Iran’s nuclear challenge

Bahram Rajaee
14 February 2006

The standoff between Iran and the international community over Tehran's nuclear plans and intentions is reaching a critical point. On 4 February 2006, the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) adopted a resolution asking the IAEA secretary-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, to "report" the Iranian nuclear portfolio to the United Nations Security Council. The surprisingly emphatic vote – twenty-seven to three, with five abstentions – capped a period of furious diplomacy sparked by the informal agreement on 16 January among the council's five permanent members to report Iran.

This development represents a significant breakthrough for United States efforts to increase multilateral pressure on Iran to accede to western demands for greater transparency and forthrightness about its nuclear ambitions. In the past two and a half years, the United States administration has departed from the "Bush doctrine" in relation to Iran by largely allowing the IAEA and three European Union states (Britain, France, and Germany – the "EU3") to take the lead on negotiating with Tehran.

Also in openDemocracy on the internal politics and external relationships of Iran, and the prospects for democracy in the country:

Ardashir Tehrani, "Iran's presidential coup"
(June 2005)

Emadeddin Baghi, "Iran's new era: nine lessons for reformers"
(August 2005)

Nazila Fathi, "The politics of illusion in Iran" (August 2005)

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war" (October 2005)

Nasrin Alavi, "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fear" (November 2005)

If you find this material enjoyable or provoking please consider commenting in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

This more detached approach was dictated by four factors: the salience of Iraq in American foreign policy since 2003, the US's desire to repair frayed ties with its European allies, the lack of direct American leverage over Iran, and Iran's relative strategic strength. The IAEA vote is a clear signal that this phase has now ended.

The contours and dynamics of the next phase are gradually emerging, but the ultimate outcome remains far from certain – despite growing sentiment in some quarters that a military option is near or the only remaining solution. The most likely path remains one of difficult diplomacy regardless of whether or not the Security Council takes up the case directly – which the IAEA does not yet require. We are, therefore, at the end of the beginning phase of negotiations and not the beginning of the end. Those who expect a clear resolution of the Iranian nuclear impasse in the near future – such as a strong Security Council resolution requiring compliance while threatening sanctions or military action – will likely continue to wait for a lengthy period of time.

Iran's room for manoeuvre

Since the accession of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency in June 2005, Iran's negotiating posture and tenor has become more bellicose and inflexible. This has reduced Iranian influence on the negotiation process that had been in place and markedly eroded international support for Iran – paving the way for the closing of ranks among western powers and, now, the IAEA.

In fact, with Iran announcing on 6 February that it will fully resume enrichment activities at a future date (specified to the IAEA secretary-general, but not yet made public) and to stop abiding by the intrusive inspections called for in the IAEA additional protocol, Iran's hardline position has effectively terminated the pre-existing negotiation process. Given these rapid-fire events and the unravelling of the past two years of negotiations, what position is Iran in going forward?

Iran's room for manoeuvre in its negotiations with the IAEA and the EU3 has rested until now on four dimensions: legal, strategic, economic, and military.

First, Iran has argued that as a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) of 1970 it is legally entitled to controlling the full nuclear-fuel cycle for peaceful purposes. According to this argument, Iran's signing of the IAEA additional protocol – providing for more intrusive spot inspections above and beyond the safeguards agreed by the NPT – does not invalidate this right. Similarly, Iran asserts that its voluntary suspension of nuclear-fuel enrichment was not binding and intended as an indication of goodwill in the now-defunct negotiations with the EU3.

Iran's resumption of enrichment activities in January – which provoked the current round of tensions – also does not invalidate its rights under the NPT. Thus, Iran does not consider itself bound to either mechanism as it does to the NPT itself. Indeed, the west is hard pressed to make the case that Iran is legally bound to them above and beyond the claim that Iran is not negotiating in good faith. However, the resonance of Iran's legal argument has declined significantly with the Ahmadinejad presidency and his inflammatory rhetoric regarding Israel and the holocaust, as well as Iran's intransigence regarding the EU3 and Russia's offers to end the negotiating standoff.

Second, Iran has relied on its relatively good relations with western Europe and growing ties with non-western major powers – namely Russia, China, and India – to balance its poor relations with the United States. The use of the EU3 to blunt US pressure for Security Council involvement, however, appears to have run its course for now.

For its part, the US has smartly allowed Iran's hardline turn under President Ahmadinejad to push the EU3 closer to its own position, in effect making the American position more appealing simply due to the bombastic approach of Iran's resurgent radicals. The US success in bringing Russia and China aboard the permanent-five statement is therefore very significant, because it signals a resurgent effectiveness of US diplomacy after Iraq, as well as the attenuation of Iran's second strategic lifeline.

