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Defusing the atomic bomb - Dealing with Iran’s Nuclear Program

Folgenden Essay habe ich im August 2010 als Wettbewerbsbeitrag für die Atlantic Community zum Thema Iran und dessen Atomprogramm verfasst. Leider kam er nicht in die engere Auswahl und möchte ihn dennoch an dieser Stelle veröffentlichen, schließlich sollen die Mühen ja nicht ganz umsonst gewesen sein. Mittlerweile hat sich ein 60 Mrd. Dollar-Deal der Amerikaner an Saudi-Arabien angekündigt. Ebenso wurden 20 F35-Stealth-Jets an Israel verkauft. Wie es schien, lag ich mit meiner Einschätzung und den Vorschlägen daher nicht ganz falsch. Viel Spaß beim Lesen!

Defusing the atomic bomb - Dealing with Iran’s Nuclear Program

Since the public disclosure of reports which revealed the existence of a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz and a heavy water facility in Arak in August 2002, there has been an open debate in the West of how to deal with Iran’s Nuclear Program. In order to understand the highly complex issue, some context needs to be provided first before I am going to outline a strategy to overcome a deadlock.

1. Driving forces of Iranian foreign policy

Ambition and fear are the driving factors of Iranian foreign policy. Therefore an effective strategy needs to take into account the ambiguity of ideology and pragmatism which presents itself when dealing with Tehran.

The Iranians see themselves as a regional great power and expect the world to recognize them as such. Hence it is not very astonishing that the Nuclear Program is used as a symbol for national pride to get even with other global players. But also since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and the second US-Iraqi war in 2003, the Iranian influence in the Middle East has become much stronger as highlighted during the 2006 war between Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Israel.
On the other hand, Iran feels threatened by the large US military presence on its borders to Iraq and Afghanistan due to a troubled bilateral relationship towards the US. This is even more significant because of the importance Tehran traditionally attributes towards the US as the strongest and dominant world power. The “weaker” Europeans are less relevant in Tehran’s eyes. The fear results from both historic and current events such as the US-backed coup against the Iranian President in 1953, the 1979-81 embassy hostage crisis, the US support for Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war, trouble over frozen Iranian assets, Iran’s dealing with organizations that the US see as terroristic, Iran’s hostile view against Israel, Iran’s Nuclear Program and more generally a struggle for dominance in the region.

1.1 Domestic impacts on foreign policy

Domestic issues, in particular the outrage over the presidential elections of June 2009 and tightening economic problems, do have an impact on foreign policy as well. The legitimacy problem since the presidential elections has caused unease among the leadership which had gained its power in 2005 through populist rhetoric in the first place and lost control over the streets and public discourse in the aftermath of June 2009. The regime regained control only by force. Economic sanctions further the problems for the already troubled Iranian economy and could lead to power struggles within the ruling elites. Hence successes in foreign policy could be capitalized by Ahmedinejad to counter domestic issues.

1.2 At the Crossroads

Analysts came up with two plausible but contradictory theories how the legitimacy problem will influence Tehran’s foreign policy. (1) Tehran may seek external confrontation to rally the Iranians behind his government or (2) the only way for the regime to regain support, especially among the young generation and more liberal classes, is to seek an opening to the West and a constructive dialog to solve the problems with the international community that have isolated the country.
At first glance, the latter seems to reflect wishful thinking of western analysts, considering the sharp, aggressive and provocative rhetoric of Ahmedinejad. But among analysts who have in-depth knowledge of Iran, there is a wide-ranging agreement that Iran has to be seen as a rational actor whose elites take decisions by weighing risks and opportunities. This is best highlighted in its policy towards its direct neighbors Afghanistan, Iraq, China, Pakistan or Russia. More problematic is that Iran is both rational and opportunistic with little regard for the security perception of others, resulting in rather short-sighted policy for short-term gains usually combined with the “Death to America and Israel!” rhetoric. This ambiguity of ideology and pragmatism is expected to stay, making Iranian foreign policy hard to predict and incalculable.

