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Correspondence: Nuclear Negotiations with Iran
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To the Editors (Paul R. Pillar writes):

James Sebenius and Michael Singh are to be commended for advocating rigor in the analysis of international negotiations such as the one involving Iran’s nuclear program.1 Although they describe their offering as a neutral framework for analyzing any negotiation, they are not at all neutral regarding the negotiations with Iran; and they present conclusions that derive directly from specific substantive assumptions, especially about Iranian objectives. The authors repeatedly describe their assumptions as “mainstream,” implying that they are uncontroversial and that any differing ones are too extreme to be worth considering. For an assumption to reside within the mainstream of popular and political discourse about Iran, however, does not make it correct. Sebenius and Singh do something similar with assumptions about U.S. interests, while sliding silently between the descriptive and the prescriptive in a way that fails to contrast actual policies with possible ones that would be consistent with those interests. Many readers’ principal takeaway from their article will be that a zone of possible agreement probably did not exist as of the time of their writing and probably will not exist unless the United States takes steps toward going to war with Iran. That answer, however, given the questionable assumptions on which it is based, is very likely wrong.

Iranian Objectives

Sebenius and Singh’s most important mistake is to assume that what Iran wants more than anything else is a nuclear weapon. More specifically, the authors contend that the Iranians most want a “large nuclear arsenal,” which is what they label as the most pro-Iranian outcome on the frontier of possible outcomes in all of their diagrams. There is no basis for assuming that this accurately represents the preferences of the Iranian regime.

Tehran evidently has had an interest in nuclear weapons, as reflected in reportedly even doing some work in the past on the design of such weapons. Such interest, however, does not equate with the utility function that Sebenius and Singh ascribe to the Iranians. The authors cite the U.S. intelligence community’s judgment that Iran is keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons (p. 59), but this is not equivalent to wanting an arsenal of weapons. Nor is even pursuing a “nuclear weapons capability”—a slippery term that could be interpreted to apply to almost any nuclear activity, including what Iran has already undertaken. Sebenius and Singh fail to mention that, in the same assessment, the intelligence community said it does not know if Iran will ever decide to build nuclear weapons.2 Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has testified that the community believes Iran has not to date made any such decision.3

Sebenius and Singh do not mention other data points relevant to Iranian preferences and intentions—other than Iran’s repeated declarations that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, which the authors do mention but swiftly brush aside. There is, for example, Iran’s conversion of a substantial proportion of the uranium it has enriched to the 20 percent level into fuel plates for a nuclear reactor.4 This conversion diverts from the enrichment process a major portion of what could otherwise be used as feedstock for further enrichment to weapons-grade fissile material and may also have been intended to signal Iran’s desire to reach a negotiated agreement acceptable to the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1).5

Another indicator is the public declaration by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that nuclear weapons are a “sin.”6 Of course, one should not accept such a declaration at face value, but neither is it irrelevant to the Iranian leadership’s actual intentions regarding nuclear weapons. To the extent the supreme leader’s expressions on the subject are not empty religious flourishes and instead involve political calculation, a plausible interpretation is that he is preparing the ground for selling to the Iranian public as well as to elements in the regime an agreement with the West that would permit a continued Iranian nuclear program but would preclude development of a nuclear weapon. Such a posture is consistent with...

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