Iran Nuclear Diplomacy: Can U.S. Accept a New Outcome?

President Barack Obama on Oct. 1 gave Iran two weeks to open its hitherto secret nuclear facility at Qum to inspection. Iran eventually agreed to allow officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA to visit the site on Oct. 25. That 10-day gap between what Obama demanded and what Iran was willing to concede symbolizes the looming dilemma for the Administration on Iran nuclear diplomacy - even if a solution is achieved, it's unlikely to be the solution that the West has been demanding.

An air of gloomy skepticism descended on Washington in the days after the Geneva meeting, with many suggesting that Iran was simply playing for time and not with open cards. The deeper reality, though, is that even if Iran cooperates, it won't necessarily do so on Western terms. The progress made in Geneva, for example, skirted the primary demand that the U.S. and its European allies have pressed since 2006: that Iran freeze and eventually give up its uranium-enrichment program in exchange for a package of political and economic incentives.

What Iran did agree to was inspections at Qum and an arrangement to send low-enriched uranium to Russia to create fuel rods for its medical-research reactor in Tehran. The terms on which those inspections and the deal for enrichment abroad will be implemented remain to be seen. But they may well strengthen safeguards against Iran's turning nuclear material into weapons, even as they bypass the demand for Iran to halt uranium enrichment.

U.N. Security Council resolutions, backed by limited sanctions, require that Iran suspend enrichment until transparency concerns raised by the IAEA are settled. But the Western demand that Iran cede the right to enrich its own uranium is a more ambitious goal that doesn't have U.N. backing - because enrichment under safeguards to prevent weaponization is a right of all signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty NPT. When Iran insists it won't negotiate over its "nuclear rights," that's a signal that it has no intention of giving up enrichment. And the Iranians have thus far declined to discuss the "freeze for freeze" proposal that was offered by the West last summer, in which no further sanctions would be adopted if Iran simply refrained from expanding its existing enrichment capacity.