also offered to limit 20% U235 enrichment to 5 percent, to participate in an international consortium for nuclear activities, increase cooperation with IAEA, and participate in discussions on security arrangements in Middle East.
These positions, while not easy to resolve, are not terribly far apart. The key to an agreement from the U.S. perspective is to be certain that Iran does not have the capability to use Fordo to "break out" of an agreement and produce highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium. The Iranians want to see substantive progress on the current sanctions, which, after all, were imposed precisely to constrain enrichment.
One can argue ad infinitum about the tangled history of U.S.-Iran relations, about the intentions of each, about deception and assassinations and cyber war. We know that the U.S. election campaign complicates every calculation. We know that countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia are spoiling for a fight with Iran.
But we also know that should the negotiations fail, a war with Iran would be catastrophic. The United States has not only been down that road with Iraq, but now is a fragile moment in many Arab countries, in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well, where a war against Iran could produce enormous repercussions -- boosting the prospects of the most militant factions -- which last for a generation or more. A war would also spike oil prices to all-time highs and demolish hopes for economic recovery here, Europe, Japan, and indeed everywhere else.
President Barack Obama has in recent weeks signaled his intention to be serious about nuclear negotiations and seek a win-win strategy on Iran. He has differentiated between nuclear capability and building nuclear weapons; mentioned a recent fatwa (religious edict) by Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei that building nuclear weapons is haram (forbidden) in Islam; and emphasized Iran's nuclear rights as opposed to its obligations before the G-8 meeting last month, which can be viewed as a confidence-building measures that can facilitate verification of non-military activity in Iran's nuclear program.
Iran has been sending positive signals, too, even as it was disappointed with the paltry offerings from the P5+1 in Baghdad. It is negotiating with the IAEA on a site where some suspect nuclear weapons mechanisms might have been tested, which Iran denies, though an agreement has not been reached. More broadly, it has indicated its willingness to accommodate concerns about enrichment as long as its rights to a peaceful nuclear program, including low-level enrichment, are guaranteed.
Negotiating nuclear treaties takes time, and the expectations game -- the assertion that finishing a round of talks without agreement is equal to failure -- needs to be dampened. At Moscow, however, progress can be made on several important points:
1. Both sides could agree that as long as negotiations continue, they should avoid of provocative measures against each other. This means that Iran should clearly stop developing its nuclear installations and equipment while the P5+1 should avoid adopting new resolutions and issuing provocative statements, especially on the suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran. It should also not impose new sanctions.
2. During the Moscow negotiations, the P5+1 should affirm Iran's nuclear rights, as stipulated by President Obama, and unequivocally recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium up to 5 percent in its own facilities. Iran, in return, should issue an official statement in which it declares its readiness to stop 20 percent uranium enrichment.
3. The main concern of the United States is to prevent Iran's achievement of nuclear weapons and the most important problem for the Islamic Republic of Iran is to have its nuclear rights recognized within framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Therefore, the two sides would be wise to prepare a package on the best way for preventing diversion in Iran's nuclear program toward military purposes under supervision, for example, by the IAEA with additional monitoring by the United States and two impartial representatives chosen by Iran. In this way, the package can be discussed and approved in the fourth round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. On the other hand, Iran can propose a package on its nuclear rights in cooperation with two impartial representatives appointed by the United States for further discussion and approval in the fourth round of talks between Iran and the P5+1. Proposals for preparing both packages should be raised in Moscow.
The ultimate outcome -- an agreement acceptable to all parties -- is not always obvious beforehand. A great many policy professionals around the world are devising plausible proposals. It may involve, for example, a program of enrichment that is closely monitored to prevent accumulation of 20% enriched uranium as well as broad transparency and intrusive inspections. But without recognizing Iran's rights under the NPT, an agreement is far-fetched. That may be the sine qua non in Moscow.
Abbas Maleki, Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies, is a former deputy foreign minister of Iran. John Tirman is executive director of the Center, and is coauthor of Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1979-1988.