On February 19th the Brookings Institution held a discussion titled “Iran’s Nuclear Program: Is a Peaceful Solution Possible?” Former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, founder of The Iran Project and Brookings Senior Fellow Kenneth Pollack made up the panel, while Tamara Cofman Wittes, the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy provided opening remarks and moderated the discussion.
Although the U.S. plans to shift some of its attention away from the Middle East in the so called “Pivot to Asia,” fears of a nuclear armed Iran (and other regional security concerns) mean that the United States and international community will likely remain engaged in the region. The discussion addressed various options for nonmilitary solutions to the nuclear standoff.
The initial discussion focused on the upcoming P5+1 talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan. A huge issue in these talks is the mutual distrust between the United States and Iran. While Iran fears the United States’ goal is regime change, some in the United States have fears that Iran’s hesitance to engage in talks is a strategy to buy its nuclear program more time.
Ambassador Pickering made it clear that a substantial breakthrough in the talks seems unlikely. While the Obama administration had made great efforts to assuage Iranian fears of regime change, it would be impossible to do so completely, he explained. If any progress is to be made, it will come incrementally as trust is built and Iran gradually limits its program and addresses concerns about its past and present nuclear work. Verifiable action on Iran’s part would in turn have to be rewarded with lifted sanctions and other incentives by the United States and the International community.
Following up on Ambassador Pickering’s points, Kenneth Pollack stressed the need to have reasonable goals. While he too indicated the upcoming talks may not lead to a breakthrough, he did make the argument that if the international community was unable to seize opportunities for negotiations, everyone, including Iran, would end up with worse options. The best alternative now, he said, was to look at the big picture and define an end state that would be acceptable for both Iran and the United States. This end state could entail lifted or much lighter sanctions on Iran, while Iran in turn would limit its nuclear work to verifiably civilian products.
As ASP Director of Nuclear Security Terri Lodge recently wrote, each round of talks is an opportunity for both sides to commit to small confidence-building measures that will pave the way for a solution to the Iran nuclear standoff.