The Iranian Nuclear Conundrum
The author of the article below is an ex-diplomat. His piece – a paper prepared for delivery at a conference – can be considered a reminder that sometimes diplomacy has to strive to be an art.
Earlier this year President Obama’s readiness to engage with Iran on a basis of mutual respect was widely welcomed. It was seen, rightly, as opening up the possibility of a normalisation of Iran’s relations with the US and a reduction of tensions in South West Asia. More recent news suggests President Ahmedinejad’s government is not interested in engagement. Iran appears to have rejected the confidence-building proposal discussed at the meeting with the US and others that took place in Geneva on 1 October, and to have turned down suggestions for further high-level meetings with that group.
This is disappointing for all those who believed in the possibility of a “Grand Bargain” – the idea that Iran would be ready to allay concerns about its nuclear intentions in return for a settlement of its historic differences with the US and improved economic relations with the West.
It is not altogether surprising, however. Events over the summer showed that power in Iran rests with the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and with ultra-conservative clerics. An opening to the West holds no appeal for these groups. They are used to making political capital out of demonising the US and blaming the West for whatever misfortunes befall Iran. They live well on the proceeds of oil and gas sales, and from smuggling and drug trafficking. They know the West is powerless to prevent them achieving a nuclear weapons capability sooner or later, forced regime change being politically and militarily all but unthinkable in current circumstances. They may well see more advantage in being feared than in being trusted.
In any event, their rejection of President Obama’s overtures raises an obvious question for Western policy-makers: whereto now? Is there an alternative to imposing additional sanctions on Iran in the hope that this will deliver compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, or at least bring the regime to the negotiating table?
There may be. It seems to the author that there could be merit at this point in the West bringing Iran’s Islamic neighbours, as well as Russia, into the search for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear problem – that is to say, in the West encouraging regional involvement in what is primarily, though not exclusively, a regional issue. Iran’s neighbours share to the full Western interest in Iran remaining a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons would concern Islamic states to the South and West of Iran. Some of them would see it as creating a threat to their continued existence. All would recognise that it altered the balance of power in South West Asia. It would also be more than mildly unwelcome to Russia, since Russia has been a major contributor to Iran’s nuclear activities, Russia is a sincere supporter of the NPT, Russia has been repeatedly assured by Iran that its nuclear intentions are peaceful, and Russia’s leaders have stated publicly that they know of no evidence that Iran intends to manufacture nuclear weapons.
For their part, Iran’s leaders necessarily view Russia and their Islamic neighbours differently from the West. They depend on Russia for a range of military equipment and for aspects of the nuclear programme. They realise that provoking Islamic neighbours into acquiring nuclear weapons of their own, to deter Iran from deploying nuclear weapons against them, would reduce Iranian security and nullify any strategic advantage accruing from becoming a nuclear-weapon state. Moreover, they can deal with regional partners on equal terms – whereas complexes engendered during the West’s imperialist period are often an obstacle to responding intelligently to Western moves.
In other words, Iran’s leaders have an interest in assuring Russia and their Islamic neighbours that they have no intention of manufacturing or otherwise acquiring nuclear weapons – and Iran’s neighbours have an interest in acquiring credible assurances on that score. This suggests that a regional approach is more likely to deliver acceptable confidence-building than Western coercion and confrontation.
How far might Iran’s leaders be ready to go to reassure regional partners? All that has happened since 2003, when the IAEA first brought to light the extent of Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities, suggests that they will be unready to suspend or abandon uranium enrichment. They appear to see enrichment as a crucial technological capability, to be preserved at almost any cost.
