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If Diplomatic Options Fail to Bear Fruit

by Gary Samore, Vice President and Director of Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Thanks to all the members of the group for your active participation.  I’d like to extend our discussion, but I encourage you to continue to respond to Jim Walsh and Henry Sokolski’s recent posts below.

I think we’ve done a good job of kicking around the diplomatic options to significantly delay or limit Iran’s further development of an enrichment capacity.  Clearly, we can’t know beforehand whether a new diplomatic initiative will succeed (I tend to be on the skeptical side), but we need to give it our best shot because the alternatives are clearly inferior.  At the same time, it’s worth thinking about our options in the event that the diplomatic options we’ve discussed fail to bear fruit.

If the carrot and stick approach is unable to constrain Iran’s enrichment program in a meaningful way, is it possible to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold – from actually producing HEU and making nuclear weapons once it has completed an enrichment facility capable of producing significant quantities of HEU in a short period? What diplomatic and military policies could be applied to deter Iran from taking the risk of either nuclear break out or nuclear sneak out?  In other words, is it plausible that Iran could be convinced to live with a latent nuclear weapons capacity or is it inevitable that Iran will not rest until it has a nuclear arsenal?

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The “Wishful Thinkers and the Moralists”

by Jim Walsh

As most everyone on this online exchange knows, I support the concept of limited enrichment on Iranian soil under multi-national or multi-lateral supervision.  In a later comment/post, I will take a crack at Henry’s concerns about this alternative, but for now, I wanted to offer some general remarks about the views offered by the skeptics.  To spice things up a little, I adopt a less measured and careful style of expression.  I know most everyone on the list and consider them a friend, so I’m hoping this means I can get away with more.

The Wishful Thinkers
Many of the skeptics’ arguments seem to fall into two categories.  One is the view that the zero centrifuge option is viable.  Advocates of this position seem to be saying, well, “we are just not trying hard enough (or we tried the wrong way), and now a new president will be able to do what the US government has been unable to do for 8 years, even as our relationship with one of the key players (Russia) has significantly deteriorated.  If we really, really, truly, super sincerely tried a carrots and sticks strategy, they say, then Iran would give in.  (This is also what both the pres candidates say.)  I take this view to be the school of wishful thinking.

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Security Assurances We Could Possibly Live With


Michael Levi asks what security guarantees might be persuasive to Iran and yet be responsible for us?  I’ve already proposed that the U.S. work with its friends to wage a small cold war against the current leadership in Iran.  So, the first and most immediate answer to Michael Levi’s question would be to offer one of the types security guarantees we observed with the Soviets – a freedom of naval passage or a prevention of incidents at sea agreement.  The first security offer might be a Lausanne- Montreaux -like understanding to assure both freedom of passage of all ships through and demilitarization of the Strait of Hormuz.  The second would be a naval and air rules of the road agreement for the Gulf similar to the ones that the U.S. reached with the Soviets in 1972 and 1988 and with China in 1998.  

By far the best analysis of such understandings and their possible application in the case of Iran was written by Douglas E. Streusand in an essay commissioned by my center entitled “Managing the Iranian Threat to Sea Commerce Diplomatically” in Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran, pp. 257-84 available at  What follows is drawn from this analysis.

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Security Guarantees?

by Michael Levi

We’ve been having an interesting conversation about what sort of Iranian enrichment capability, if any, would be acceptable. But regardless of our exact goal, we’re going to have to do a better job of sorting out our carrots and sticks. I also suspect this group largely agrees on what sticks, perhaps aside from military options (which I hope we’ll discuss later) make sense.

So I’ve got a question for the group (to which I don’t have a good answer). When we talk about carrots that haven’t been adequately explored, one of the key things we often talk about is offering “security guarantees”, which in theory could remove Iran’s perceived need for nuclear arms. It’s hard for me to understand, though, what a persuasive (to Iran) and responsible (for us) security guarantee would look like. (As Bruno notes, we may try to switch our rhetoric from “regime change” to “regime behavior change”, but the distinction is lost on the other end.)

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We Can Probably Live With Limited Enrichment

by Michael Levi

I’m pretty pessimistic about the possibility of rolling back the Iranian nuclear program. The more interesting challenge, it seems, is constraining the growth of the program in any meaningful way. That leads me to focus on one of Gary’s last questions first: Should we be prepared to accept arrangements that allow Iran to maintain a limited enrichment program under enhanced international monitoring?

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