In poker, you fold when your hand does not seem promising. Or you start raising the chips and let your opponent figure out whether you bluff. In the Iranian nuclear poker, no side has yet thrown in the cards, but the stack keeps piling up. The ten-year-old odyssey of the nuclear crisis between the west and Iran is riddled with missed opportunities, mutual misperceptions, tactical concessions and rejections on both sides. As a member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), Iran has the legitimate right to nuclear energy for civilian purposes, though outstanding questions remain over the exclusively peaceful nature of its programme. The extent to which this covers the whole nuclear fuel cycle, from the mining of uranium ore over conversion to enrichment, is perceived quite differently by the various actors involved in the negotiations.
Though recent diplomatic initiatives in the run-up to the recent P5+1 talks in Kazakhstan pointed to an implicit recognition of Iran’s right to enrich, Iran wants such recognition to be made explicit. However, expert level meetings about the technicalities, as took place in Istanbul in March, will lead nowhere if disagreements at the political level are not comprehensively tackled. Possible technical solutions to the Iranian nuclear crisis have been presented, with policies of positive inducements labeled at various times as‘freeze-for-freeze’, ‘fuel swap’ or ‘step-by-step’ approaches. The range of technical options is known and has been played through. The rest is politics.
Ahmadinejad’s announcement of new uranium-processing facilities, only three days after the end of the latest P5+1 talks in Kazakhstan, is a case in point for the supremacy of political symbolism over technological rationalism. The nuclear fuel swap deal, as proposed by France and Russia in 2009, was crafted as a possible technical solution that would recognize the Iranian right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes in return for the sending of spent fuel rods to Russia. This was rejected by the Iranians, only to be followed by a proposal in May 2010 that was almost identical in terms of content and provisions. But, instead of France and Russia, this involved Brazil and Turkey as the powers that would ensure the delivery of energy and storage of spent fuel rods.
Only one month later - and under US pressure - the United Nations Security Council adopted the toughest round of international sanctions with Resolution 1929. This episode was not about technical provisions; it bore witness instead to the importance of power axes and alliance politics. It once more confirmed that the Iranian nuclear crisis must be understood as a proxy issue for wider political conceptions of Iran’s integration into the international fold.
A long-term solution cannot be conceived of in the absence of direct US-Iranian relations, and will have to be accompanied with a discursive shift away from unhelpful rhetoric about the irrationality of Iranian politics and the ‘rogue regime’ status of the Islamic Republic. Supreme Leader Khamenei’s blunt rebuff of direct US-Iranian talks in February of this year simply rehearsed over the ingrained ideological dimension of US-Iranian enmity. A fundamental and mutual lack of confidence lies at the basis of failed solutions to the nuclear crisis. Adding to this at the time of writing, advances on the nuclear front could be read as a political success for President Ahmadinejad domestically - something that Khamenei is keen to avoid shortly before the presidential elections, in the context of the increasingly growing political rift between the President and Supreme Leader.
A ‘face-saving’ solution for all sides involved in the nuclear dossier is simply not conceivable any more. The Iranian regime has tied its political survival to the nuclear programme, while western governments’ initial insistence on a complete cessation of Iranian nuclear activities makes it difficult to sell politically more accommodating positions towards Iran. Meanwhile, discussions about technicalities or about the format and venue of talks (negotiations about negotiations) can uphold the strategically important impression that the nuclear negotiation process is not dead.
In the long term, however, the Iranian nuclear crisis is about the survival of the NPT and its implicit function as a status quo instrument in global power constellations. Questions would have to address the legitimacy of the NPT in the face of the nuclear status of non-NPT members such as Israel, India and Pakistan, and prevailing double standards in nuclear non-proliferation policies with all the legal and political implications for international power constellations and global security governance at large. This involves a re-opening of direct US-Iranian communication channels and a candid understanding of the dialectic between nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament that will render non-proliferation efforts between the nuclear ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ more credible.
Any vision for a peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis must expose the deeper systemic conditions of international politics. Chances for a diplomatic solution have at times been rejected by the Americans or by the Iranians because neither side was yet ready for a political solution that would have entailed broader consequences for their relations: by implication, respectively, an upgrade for the international status of Iran or a discarding of some of the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary-ideological founding principles. As has become clear once again in Kazakhstan, no party wants to specify yet what the ‘endgame’ of the Iranian nuclear file will look like and whether this should be achieved through gradual steps or a politically more risky ‘grand bargain’ offer.
Beyond talks between the west and Iran about partial sanctions relief in return for an implicit recognition of the right to enrich, it should have become clear that this is a story of diametrically opposite narratives that can only complicate long-term solutions.
In the first, Iran accuses ‘the West’ of covert regime change intentions, while the second is a counter-narrative upheld by the west that justifies pressure on Iran for its repeated lack of transparency. Disregarding unhelpful aggressive rhetoric and threats of military action coming from any side, the options for a face-saving solution have been played through. Given the track record of failed attempts at diplomacy, it is questionable whether some tacit agreement can bring a long-term resolution to this new Cold War.
Much like the last one in the twentieth century, this one is a proxy issue for a deep-seated contention about power asymmetries in international relations. Confidence-building is much needed, but this will only be the first step in a global power restructuring that would have to see Iran returned to the ranks of respected nations and the emergence of a new, less distorting discursive culture on Iran, involving. This must involve a process of normalization of relations. This already is a Herculean task, and the track record of deep mistrust on both sides casts long shadows.
However, if the Iranian impression prevails that the west is merely interested in solving outstanding questions on the nuclear programme, with no genuine interest in integrating Iran into the international fold, the nuclear talks will continue to be a poker exercise. There is no less at stake than a fundamental rethinking of the way we approach international relations.