But not all sunsets are the same

A few days ago, I wrote that any deal with Iran on its nuclear program with a sunset clause would be a bad deal.

Perhaps I should clarify.  By a “sunset clause” I meant one that phased out most restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program without continued intensity of inspections and a clear sanctions/response that would continue after the sunset.  In other words, I am against the kind of sunset clause that rewards Iran with a promise of a reduced level of monitoring and response at a relatively near future date.

But there are other kinds of sunset deals, and here is one that would be acceptable:   IF Iran has complied with all conditions for 10 years, and IF inspections would continue unimpeded AND sanctions and other responses would continue to be automatically triggered by any discovery of higher-enriched uranium or undisclosed enrichment or fabrication facilities, and IF Iran has need for expanded civilian power generation and transparently lays out its plan for civilian nuclear power (including full compliance with international inspections of those facilities and their fuel cycle) THEN it would be permissible for Iran to start expanding the amount of uranium it enriches domestically to the 3-5% civilian use level to a volume reasonable to supply that specific need.

In short, the goal of a deal should not be to indefinitely deprive Iran of any opportunity to develop civilian nuclear power.  Such a deal would not be acceptable to Iran, nor consistent with the goals of the international non-proliferation treaty that Iran has signed.  Rather, the goal of any deal should be to limit Iran’s enrichment capacities for the near term, AND to ensure that ALL of Iran’s nuclear activities are subject to strict international scrutiny and inspections, and immediate punitive response, if they deviate from approved and transparent procedures.

For example, a treaty that specified that sanctions would be re-imposed automatically each year unless Iran received a certificate of compliance from the International Atomic Energy Agency, with no sunset clause for that item, would be OK even if it did allow for moderate increases in civilian-level enrichment of uranium after some future date.

What matters for weapons capacity is not how much 3-5% enriched uranium Iran has; what matters is how much industrial capacity (centrifuges) Iran has to raise that enrichment level to 20%+, and whether inspections and transparency are sufficient to detect that higher enrichment quickly.  Keeping capacity to reasonable limits and inspections active, and having strict and punitive responses to non-compliance with those limits and inspections, are the key.

Again, Iran should be willing to comply with any deal that will allow it to eventually develop a civilian nuclear energy industry (which does require 3-5% enriched uranium which is useless for bombs), even a deal that requires very strict inspections to ensure that none of that uranium is diverted for higher enrichment, and that auxiliary technologies for bomb making (detonators, lenses for focusing implosion) remain undeveloped.  That is, IF Iran is willing to conform to its avowed interest ONLY in civilian nuclear energy.

So I will say again that a good deal would be good for Iran, its people, the US, and the entire Middle East.  Let’s hope the negotiators do craft a good deal.   A bad deal would be a temptation, but one that must be resisted.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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