2. Recent developments and a way ahead

The so called “P5+1” (USA, United Kingdom, Russia, China, France and Germany) met representatives of Iran on October 1st 2009 in Geneva. Though diplomacy failed to produce a success yet, it was still shown that Iranian policymakers are willing to engage with the international community over the nuclear issue. An agreement was drafted under which Iran would have made some considerable concessions such as inspections and the export of low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for further enrichment and (re-)processing. In May 2010, Brazil and Turkey brokered a similar deal with Iran that would have shipped some of the Islamic Republic's low-enriched uranium out of the country to be exchanged for nuclear fuel, but according to others this deal was flawed: it failed to oblige the Iranians to transfer enough low-enriched uranium abroad so it cannot make a bomb while it is negotiating with the West. Had the Turkish-Brazilian deal managed to achieve this, it is extremely likely that it would have been acceptable, especially to the US. But both deals were killed, at least partly by Iranian elites that wanted to deny Ahmedinejad a major success as it was denounced as giving up national interests and assets or that western countries could not be trusted and might hold back Iranian uranium in the future.

Both sides would benefit from a deal. The West could applaud to a form of international outsourcing of the nuclear fuel cycle while Iran could state that the international community accepts their peaceful nuclear program. As long as there is no deal in sight, doubts remain that the Iranians attempt to camouflage their work on an atomic bomb while negotiating with the West. Signs for military activity remain. Recent reports indicate that Iranian rocket scientists have mastered key technology for advanced nuclear warheads and increased the level of uranium enrichment to 20% (90% is needed for atomic bombs). All these measures indicate that the country still works implicit on a military capability which could become available in relatively short time should the Iranian government decide to arm the country with atomic bombs.
Since the May 2010 deal, the UN Security Council, the US and the European Union have all passed sanctions against Iran. Those sanctions include penalties on Iran's insurance, banking and gasoline sectors as well as travel restriction of individuals. They aim at the government. Iran countered with an announcement to build two additional uranium enrichment facilities on Iranian soil.

The strategic goal must remain to deny Tehran a nuclear bomb and a capability to build one. International outsourcing of the uranium enrichment process seems to be the way both sides could agree on in principle. But a way forward must find a better balance of pressure, incentives and concessions towards Iran. The West already conceded Iran the right to have a nuclear industry and infrastructure. Tehran must also accept that concessions are to be made and that the nuclear industry must be designed meeting civilian needs only. Remaining doubts have to be sorted out. Only then a diplomatic deal becomes possible.

Pressure: It is unlikely that sanctions alone will force the Iranians back at the negotiating table. The current UN sanctions even cut out large parts of the energy industry. Furthermore, Russia and China are less likely to support harsher sanctions out of economic interests. In addition, the strategy of the West lacks a credible military deterrence element. Just not ruling out a military option does not create enough pressure. Without a more determined approach Tehran has no incentive to act more sincere on a diplomatic solution than without a fear of regime change. As a means to achieve this, the US could deploy defensive and offensive arms in the region or sell some of this equipment to its Allies. The signal of support for a key allies of the West in the Middle East would be strong enough towards Tehran.

On the other hand, a deal could be made more likely if it is combined with serious technological and economic help as an incentive. Iran’s economy is in dire need of foreign investments to modernize its ailing energy sector. China and Russia are keen to help. Dangling economic and technological cooperation could be even more convincing to the Iranians than military pressure. Moreover, Ahmedinejad could stabilize his government and exploit a success with the West for domestic gains. He could get his country out of international isolation similar as Ghadafi did in Libya. Also the West could gain a partner in improving stability in the region, a balancing power in the Middle East.

The author is a Government licensed Jurist (since 2016) and holds a Master of Laws Degree of the German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer (2017). He was Chairman of the Association of International Relations and Security Studies (AIRES) from 2010 - 2012. Several other articles of him were published at Offiziere.ch, a Swiss security policy blog. 

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