November 7, 2014

Former negotiator sees extension for Iran talks, but says much work ahead

A former Obama nuclear weapons negotiator said he expects the U.S., Iran, and other negotiating nations to agree to an extension of nuclear talks currently underway as they work towards an agreement. The negotiator, Gary Samore, former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, spoke at a talk titled “Avoiding a Nuclear Iran: Inside the Arms Negotiation” at the Harris School of Public Policy yesterday.

On November 24, negotiations regarding the extent of Iran’s nuclear program, which began in January, are set to end. The United States’s main goals in the negotiations are to cut Iran’s nuclear bomb-building resources and to monitor its nuclear production activity.

David Axelrod, former senior advisor to President Obama and director of the University’s Institute of Politics, moderated the talk. The speakers were Samore, former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, and David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times.

Samore said that the nations have come too far to give up now. “I think there has been enough progress made in these negotiations so that all the governments involved will be able to justify some additional extensions to try to come to an agreement,” he said.

Nuclear tensions between the U.S. and Iran date back to the Bush Administration. President George W. Bush had the opportunity to eradicate the program in its early stages, according to the panelists, but he hesitated given the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Sanger called this a “lost diplomatic chance.”

By the time Obama took office, Iran’s program had significantly grown. Since then, Obama has been working to “limit Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons in exchange for having better relations with the United States,” Samore said.

“We’ve made progress on a number of key issues, including stronger inspections, including ways to limit Iran’s ways of producing plutonium, but on the main issue—the central issue—which is limits on Iran’s enrichment program, I think we’re still very far apart because we’re asking Iran to really drastically reduce its current enrichment capacity and keep those limits in place for the next 20 years,” Samore said.

Samore and Sanger believe the U.S. will have to keep a close eye on Iran regardless of whether an agreement is reached because Iran may build secret facilities. Monitoring Iran’s production activity is a delicate issue, however, because it demonstrates a fundamental lack of trust between the U.S. and Iran.

The risks of failing to come to an agreement are numerous. According to Samore, if Iran builds its nuclear capacity, it will likely step over the line and create a bomb. This could heat up the Middle Eastern arms race, creating further instability.

Sanger said that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei must decide if he wants Iran to be perceived as a country or a revolution. If he favors diplomacy, he will sign the agreement. If he favors revolution, he might not.

The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is resistant to the idea of new sanctions. However, according to the panelists, many Iranians have felt the economic and financial effects of the current sanctions. The people are generally sympathetic to the idea of reaching an agreement and improving relations with the Western world.