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Iran and the Bomb


During the past few months, many nations have reached a consensus on the threat that Iran’s nuclear program poses to international security. A similar consensus eluded the same nations in the debate over invading Saddam Hussein’s Iraq three years ago. On March 8, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna referred Iran’s case to the Security Council. In public or private, but increasingly in public, senior officials from a wide range of countries—including the US, the EU states that vociferously opposed the invasion of Iraq, as well as India and Japan—speak of Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons with a conviction that suggests they regard it as an incontestable fact. Citing a series of deplorably anti-Israel statements by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, officials from some of the same countries express the fear that once Iran has the bombs it is assumed to be seeking, it will threaten Israel with a new and reckless vigor.

There is less agreement on the US contention that citizens of the Islamic Republic are captives of the country’s clerical elite, and that other countries should strengthen Iran’s pro-democracy organizations so that Iranians can enjoy, in George Bush’s words, the “right to choose [their] own future.” But this view may be spreading. In a recent speech, Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, declared his support for Iranians’ “aspirations for a freer and more democratic…future.”1

As the Security Council debates what to do about Iran in closed sessions during the coming months, Iran’s relations with many countries will continue to worsen unless its leaders give in to international pressure and abandon their plans to become producers of nuclear fuel by enriching uranium, which they could use to make bombs. Between October 23, 2004, and January of this year, Iran had suspended work aimed at achieving a nuclear fuel cycle using enriched uranium. Then it started work on enrichment once again, and reacted to the IAEA’s strong condemnation of this move by telling the agency that it could no longer inspect sites other than those that Iran had declared to be nuclear sites. On March 29, the Security Council issued a statement repeating the recent demand of the IAEA that Iran again suspend its work on uranium enrichment and allow the IAEA to inspect installations where nuclear work is suspected of going on.

If Iran refuses to comply with such demands, as it has vowed to do, and continues the uranium enrichment program that it started in January, a senior British official expects it to have acquired “the technology to enable it to develop a nuclear weapon” by the end of this year.2 If the Iranians do not back down, the US, Britain, and France are expected to try to persuade the Russians and Chinese to support a subsequent resolution declaring Iran in violation of international law.

Having agreed that the Security Council discuss Iran’s behavior, Russia and China, however, have indicated that they oppose putting heavy political pressure on the Iranians. In the Security Council they will most likely insist that the IAEA must have the main responsibility for dealing with Iran’s program, and that other UN action be delayed, if it is taken at all. Russia and China have large interests in Iran. The Chinese recently agreed to purchase a large amount of Iranian oil and gas during the next three decades. Russia considers the Islamic Republic an ally in its efforts to counter America’s influence in the Middle East. It has also sold Iran civilian nuclear technology, a new air defense system, and civilian aircraft.

It is true that Russian officials were irritated by Iran’s policy of prevarication while responding to their proposal that it transfer uranium-enrichment activities to Russian soil.3 Nonetheless, they maintain that excessive pressure on Iran may impel it to opt out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) altogether, and end even the much-reduced access that inspectors now have to Iranian sites. The Iranians have not discouraged such speculation. Russia and China seem unlikely to join in the policy of sanctions against Iran that the US, Britain, and France hope that a coalition of countries will adopt should Iran refuse to comply with a putative resolution demanding that it stop its uranium enrichment program and accept more intrusive inspections.4

To judge from his comments during a press conference on March 8, it seems that Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA’s director general, has some sympathy for the Russian and Chinese positions. He called on the parties to avoid an “escalation” and engage in more talks. ElBaradei is said by diplomats to be deeply disappointed that after three years of intensive inspections and correspondence with the Iranian authorities, he can’t say that the Iranian program is peaceful.5 In his most recent report, on February 27, he acknowledged that the IAEA has not seen in Iran “any diversion of nuclear material to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” But he was troubled that Iran had provided inadequate information about its program to develop centrifuges to enrich uranium. He was, he said, concerned about the ambiguous “role of the military” in the program. He mentioned a document sent to the Iranians from a supplier of nuclear technology described as suitable for the “fabrication of nuclear weapons components.” The Iranians said the document was unsolicited.