This does not preclude their taking a number of other steps if they are minded to persuade regional neighbours that Iran should be seen as Brazil, Japan, the Netherlands and Germany are seen in their regions – that is, as an NPT non-nuclear weapon state possessing an advanced uranium enrichment capability. They could give formal assurances that they will not enrich uranium beyond 5% or withdraw from the NPT. They could agree to a permanent on-site IAEA or regional inspector presence at sensitive nuclear sites. They could modify the design of the research reactor under construction at Arak to reduce its effectiveness as a producer of plutonium (or, better still, offer to abandon construction). They could use their new reactor fuel manufacturing plant to turn their stock of low-enriched uranium into fuel for reactors. They could ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Of course none of these measures would suffice to reassure some in the West or many in Israel. For such groups nothing less than the abandonment of uranium enrichment, and the dismantling of Iran’s enrichment plants, will suffice. Bringing them to recognise the following points would not be easy (but might not be as hard as persuading Iran to abandon enrichment):
· Iran is as entitled under the NPT to enrich uranium as are Brazil, Japan, the Netherlands, Germany and any other non-nuclear weapon state;
· The NPT does not require a state that breaches its NPT safeguards obligations, as Iran did prior to 2003 and, in the view of many, has done since, to abandon enrichment (or indeed any other sensitive nuclear activity);
· No one has yet claimed to have proof that Iran’s leaders intend to acquire nuclear weapons. Plenty of evidence points to their wanting to acquire the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons quickly – and the origins of the programme in the 80’s when they faced an existential threat from Saddam Hussain suggest a motive for that – but the goal of a latent capability is significantly different in nature, and in its legal and political implications, from the goal of possessing nuclear weapons;
· The legally-binding nature of UN Security Council calls since 2006 for the suspension of enrichment has to be set against the political motivation underlying these resolutions. The resolutions were designed to obtain through coercion what the West had been unable to obtain through persuasion. This was reasonable at the time: there is no doubt that abandonment of uranium enrichment would be the most satisfactory outcome to the Iranian nuclear issue. But time passes. It now makes sense to recognise that coercion is not going to work and to settle for a lowering of tension in the region, as long as NPT Article II is respected.;
· There is no reason to hope that ever tighter sanctions will cause the Iranian government to come into compliance with Security Council resolutions. Since the establishment of the League of Nations in 1919 the record of sanctions as an enforcement tool has been decidedly poor. In the Iranian case the chances of success are further reduced by the commercial ambitions of some, by a concern not to hurt ordinary Iranians, by the importance to the global economy of Iran’s oil exports, and by awareness that the IRGC stands to profit from certain sanctions, thanks to their control of smuggling networks;
· If, after all, clear proof emerges that Iran intends to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons, in contravention of Article II of the NPT, support for drastic action to bring them up short will be almost universal. Though many, if not all, of Iran’s fellow-members of the Non-Aligned Movement resent the double standard at the core of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and also Western acquiescence in Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons, only a very small minority would be indifferent to Iran weakening the regime by cheating on its NPT obligations. Near-universal support for incisive action to arrest an Iranian nuclear “break-out” would lend that action legitimacy and moral authority;
· Fears that Iran will use an enrichment capability to supply Hezbollah or some other terrorist group with material for a bomb seem exaggerated. It is no secret that Western nuclear forensic experts are capable of identifying the source of fissile material. Every nuclear device has a signature. Iran’s leaders must assume that terrorist use of Iranian-supplied fissile material would provoke massive retribution. It has been open to Iran for years to supply terrorists with material for “dirty bombs”(radiological dispersal devices); they have not done so;
· The cost to the international community of trying to deny Iran its rights is mounting and could rise further in future. An Iranian risk premium is one of the factors contributing to the relatively high price of oil since 2005. Increased Iranian production is going to be needed to keep global oil supply and demand in balance, as non-OPEC supply dwindles in the coming decades. An increase in production is unlikely to be feasible technically or financially until the tensions generated by the nuclear issue have subsided.
Encouraging a regional search for assurances that Iran intends to comply with its NPT obligations need not entail the West sitting back and waiting for news. For one thing, there will still be a role for public diplomacy. The West should make clear to Iran’s leaders that the West remains open to engagement if Iran’s leaders can demonstrate that they have the will to work for a normalisation of relations; and that the West will stop at nothing to counter Iranian infringement of Article II of the NPT.
These messages can be followed by the reiteration of two messages to the Iranian public: firstly that the West accepts that Iran’s NPT rights extend to the peaceful use of uranium enrichment technology, and that the West will be ready to dismantle sanctions if and when international concerns about Iran’s nuclear intentions have been allayed; secondly, that there is no longer any justification for Iranian hostility to the West. The West respects Iran’s rights and wants to be able to see Iran as a partner and force for stability in South West Asia. The West also wants normal trading and economic relations with Iran; these can boost the living standards of ordinary Iranians.
In addition, the West should maintain, and if necessary reinforce, measures to deny Iran WMD- and missile-related technology. Accepting that Iran may end up in a position analogous to those of Brazil and others need not entail making that goal easier to reach. The West should also ensure that Iran is prevented from proliferating any of its WMD know-how or equipment.
And if introducing further sanctions helps Western leaders to demonstrate that there is a price to be paid for flouting UN resolutions, not least in the wake of President Ahmedinejad’s latest childish and potentially ruinous gesture of defiance, that too can be done, provided the Revolutionary Guards, not ordinary Iranians, are the target.
Encouraging a regional quest for credible assurances that Iran does not intend to go beyond mastering uranium enrichment; influencing public opinion in Iran through subtle public diplomacy, in the hope that one day this will colour government policy towards the West, despite the totalitarian nature of the regime; making intelligent use of all available counter-proliferation instruments; and hurting the IRGC through sanctions – these can be the main ingredients of a tough-minded but realistic Western policy. It can deliver quite quickly a lowering of tensions in South West Asia and cheaper oil, to the benefit of hard-pressed Western economies. It can generate latent international support for a firm defence of the NPT regime, should Iran start to transgress Article II or withdraw from the Treaty, absent “extraordinary events jeopardising Iran’s supreme interests”. It can leave open the possibility of an evolution of political attitudes in Iran that makes possible more productive relations with the West.