Responding to Iran's Nuclear Gambit

He's preparing his country for compromise -- is Obama?

Photographer: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has begun the new year by preparing his countrymen for the compromises Iran will need to make to strike a nuclear deal with the rest of the world. It was a significant step -- and U.S. leaders should take advantage of it.

Rouhani's most important point in a speech in Tehran on Sunday was that his country's ideals "are not linked to centrifuges but to our heart and determination." That's a poetic way of saying that the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges Iran can keep is not what matters most in a final agreement with the so-called P5+1  (China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.). If Iran is not allowed at least 8,000 of the 10,000 centrifuges it now has in operation, which it reportedly wants, this will not mean defeat for his nation.

Iran's Nuclear Program

What matters to Iran is that it gets to develop its civilian nuclear-power industry (for which it doesn't even need to enrich its own nuclear fuel) and that crippling economic sanctions are lifted. Keeping a minimal enrichment capability should be enough to satisfy national pride. As Rouhani said, his country's economy won't develop so long as it is internationally isolated and starved of investment.

Centrifuges can be counted, so they have become an easy measure of whether any prospective deal would be tough or soft, a victory or a loss for either side. Yet these specific numbers -- which have proved the most difficult issue to resolve -- are not the most important elements for a final deal.

For the P5+1's goal of ensuring Iran never makes a nuclear weapon, it is less important to insist on a certain number of centrifuges than to secure a long-term agreement by Iran to export enriched uranium for processing abroad so that it can't be diverted to make weapons. Equally vital is a regular and exhaustive inspection regime to expose any covert nuclear facilities in the country.

The next deadline to agree on the framework for a deal falls in March -- not a lot of time, given that these talks have dragged on for more than a year (or a decade, depending on how you calculate). So, if they are to succeed, both sides need to start looking beyond red lines on centrifuge counts and work toward an effective agreement.

Rouhani is, of course, the Iranian regime's moderate face. Any final decision on a deal would be made by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and any deal would be fought every step of the way by the Revolutionary Guard and others determined to protect their commercial monopolies and turn Iran into a nuclear power. Rouhani is no liberal himself, and nothing can guarantee that Iran never builds a bomb. Still, he is demonstrating his willingness to confront more conservative opponents to get a deal to relieve sanctions.

In his address, Rouhani threatened to call a referendum, presumably on any draft nuclear agreement. Even if Rouhani would struggle to make good on this threat, it suggests that he is confident he has public support for prioritizing the economy, and that he's using that support to overcome conservative opposition in parliament.

Falling oil prices have clearly deepened the bite of economic sanctions on Iran. No better opportunity to contain Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program is likely to present itself.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.