Continuing the Diplomatic Process: An Interview with Reza Marashi

To give us a better handle on the current situation with Iran, we spoke with Reza Marashi, Research Director for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). Reza served in the U.S. Department of State for four years in the Office of Iranian Affairs, and his articles have appeared in publications including The New York Times, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, and The National Interest. He is a contributor to CNN, NPR, and the BBC, among others. Here, he gives us his take on the latest developments in Iran and what they might mean for national security.

Ploughshares Fund: What can we expect from the upcoming talks with Iran in Moscow?

Reza: By returning to the negotiating table in Moscow, diplomacy has become the sustained process it was always supposed to be rather than the one-off meetings that have existed to date. Now the hard work begins: finding an agreement that can be sold to the respective domestic political constituencies. Talks will continue at the working level and reconvene at the political level in Moscow after confidence-building measures and sequencing are agreed upon. There is no other way to find a peaceful resolution to this crisis.

However, an institutionalized enmity that has taken over three decades to build will not be undone over the course of a few meetings. Continuing the cycle of escalation – be it Iranian intransigence on its nuclear program or introducing the European embargo of Iranian oil on July 1 – only makes it more difficult for the diplomatic process to proceed.  Success will only come if diplomats place a premium on patience and long-term progress rather than quick fixes aimed at appeasing domestic political constituencies.  To that end, we should hope for a breakthrough but expect little more than an agreement by both sides to continue the diplomatic process through the summer.  Policymakers and pundits should remember that nuclear talks with Iran are a marathon, not a sprint.

PF: What could the U.S. offer Iran in negotiations, other than lifting sanctions, that would not compromise our national security, but would be a fair incentive for Iran?

R: America’s domestic political landscape during an election year is going to limit what we can offer to Iran, so we need to get by with a little help from our friends.  Europe has greater political space (and I’d argue, greater political will) to offer a delay of its impending embargo of Iranian oil for six months.  In return, Iran would freeze its enrichment of uranium at the twenty-percent level for the same duration.  This will help build trust, allow the larger diplomatic process to continue, and provide the Obama administration with an important deliverable that it needs to sell diplomacy at home: verifiable concessions on Iran’s nuclear program.

PF: How will the U.S. or monitoring organizations "know" whether Iran has made the decision to pursue a bomb. If they do, what will that mean for negotiations?

R: Our level of intelligence and inspections – and the overall level of international focus – on Iran are arguably unprecedented.  This important combination makes it much less likely that Iran could make the decision pursue a bomb without us knowing about it. At the moment, it would take at least four months for Iran to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level, and it would be doing so at monitored facilities, so they would get caught. We also have a demonstrated track record of using intelligence to uncover covert nuclear facilities in Iran.  Perhaps most importantly, the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to work with our allies to maintain a unified approach to the Iranian nuclear challenge.  This allows us to respond with greater speed and flexibility, reduce Iran’s maneuverability, and decrease the likelihood that Iran will take steps towards weaponization.

PF: Are the sanctions really working? That is, are they dissuading Iran from further enrichment of uranium, and bringing them to the table to talk, or are they only hurting the Iranian people.

R: After more than a decade of coercive policies, the track record is clear: Iran is paying an increasingly hefty price for its nuclear program.  Indiscriminate sanctions are derailing the Iranian economy and civil society, and inhibiting the ability of the average Iranian to manage the present and plan for the future. Even if sanctions are lifted, it may take years before Iran recuperates from the damage it has absorbed. 

At the same time, none of this economic pain has impacted Iran’s nuclear calculus in a meaningful way. Iran’s program has progressed and reached several milestones during this period. In 2002, it had less than a few dozen centrifuges, no stockpile of enriched uranium, and limited knowledge about the enrichment process. Today, it has approximately 10,000 centrifuges, a stockpile of several thousand kilograms of enriched uranium, and knowledge of the nuclear fuel cycle that simply cannot be untaught. Any hope to eliminate Iran’s enrichment program was lost years ago.

Sanctions have increased American leverage vis-à-vis Iran as a result of unprecedented economic pressure leveled against Tehran.  However, we’ve not yet used our newfound leverage as a tool in a sustained diplomatic process that facilitates compromise.

Photo by NIAC