ElBaradei’s agency has much to lose if Iran achieves a fuel cycle and the ability to build a bomb at short notice. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed by 188 nations, has been undermined by countries such as India, Pakistan, and Israel, which refused to sign it and have nuclear devices. North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and then claimed to have a nuclear device. The NPT would lose what little credibility it still has if Iran were to quit or were allowed to stay a member of the group of signers while remaining elusive about its nuclear program. If the NPT collapses, the result could well be a nuclear arms race involving Saudi Arabia and other nations in the Middle East. ElBaradei’s extensive dealings with Iranian leaders, and particularly with its top nuclear officials, who answer to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seem to have convinced him that the only solution is to negotiate a deal with Iran that will involve the US. On March 8, he called on the US to negotiate with Iran and stressed the need for “a comprehensive political settlement that takes account of all underlying issues.”6

As the Bush administration sees it, the main “underlying issue” is that Iran’s fanatical and unpopular regime is secretly trying to build a bomb with which to threaten Israel and other countries. Only by asserting the possibility of sanctions or preventive war—the “meaningful consequences” to which Dick Cheney has referred—can the US and other influential nations stop this from happening. This reading of the Islamic Republic’s position is misleading, however. First, it ascribes to a fractured and secretive state a transparency of intent and an ideological rigidity that it does not have. Second, it absolves the US of any responsibility for Iran’s refusal to abandon its ambitions to have a fuel cycle, and of any obligation to use diplomatic means to persuade its leaders to change their mind.7

The Iranians’ ability to behave with startling pragmatism was first displayed during the Iran-contra scandal of 1986, when they were found to be cooperating with their American enemies to buy arms from Israel, whose right to exist they contested. After the death three years later of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranians developed relations with Saudi Arabia, a kingdom that Khomeini himself had loathed. The Iranians also indicated that they would take no action to implement the death sentence that Khomeini had passed on Salman Rushdie. After the attacks on America of September 11, Iran provided valuable support for the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and for the new Afghan government.

Iran’s enmity toward Israel is more nuanced than Ahmadinejad’s statements suggest. The President’s declarations that Israel should be “wiped off the map,” and that the Holocaust is a “myth,” understandably aroused fears that Iran might be considering an attack on Israel. But Iran’s senior civilian and military officials have insisted that Iran will strike Israel only if Israel strikes first.8 More significantly, the President and supreme leader have both reiterated Iran’s longstanding demand for a referendum on the status of Israel that would involve all Palestinian refugees. This official position would not seem to be consistent with an ambition to destroy Israel by force, least of all by using nuclear arms, which would endanger the very Palestinians whom the Iranians claim to be protecting. Several senior Iranian officials, including Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who heads a powerful arbitration council in Tehran, have not disguised their irritation with the President’s comments. But Ahmadinejad has benefited from the furor. By raising his prestige among hard-line Islamists around the world, the President has made it harder for his domestic opponents, who include Rafsanjani, to undermine him.

Iran’s nuclear crisis centers on the Islamic Republic’s ambitions and fears, and these are hard to identify when we consider the largely hidden decision-making process in Iran, where an elected president and parliament are subservient to an unelected supreme leader and other appointed bodies. All are in competition with one another and it is hard to know exactly how decisions are made. Seeking clues, one could do worse than review the deterioration in relations between Iran and the US since early 2002, when Bush included the Islamic Republic in his “axis of evil.” At the time, I was told by Iranians connected to the clerical elite that this speech had convinced Iran’s leaders that Bush intended to bring down the Islamic Republic. Iranian insecurities were subsequently heightened by the American invasion of Iraq, even though it got rid of one of Iran’s worst enemies—and by the US’s stated ambition to democratize the Middle East.

