Published November 07. 2013 4:00AM
As the Obama administration moves into a decisive stage of nuclear negotiations with Iran, officials are considering a two-step process that would begin with a freeze and modest rollback of Iranian enrichment of uranium, matched by a limited easing of U.S.-led economic sanctions on Tehran.
Officials hope this first phase would be followed later by a comprehensive agreement that would lift all sanctions in return for a verifiable halt in Iranian nuclear weapons capability. This second phase is many months down the road, but the shape of a possible initial phase has likely already been discussed with U.S. negotiating partners in the P5+1 group and may be shared with the Iranians today in Geneva.
What's driving this crucial next round of bargaining is the torque of mutual pressure: Iran wants quick relief from sanctions that are crippling its economy. The U.S. wants to halt an enrichment program that every month is moving Iran closer to nuclear-weapons capability. Administration officials see their goal, in the first phase, as stopping the clock - and even adding a little more time. The aim is to relieve time pressures on both sides enough, and provide sufficient additional transparency, to allow the extended bargaining.
As in any negotiation, each side wants maximum benefit at minimum cost. Economists speak of a "price search" to discover an equilibrium point where a market "clears" and a deal is struck. But sometimes the lines never cross: The demands of one side are greater than what the other is willing to pay - and an otherwise doable deal is never reached.
Though negotiators appear hopeful on both sides, achieving this balance may prove impossible. Hard-liners in Iran may reject a verifiable halt (let alone reversal) of their enrichment capability; hard-liners in the West may refuse any face-saving offer to Iran of limited domestic enrichment capability that Tehran could claim endorses a "right to enrich." (The administration doesn't recognize any such right.)
What has been notable in recent weeks, however, has been the convergence toward the elements of possible compromise. The U.S. idea is that both sides would temporarily turn down their "spigots" of pressure. The West might allow Iran access to a limited portion of its oil revenues frozen by sanctions. Iranian sources have told me Iran might respond by converting its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to fuel rods or plates, and capping its stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium. Each side could later reopen these spigots - of Western sanctions and Iranian enrichment - if interim negotiations don't produce a final agreement.
If the administration's "freeze and reverse" approach is adopted, the crucial issue would be Iran's array of centrifuges and other enrichment technology. Israeli experts have insisted that Iran must show it doesn't have breakout capability by mothballing centrifuges (especially the newer, more efficient models) and by refraining from bringing online a planned heavy-water reactor at Arak. Otherwise, say the Israelis, the Iranians could continue to creep closer to breakout capability under cover of negotiations.
Iranian and American experts have both described over the past few months the same framework for a final deal - a verifiable set of procedures that reassures the West that Iran couldn't dash to make a bomb using its existing centrifuges or any covert facilities. This would mean a level of intrusive inspection that would be hard for the Iranians to accept, but Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told me in September that Tehran would consider such transparency measures.
Although Israel isn't formally a part of the negotiation, it can shape the outcome by influencing the U.S. Congress' willingness to lift sanctions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly insisted on an optimal deal that would essentially dismantle Iran's enrichment capability. Amos Yadlin, the influential former head of Israeli military intelligence, has said he would support a "good deal" that falls short of Netanyahu's maximum, but still would "widen the distance between Iran and the bomb should Iran unilaterally abrogate the agreement."
Yadlin listed some of the elements of this acceptable good deal, including a strict limit on the number of Iranian centrifuges in operation (now about 10,000); a 3.5 percent cap on enrichment; removal of all enriched material from Iran and its return in a form that can't be used in nuclear bombs.
Do the rewards of making a deal outweigh its costs? That's the calculus both sides will have to weigh the next few months. It's a makeable putt, as golfers like to say, but far from a sure thing.