This development no doubt took Tehran by surprise, for if anything had provided the Iranians with some comfort, it was the expectation that Russia and China would extend support to Iran should its nuclear case end up in the Security Council. It appears now that this assumption is not a safe bet for Iran. That is, while Russia and China could still do so, there is simply no guarantee that these two states will wield their veto power in the Security Council on Iran's behalf.

Indeed, the agreement of these two powers to the permanent five's statement could well be a decision aimed at increasing pressure on Iran in the short term to yield to a negotiated solution while building up credibility with the US and EU3 in the long term. This positioning would provide them with even greater leverage should the Iranian nuclear portfolio actually be referred for meaningful action to the Security Council at some point in the future. Either way, the message to Tehran is clear: when push comes to shove, you could well be alone.

Third, the expectation that western fears of higher oil prices will somehow prevent firmer action against Iran may at first appear to be a powerful disincentive for conflict, but in reality will provide Tehran with little comfort. Oil prices have climbed dramatically over the past eighteen months but have still, for example, not prevented strong economic growth in the United States.

Moreover, the global oil market is a very tight one, and most projections expect that it will remain so for the foreseeable future. That is, prices will likely rise anyway and some continued increase is not unexpected. At some point, regardless of the economic implications, the west and the US may decide that the immediate threat posed by Iran's progress toward a militarised nuclear programme outweighs the cost imposed by higher oil prices. This calculation is simply not subject to Iranian control.

openDemocracy's global security correspondent Paul Rogers writes a weekly column tracking developments in the "war on terror". Among his reports on Iran's security policy and the possibility of an extension of the war to Tehran:

"Confident Iran"
(March 2005)

"America's Iranian predicament"
(August 2005)

"The Iran nuclear chess-game" (September 2005)

"Iran in Israel's firing-range"
(December 2005)

"The United States, nuclear weapons, and Iran" (January 2006)

Paul Rogers has also written a report for the Oxford Research Group on the likely effects of a military attack against Iran's nuclear facilities, including the prospect of heavy civilian casualties:

"Iran: Consequences of a War" (February 2006)

In addition, multilateral sanctions against Iran do not have to necessarily be aimed at its oil exports to hurt. The west could indirectly impose burdens on Iran's economy while still preserving the global oil supply or minimising price rises. To retaliate and inflict pain, Iran would have to suspend its oil sales by its own volition – consciously driving its own economy into the proverbial ditch – and inviting an economic downturn that could translate into significant domestic turmoil. Iran's difficult experience with the cutoff of oil revenue during the Mohammad Mossadeq era in the early 1950s should serve as a warning of what Iranians could expect. To invite this outcome, for a regime that is highly unpopular already with most Iranians, would be a dangerous step to take regardless of the preferences of its leadership.

Fourth, Iran's negotiating stance has rested in part on military considerations – including its capacity to escalate the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, spark turmoil in Lebanon and the Palestinian occupied territories, and perhaps even to support al-Qaida in its desperation to strike at US interests. Iran's security policy and doctrine has, after all, long been geared toward deterring the US via asymmetrical warfare. That is, while it remains a strong conventional military power in the region, for the past fifteen years Iran has devoted a considerable amount of resources toward developing its unconventional military capabilities.

The underlying calculus is straightforward: given the overwhelming qualitative and quantitative superiority of US armed forces, Iran stands little chance of successfully confronting the US military through conventional means. However, by developing effective weapons of mass destruction (WMD), special forces, ballistic missile and irregular capabilities, Iran could build up enough of a deterrent to give itself advantages in any future crisis and perhaps give potential attackers pause.

One element of this approach is the effort put into rendering Iran's nuclear facilities safe from surprise attack. By hardening, burying, or hiding these sites (the IAEA lists twenty-one – and there may be more it is unaware of), Iran hopes to reduce the certainty that a first strike will eliminate them all. These military elements of Iran's strategic posture retain the greatest salience in shaping its negotiating posture following the developments of the past few months – in part because the other dimensions of Iran's negotiating position have eroded considerably.

This does not, however, mean that a military outcome is predetermined. It simply means that the legal, economic, and strategic dimensions are increasingly losing ground as dynamics shaping the confrontation. The more isolated Iran becomes, the more prominent the military considerations will be as they are the factors that Iran can control most directly.

What next?

What can we expect to see in the next few months? Are we on the path to military conflict involving Iran, the United States – and perhaps Israel? There are, as noted, multiple dynamics at work here; but arguably the most important are the US approach to resolving this growing crisis and the ability of the Iranian regime to avoid a showdown that will likely have disastrous consequences for it.

