Iran's So-Called Intransigence

My Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, in a post titled "On Iranian Intransigence," quotes a recent piece in which Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote:

Iranians came into these negotiations with some rather extraordinary demands, particularly [that] their right to uranium enrichment be officially recognized--which is impossible, given the fact that the enrichment stands in violation of Security Council resolutions and the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) board of governor's injunctions.

Takeyh's formulation is potentially misleading. It's true that enrichment "stands in violation of Security Council resolutions" in the sense that those resolutions call on Iran to suspend enrichment. But the word "suspend" was chosen carefully. The idea is that enrichment might resume once the international community is satisfied that any future enrichment won't be for military purposes (something that could be established through a new, more intrusive system of monitoring and inspection). So acknowledging Iran's right to enrich uranium for demonstrably peaceful purposes would be consistent with all existing Security Council resolutions.

Indeed, Hillary Clinton, testifying before Congress, said last year that Iran's "right" to enrich--yes, she used that word--could be acknowledged once sufficiently intrusive verification measures were in place.

Here's an interesting scenario: Suppose that in the most recent round of negotiations, in Moscow, America and its negotiating partners had said to Iran essentially what Hillary Clinton said: Yes, we can in principle recognize an Iranian right to enrich uranium for peaceful use (which, by the way, is permitted under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and in fact is done by some Treaty members), but that recognition will have to await the establishment of a mechanism that can more confidently verify the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program. Would Iran have responded favorably?

There's no telling because, so far as I know, we didn't say this. Indeed, we showed a general absence of creativity and flexibility. In particular, we didn't offer to even delay the imposition of any of the sanctions scheduled to hit in July-- not even in exchange for substantial concessions from Iran.

It may well be that if we had done either of these things--signaled flexibility on sanctions or on the right to enrich--Iran would still have refused to play ball. Maybe at that point it would have been fair to call Iran "intransigent." But I don't think that's fair now, because (unless more went on in Moscow than has been reported) we haven't yet given Iran the intransigence test.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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