By Kelsey Davenport
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly today that Israel will “stand alone” in order to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is good that Prime Minister Netanyahu is prepared for that, because alone is where Israel is right now when it comes to policy on Iran’s nuclear program.
Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to have missed the readout on the positive progress made last week on the negotiations between six world powers, or the P5+1, and Iran over its controversial nuclear program; a meeting that Secretary Kerry described as “constructive” and different in tone and vision from Iran’s past positions. And Prime Minister Netanyahu does not seem to have been listening to President Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly, where Obama acknowledged the right of the Iranian people to access nuclear energy, or to President Obama’s statement after his phone call with President Rouhani, when he said there is “a basis for resolution.”
In seeking to guard against a nuclear-armed Iran, Prime Minister Netanyahu is allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Yes, Israel has legitimate security concerns and good reason to distrust Iran. But Israel’s security and Iran’s nuclear programs are not mutually exclusive, and it would be irresponsible not to give President Rouhani the chance to act on his assurances that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons and willing to accept limits to its nuclear program. Iran can have a limited peaceful nuclear program that does not threaten the national security of Israel, the United States, or any other countries in the region.
Prime Minister Netanyahu may have been the last leader to address the General Assembly, but he should not have the last word on how to approach a deal with Iran. His prescription for moving forward – more sanctions backed up by a credible military threat and demands that Iran dismantle its nuclear program – will not solve the Iranian nuclear crisis, it will result in a continuation of the status quo.
International efforts should not insist on dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program, as Prime Minister Netanyahu calls for, but rather need to focus instead on crafting a proposal allowing Iran to continue nuclear activities, including enrichment, but in a limited program and under more stringent international safeguards.
Such a deal should include:
- Limits on Iranian enrichment activities;
- Limits on Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium that are tied to a realistic assessment of Iran’s needs;
- Increased monitoring and verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), including the Additional Protocol and implementation of Code 3.1;
- Cooperating with the IAEA’s investigations into past activities with possible military dimensions.
Focusing on verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program is a much more pragmatic and constructive approach than focusing on its dismantlement. And it coincides with past U.S. statements of policy. In testimony before House Foreign Affairs Committee in March 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that in the future, having assured the international community that it isn’t seeking nuclear weapons and that it is committed to greater transparency, the United States should recognize a limited Iranian enrichment program.
If Iran agrees to limitations, increased monitoring, and stringent verification, the international community will be able to detect any diversion from peaceful nuclear activities. And in return for these concessions, Tehran should be granted relief from sanctions imposed on Iran as a result of its nuclear activities. Meaningful sanctions relief will allow Rouhani to sell a deal at home that limits Iran’s nuclear program.
Prime Minister Netanyahu “will never acquiesce” to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons; neither will the United States. The difference is that Washington is willing to give Rouhani a chance to back up his words with actions. Washington is ready to negotiate with Tehran, not demand that Iran capitulate. Negotiating this “win-win” deal on Iran’s controversial nuclear program won’t be easy or quick, but it’s possible if both sides are willing to be more flexible and transparent.