Unsurprisingly, Iran has obstructed George Bush’s mission of regional transformation. The Iranians have been asserting their influence over neighboring Iraq, while doing nothing to help the US out of its predicament there. Iran has been channeling cash and arms to Iraqi Shiite groups, and it encourages commercial and philanthropic work in Iraq by Iranian citizens. In spite of Western pressure, the Iranians have not changed their support for other regional adversaries of the US, including Syria and such groups as Hezbollah (which Iran co-founded with Syria) and Hamas. Some Iranian leaders went out of their way to whip up religious anger against the West during the recent controversy over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that were published in a Danish newspaper. “Iran’s aim,” observes an experienced analyst in Tehran, “is to ensure that the Americans are too harassed to be able to threaten it.”

Achieving a nuclear fuel cycle and the ability to build a bomb would give Iran’s leaders a different degree of protection altogether. It would be in a position to deter attacks by any hostile power. Acquiring a fuel cycle, however, is a perilous undertaking. In a speech that he delivered to senior officials at the end of 2004, whose contents were recently made public, Hassan Rohani, then Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, spoke of the intense diplomatic pressure being felt by Iran. “If we can one day complete this [uranium enrichment] cycle and present the world with a fait accompli,” he said,

  1. 1

    According to a British official, Straw’s speech showed that Britain’s former policy of “critical engagement” with Iran was being replaced by a more militant approach.

  2. 2

    The official, who spoke anonymously to British newspapers following Iran’s referral to the Security Council, was referring to Iran’s impending mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, a prerequisite both to generating electricity and building a bomb. But he acknowledged that even with this technology, it would still take several years for Iran to build a serviceable weapon.

  3. 3

    Talks on this deal, which would deny Iran the opportunity to enrich uranium to the level needed for use in bombs, and prevent it from keeping spent reactor fuel that could itself be reprocessed for military use, have dragged on since last autumn, amid American and European accusations that the Iranians are negotiating in bad faith. On March 12, apparently in response to Russia’s support for the referral of Iran’s case to the Security Council, the Iranians ruled out the Russian proposal, only for the Russians to call for a new round of negotiations, apparently not started, a few days later. But the Iranians have not abandoned their insistence that they retain a working uranium enrichment facility on Iranian soil; and that, European and American officials say, would render the Russian deal meaningless.

  4. 4

    At the beginning of March, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, warned against endangering “the ability of the IAEA to continue its work in Iran…. I don’t think that sanctions as a means to solve a crisis have ever achieved a goal in the recent history.” A few days later, in what was interpreted as a hint that Iran may opt out of the NPT, Iran’s foreign minister said, “If we reach a point that the existing rules don’t meet the right of the Iranian nation, the Islamic Republic of Iran may reconsider policies.”

  5. 5

    The IAEA inspections and correspondence with the regime revealed that Iran had spent many years concealing sensitive information about its nuclear research and procurements. The Iranians argue that America’s policy of persuading nuclear suppliers not to sell Iran technology forced them to use clandestine channels. But this is not incompatible with another, more widespread explanation, that Iran concealed aspects of its program in order to conceal the fact that it aimed to build a bomb.

  6. 6

    According to Flynt Leverett, a former director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, as recently as 2003, Iran showed that it was receptive to the idea of such a settlement. In an Op-Ed that he wrote for the January 24 New York Times, Leverett regretted the Bush administration’s hostile reaction to a “detailed [Iranian] proposal,” delivered in that year, “for comprehensive negotiations to resolve bilateral differences.”

  7. 7

    Other countries, particularly Britain, France, and Germany, which have spent the past three years in negotiations aimed at persuading the Iranians to abandon their fuel cycle ambitions, have repeatedly and futilely urged the Americans to negotiate directly with Iran. The proposed meeting concerning Iraq would be limited, both sides insist, to discussion of Iraq.

  8. 8

    Last November, Khamenei, who controls Iran’s foreign policy, declared that Iran “will not commit aggression toward any nations.”

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