For its part, the Bush administration has demonstrated a surprising ability to "keep its powder dry" while the EU3 and Russia attempt to resolve this question in the framework of the IAEA. To its credit, the US has allowed the new Iranian government to undercut its own position. Its recent success in finding common ground with Russia and China demonstrates that it is actively taking steps to neutralise Iran's ties with those members of the permanent five – indicative of an approach that understands that hard negotiating in the Security Council remains ahead.

The path from the IAEA "reporting" Iran to the Security Council to "referring" the case for action may be fraught with difficulty, but the ball is certainly in motion. In addition, the Bush administration understands that there are indeed military options with regard to Iran; they may not be optimal, lead to the termination of Iran's nuclear programme, or guarantee a long-term solution – but they certainly could arrest the progress of the programme and demonstrate US and international resolve clearly and devastatingly.

The most direct obstacle to the use of the military option is thus not its unfeasibility but the question of what happens after it is used. To date, the administration has not offered a coherent response to this question. While this gap may be enough to prevent the US from engaging Iran militarily for the foreseeable future, such an assumption is by no means automatic.

In any case, the west is not facing an urgent, imminent attack by Iran – a circumstance that would push the military option to the forefront. There are no indications that Iran is on the verge of developing a nuclear bomb; most sober analyses place that step between three and five years in the future, assuming Iran can overcome related technical obstacles. There are also no claims that Iran is "forty-five minutes" away from attacking Europe or the US. For now, the military option remains just that: an option. The point of conflict is a confluence of Iran's history in supporting radical Islamist groups, suspicion regarding Iran's intent, and the lack of Iranian cooperation and flexibility in relation to the IAEA.

Bahram Rajaee is director of international and external relations for the American Political Science Association. His writings on Iran have appeared in International Politics, the Middle East Journal, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and www.Iranian.com

Also by Bahram Rajaee in openDemocracy, a contribution to a symposium on Iran after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (alongside others by Roshanak Ameli-Tehrani, Nader Entessar, Ramin Jahanbegloo, Bahmsn Kalbasi, Abbas Milani, and Hamid Zanganeh):

"Iran's conservative triumph" (June 2005)

In this perspective, what would be the ultimate goal of "referral" of Iran to the Security Council for action as opposed to the "reporting" that will take place in the next month? Clearly, a more robust and transparent inspection regime will be demanded along with an end to Iranian half-compliance or lack of compliance. In addition, sticks ranging from the suspension of travel rights for Iranian government officials, broader transport sanctions, targeted economic sanctions, or full-blown economic sanctions including on oil and gas could be called for. Political steps such as formal censure or the severing of ties between Iran and international organizations – such as with South Africa during the apartheid era – are also possible.

Overall, the symbolism of such steps would be a clear indication of international opprobrium and have a powerful effect inside Iran where a strong nationalistic current coexists with an equally strong sense of national pride that is already smarting from Iran being tagged as a "terrorist" or "rogue" state. The inability of the Ahmadinejad government to prevent Iran being hauled before the Security Council may well become a significant domestic political liability for the radicals currently in power in Tehran.

The Iranian response to a hardening western line has vacillated between defiance and offers of further negotiation. In particular, the recent decisions to resume nuclear-fuel enrichment and suspend participation in the additional protocol represent Iran's most defiant actions to date. They may have bitten off more than they can chew, but the Iranian negotiating style has demonstrated a pattern of pushing the envelope to find out how far they can go followed by tactical retreats. As a result, it would not be surprising to see Iran begin to try to climb down during the next few weeks in order to defuse building tensions.

There does remain a small window of opportunity in the second half of February before the next IAEA meeting in March and a prospective gathering of the Security Council later in the spring. This window provides Iran with the chance to embrace the Russian initiative to supply Iran with nuclear fuel and recycle that fuel on Russian soil – a proposal that the US and the EU3 have supported and which Iran continues to claim is still alive.

The experience of post-1979 Iranian foreign policy – including the end to the US hostage crisis of 1979-80, the Iran-Iraq war, the Lebanese hostage crisis, and Iran's neutrality in the first and second US-Iraq conflicts and Afghanistan – indicate that, when push comes to shove, the Islamic Republic of Iran values its survival and security above all else. The challenge facing the west is to convince the regime that if left unresolved, this current crisis will lead to a chain of events that will directly threaten that survival.

Conversely, a powerful tool that remains underused in the west's negotiating toolkit is the provision of security guarantees to Iran that would serve to credibly reduce the Iranian regime's security concerns. Combined with a creative and flexible approach to the question of managing the nuclear-fuel cycle, these steps could begin to weave the foundations of a resolution to this growing crisis.

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