Why Iran Might Finally Be Ready for a Nuclear Deal


It's difficult to know how seriously to take Iran's offer to halt its program of enriching medical-grade uranium in exchange for a nuclear fuel swap. Under this new proposal -- offered by Iranian officials to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and explained in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- Iran says it would halt its program of enriching uranium to 20 percent and trade 2,646 pounds of its fuel-grade, 3 percent enriched uranium for 265 pounds of 20 percent, medical-grade enriched uranium. If Iran is sincere and the deal goes through, it would not be a definitive solution to Iranian nuclear proliferation, as the country would continue to enrich fuel-grade uranium. It would, however, be a very big step towards reducing Iran's capacity for implementing a sudden "breakout" to weapons-grade uranium. Just as importantly, it would be an important trust-building opportunity that, if successful, could pave the way for winding down Iran's nuclear program and finally engaging the nation that Jimmy Carter once called an ally and "oasis of stability."

Is Iran sincere? Iran previously suggested it would take a similar deal, offered jointly by the U.S., France, and Great Britain, only to spend months deliberating while it continued to enrich uranium. The deal fell through and Iran's "negotiations" were widely seen as a tactic to delay international action against a nuclear program it had no intention of halting. Shortly before the United Nations Security Council passed severe, U.S.-led economic sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program, the country offered a slightly different nuclear swap deal involving Turkey and Brazil. The U.S., wary of another trick meant to delay sanctions, ignored the offer. Why should the world treat this latest offer any differently?

Although it remains a significant possibility that Iran has no more intention of following through on this nuclear swap than it had on previous deals, there is some reason to believe that it may finally be desperate enough to give up its medical-grade enrichment. This latest round of economic sanctions has hit the country hard. So hard, in fact, that the Iranian regime last week caved to one of the few groups it still fears: the mercantile middle class. Also known as the bazaaris, these merchants at the heart of what's left of Iran's economy provide the regime with crucial financial and political support. The government, perilously low on finances in the wake of the UN sanctions, said it had no choice but to raise taxes on the bazaaris by a staggering 70 percent. The bazaaris in Tehran went on strike, effectively shutting down all commerce in the Iranian capital for two weeks. The Islamic Republic, bowing to the bazaaris in a way that it never has to the U.S. despite decades of pressure, agreed to limit the tax increase to only 15 percent.

This episode with the bazaaris is a good sign for nuclear engagement for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that the Iranian regime is so cash-poor that it will fold to sufficient economic pressure. Second, the regime will have to come up with a way to replace the tax revenue it lost by dropping its proposed tax increase. One very good way for Iran to make a lot of money is by convincing the outside world to drop or loosen the economic sanctions. Iran may be hoping to escape the sanctions with more of the bad-faith negotiations it previously used to delay UN action. Or, if we are very lucky, Iran has finally decided that having a functioning economy is more important than the fastest possible nuclear enrichment program.

If and when Iran sits down for the seven-party nuclear talks expected for September, how do we tell if the rogue nation's negotiators are finally, honestly willing to scale back its nuclear program? The perhaps best indicator would be Iran's willingness to allow full, open, and unrestricted IAEA inspections of its confirmed and suspected nuclear facilities. That would be the first step toward what could be a watershed deal in engaging Iran with the outside world and scaling back the nuclear program threatening Middle Eastern and global security.

Image: Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameneiin 2002. Photo by Atta Kenare/Getty.