Ziv: Negotiate with Iran, but stay skeptical

Iran's and world powers' delegations sit prior the

Iran's and world powers' delegations sit prior the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks at the United Nations offices in Geneva. (Oct. 15, 2013) (Credit: Getty Images)

Despite Iran's recent overtures to the West and the optimistic assessments following two days of talks on the Iranian nuclear program in Geneva last week, there is ample reason to question Iran's intentions given its poor track record.

It's easy to dismiss Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's apocalyptic talk about Iran as antics. While his often hysterical and inflammatory rhetoric are counterproductive, his skepticism is warranted.

Netanyahu's assertion that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is merely a "wolf in sheep's clothing" will now be put to the test. Iran's actions in the weeks ahead will reveal whether Rouhani's so-called "charm offensive" is sincere or merely a ruse.


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Iran's foreign policy has long been a destructive one. Its theocratic dictatorship has supported Shiite extremist groups in Iraq. It has provided lethal weapons to the Assad government in Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been killed in an ongoing civil war. And Iran is the chief sponsor of the Lebanese-based terrorist group Hezbollah, providing it with arms and training. To preserve its influence in the region, Iran also has disrupted Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Ironically, Iran helped Netanyahu win the 1996 general elections in Israel by orchestrating four back-to-back suicide bombings -- the perpetrators referred to as "martyrs of Islam" in the Iranian media -- costing then-premier Shimon Peres his re-election.

Iran also has long engaged in a policy of deception and concealment with respect to its nuclear program. Rouhani's claim that Iran has no interest in building nuclear weapons flies in the face of realities on the ground. As his country's chief nuclear negotiator from 2003-05, he played a leading role in misleading the West on this very issue. Time and again, the Iranians have lied or omitted crucial information about their activities, such as when President Obama and Western allies revealed, in September 2009, the secret underground uranium enrichment facility at Fordow, near the city of Qom. Evidence that Iran has recently installed advanced centrifuges belies Rouhani's assertions that Iran is only interested in a civilian nuclear program -- a claim that the IAEA has been unable to corroborate and which Western intelligence agencies have long disputed.

Nevertheless, Rouhani's diplomatic gambit amounts to the most significant public outreach since the 1979 Revolution. It is imperative that the negotiations, set to resume in Geneva on Nov. 7, be given a chance since a diplomatic resolution to this issue would be preferable to military strikes or to a continuation of the status quo, which would simply allow the Iranians to continue building their bomb.

If a negotiated agreement is to succeed in ending Iran's nuclear weapons program, the U.S. and its allies must insist on the following minimal conditions:

Full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency's investigation of its nuclear activities. This includes allowing inspectors to increase the frequency and scope of their inspections, as well as granting permission to visit the military complex in Parchin, where the Iranians have reportedly conducted tests relevant to the construction of a nuclear bomb.

Temporary suspension of all uranium enrichment activities.

Shutting the heavy water plant in Arak, as heavy water could be used to produce plutonium for bomb-making purposes.

In addition, an acceptable deal with Iran must restrict uranium enrichment to low levels that are only useful for civilian energy purposes, as well as remove and downblend the country's enriched uranium to these lower enrichment levels before returning it to Iran. Such actions would help ensure that the nuclear program be used for only peaceful purposes.

Given the Iranians' desire to end imposed sanctions, which have significantly harmed their economy and threatens to do even more damage, Iran's leadership may have a reasonable incentive to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Any short-term concessions, though, should be crafted so as to be reversible if Iran proves untrustworthy.

Responsibility dictates that we probe the seriousness of Iran's outreach, but the country's nuclear history demands that we approach negotiations with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Guy Ziv is an assistant professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and Director of the Israel National Security Project (INSP).

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