Reflections On Robert Einhorn’s Open Letter To Iran – OpEd


Robert Einhorn, a former special advisor to the US nuclear negotiation team currently at the Brookings Institution, has penned a thoughtful, albeit provocative and self-righteous, open letter to the Iranian negotiation team that raises the prospect of normalization of Iran’s nuclear dossier after a period of “around 15 years,” i.e., the duration of a proposed comprehensive nuclear agreement. According to Einhorn, the special restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program during this period would be lifted and Iran would be “allowed to ramp up its enrichment capacity, including by mass producing, installing, and operating advanced centrifuges.”

Essentially, this is in line with the so-called “sunshine clause” of the Geneva “Joint Plan of Action” that foresees the removal of all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran and the full restoration of Iran’s NPT rights with the expiration of the final-status agreement. Assuming that Iran would consent to this proposal, the big question is, of course, whether or not the hawkish members of US Congress would allow such a deal that, from their point of view, simply postpones Iran’s much-dreaded “breakout capability” to several years down the road? Perhaps Mr. Einhorn ought to write his next open letter to the members of US Congress, which has shown all the propensities of a ‘deal-breaker’ by threatening new sanctions and torpedoing any Iran deal that does not scrap Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity.

Indeed, this forms a core of Iran’s worry, that is, the prospect of signing a deal with the Obama administration that the latter could not sell at home and would cause a severe backlash in US Congress. There is simply no guarantee that the US Congress would go along with the provisions of a final deal that would call for the (gradual) removal of Iran sanctions and, yet, Iran is understandably wary of inking an agreement that would not be implemented by the other side.

Lest we forget, in his July 24, 2014 interview with the New York Times, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif stated Iran’s readiness to accept a deal that would freeze Iran’s enrichment capacity at the current level for a period of seven years. The gap between Zarif’s proposal and Einhorn’s is not insurmountable, both in terms of the duration of the agreement and the number of centrifuges. With Iran’s “heroic flexibility,” the unnecessary Iran nuclear crisis can be ended and full trade relations between Iran and the West restored, benefiting both sides in a “win-win” approach. There is, however, a bigger “cognitive” gap that needs to be tackled in order to fill those (mostly quantitative) gaps, pertaining to the Western perception of Iran’s “nuclear threat.”

According to Einhorn, who has stepped down from the previous suggestion of a 20 year comprehensive agreement to “build confidence” about Iran’s peaceful intentions, the 15 year duration is sufficient to put such worries to rest, as a result of the robust inspections, Iran’s nuclear self-limitations, etc. spelled out in the final deal, focused on lengthening Iran’s “breakout” potential, i.e., the period of time needed for Iran to march toward nuclear weapons in a hypothetical scenario. Yet, it is entirely unclear why all the requirements of “confidence-building” cannot be met in a shorter, i.e., 7 to 10 year, duration? For sure, the current pace of Iran-IAEA cooperation with respect to the outstanding issues of “possible military dimension” can yield final results in the near future (i.e. maximum two to three years), and Iran’s consent to unique transparency measures and the like will be adequate after five to seven years to convince the Western nuclear skeptics that Iran’s nuclear intentions are peaceful and there is no military dimension to the country’s nuclear program. In other words, the stated logic for a 15 to 20 year extended duration for the comprehensive agreement is defective and, as stated above, suffers by the contradictory approach that concedes Iran’s full NPT right to an industrial-scale enrichment capacity a mere 15 years from now, despite the lingering “breakout” concern that, we are told, will no longer exist by then.

Thus, with the validity basis of Einhorn’s argument deeply undermined by the inherent contradiction of its underlying illogic, Iran’s nuclear negotiation team should be excused if they feel less than certain about Mr. Einhorn’s assurances about the West’s future respect for Iran’s nuclear rights. Fact is that as long as the Western governments continue to cling to the extra-legal standards that obviate the NPT norms under the guise of “breakout concerns” there is very little prospect of their turnaround from the current pattern of coercive nuclear diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran. What is desperately needed is a conceptual jailbreak from the confines of this arbitrary innovation that, as Einhorn himself in his March 2014 paper entitled “Preventing A Nuclear-Armed Iran” readily admits, is difficult to measure because of numerous variables that come into play. Infected by this highly questionable thesis that is in dire need of expert debunking, Einhorn’s seemingly reasonable proposal falls by the way side, with little power of persuasion particularly with respect to the skeptical US lawmakers, who are nowadays poised to besiege the White House over any “concession to Iran.” As a result, the ultimate value of Einhorn’s letter to Iran’s negotiation team is to remind Iran of the huge gaps that exist on many levels, above all on the conceptual level, precluding a mutually-acceptable deal. Closing the latter requires, in turn, a conceptual overhaul in the West, by avoiding arbitrary criteria and sticking to the established international norms, instead of seeking to impose a special regime of restrictions following an illogical, and inherently contradictory, argument that ultimately undercuts its own effort by raising legitimate Iranian suspicions of West’s fulfillment of its promises once the proposed 15 to 20 year deal expires.

These aside, Einhorn’s letter to Iran presents the uranium enrichment issue as the sole “make or break” issue when, in fact, from Iran’s point of view equally important is the issue of Iran sanctions, that are candidates for removal in a final deal and, yet, Einhorn fails to address this key issue in his letter, perhaps as a concession to his Brookings colleagues who have openly called for “reversible sanctions waivers” instead of removal. As a result, the West led by the US is on the verge of reneging on a key provision of the Joint Plan of Action pertaining to the final agreement, contrary to other “5 +1” nations, i.e., Russia and China, who have shown respect for Iran’s nuclear rights. This points to the final flaw of Einhorn’s letter, namely, his pretension of a unity of will among the “Iran six” nations when it is abundantly clear that the growing disunity among them is a major handicap in the on-going nuclear talks.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D. is an Iranian-American political scientist and author specializing in Iran’s foreign and nuclear affairs, and author of several books.

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