Iran’s nuclear ambition continues to dominate U.S.-Iran relations, with little positive movement. The U.S. argues that Iran does not have the right to enrich uranium, that its enrichment program is only a cover for the development of nuclear weapons and that Iran is in violation of the NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons). As a result the U.S. has engineered sanctions on Iran through the United Nations and implicitly threatens Iran with military action. Iran argues that its enrichment effort is peaceful, that it is in compliance with the NPT and that unlawful abrogation of Iran’s rights will not stop its efforts. Iran has stated that that U.S. military actions will result in Iranian retaliation and on March 21, 2007 Iran’s Supreme Leader said that if other countries take illegal actions against Iran, then Iran would also have to undertake illegal actions. If both sides continue to go down this path, military conflict, intended or unintended, is inevitable. Iran will ultimately be forced to develop nuclear warheads and a delivery system simply to protect its sovereignty. There is the possibility of a compromise solution out of this mess but only if further escalation and unintended conflict are avoided. First, let me to give some essential background to appreciating Iran’s nuclear quest and Iran’s relations with the U.S.
Essential Background to Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Quest
Iran denies Washington’s claim that its covert intention is to develop nuclear warheads. There is no hard evidence to support the U.S. assertion and besides, Washington understands very little about the Iranian leadership.
Under the NPT, one of the two most significant inducements to signatories is the promise of access to peaceful nuclear technology, including enrichment and heavy water reactors. The understanding was that signatories would disclose all their nuclear activities. Iran failed to disclose all of its activities. Iran claims that disclosing its peaceful enrichment activities would have led to the voiding of its rights under the NPT even earlier. Ironically, all recent developments seem to support this Iranian assertion. The U.S. argues that given the nature of the regime in Tehran and because the regime failed to disclose its activities, Iran has lost its right to enrichment. From a legal standpoint Iran has not technically violated the NPT. Moreover, the nature of the regime in Tehran is totally irrelevant under the NPT. Countries, not governments, have rights and obligations and these are unaffected by changes in government. Simultaneously under the NPT, signatories could expect the support of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) for safeguards and other assistance in their quest for peaceful reactors. The IAEA’s Board denied Iran’s request for such assistance for its heavy water reactor in Arak on November 23, 2006. The key points are whether Iran has the legal right to enrich and to develop heavy water reactors. The answer is yes on both counts.
The other major inducement to signatories of the NPT was that the nuclear powers would reduce and eventually eliminate their own nuclear arsenals. Have the declared nuclear powers, especially the U.S., fulfilled their end of the bargain under the NPT? The answer is no. They have been both slow to reduce their arsenal or have increased it, the U.S. is developing new classes of nuclear weapons and some continue to test their nuclear weapons.
In the meanwhile, India and Pakistan have acquired nuclear weapons outside of the NPT. While they were initially slapped with sanctions, both countries are now given support by the international community. The U.S. seemingly embraces India’s nuclear weapons program; Washington has signed a nuclear cooperation and development program that will allow India to accelerate its weapons program. Pakistan receives more economic support than ever before and this backing of Pakistan is very difficult for Iranians to swallow. Why? Remember that Pakistan was the main supporter of the Taliban, a conveniently forgotten fact in Washington. At the same time Israel is estimated to have at least two hundred nuclear weapons and openly threatens Iran. Western, and especially U.S., double standard has not escaped Iranian scrutiny. In the face of these developments, Iran and Iranians feel insecure, victimized and bullied.
What does bullying and ganging up against Iran, without a clear legal basis, achieve? The answer is very little that is positive. Iran has not forsaken its nuclear program. It is likely that Iran will accelerate its efforts outside the IAEA monitoring structure. The flaunting of legal rights will only undermine the United Nations. The adoption of United Nations financial sanctions that are clearly at odds with IMF Articles of Agreement will undermine the international financial system. The price for these shortsighted policies will be paid in the future. The world can only look forward to more regional conflicts as countries are bullied into isolation and a greater likelihood of more nuclear mishaps given the fact that Iran and others will not benefit from IAEA technical support. If Iran is threatened further, one could expect the Iranian people’s increased determination to develop nuclear weapons and not just nuclear power. Why the potential quest for nuclear arms? Just look at Iran’s recent history, and especially its relations with the U.S.
Essential Background to Understanding Iran-U.S. Relations
Iran and Iranians (and not just those who oppose the mullahs) feel more insecure than at anytime since WWII. Acquiring an integrated nuclear power (not weapons) program may be the only way they can get the security they seek as it would enable them to develop a deterrent in case of imminent threat. Where does this sense of insecurity come from?
The U.S. and the U.K. overthrew the constitutionally elected government of Iran in 1953. Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 along with the West’s subsequent support for Saddam Hussein fueled Iranian unrest, shaped the Iranian psyche and affected Iranian attitudes toward the West, and especially toward the United States. The acquisition of nuclear technology (that could lead to the development of nuclear arms if necessary) is an increasingly popular policy in the eyes of the average Iranian. We must understand Iranian motivations if we are to dissuade Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. We need to realize and face up to the fact that the issue of an integrated nuclear power program, including enrichment, is now non-negotiable. If Iran is unfairly squeezed, then nuclear weapons will be developed.
After Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, the United Nations and the West took no serious diplomatic actions against Iraqi aggression, thereby failing to uphold the international rule of law. The reasons for this were clear: on November 4th 1979, Iranian student militants had attacked the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and fifty-two Americans were taken hostage. Western presumptions of Iranian religious expansionism were another factor in the West’s support of Iraq at that time. During the course of this bloody eight-year war, Saddam Hussein used U.S. and European-supplied biological and chemical weapons to kill and maim Iranians in the thousands, while the West embargoed the sales of even conventional weapons to Iran and supplied Iraq with all its needs, including satellite intelligence from the U.S. The result was that over 500,000 Iranians died and even more were injured, with many permanently disabled from biological and chemical weapons. Average Iranians, not just the mullahs, painfully learned what it was to be vulnerable to external aggression. The U.N. and international agreements did not provide the needed peace of mind for Iranians. The undermining of the international rule of law has consequences, although not always immediate.
Then came the first Gulf War. While Iran played a positive role, not only did it not receive any recognition, it was excluded from the ensuing regional U.S.-sponsored security arrangements that included even far-away Egypt. Iran did not receive any war reparations from Iraq. The U.S. further alienated Iran by opposing Iranian participation in Caspian Sea oil development and especially the construction of pipelines through Iran and oil swaps (Caspian oil for Iranian oil refineries in northern Iran for Iranian oil in the Persian Gulf). Finally U.S. economic sanctions on Iran were further tightened.
The first Gulf War was followed by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan on Iran’s eastern border roughly a decade later. Iran, the country that had supported the Northern Alliance throughout the Taliban rule and the country that had accepted over two million refugees, had another opportunity for quiet rapprochement with the U.S. and the rest of the West. Iran was especially optimistic given that the Northern Alliance was the main indigenous fighting force for the U.S.-led war effort. Again Iran was to be disappointed. Iran did not receive positive recognition and was instead labeled a founding member of the so-called Axis of Evil by the President of the United States, further alienating average Iranians (not just the mullahs) and making them feel less secure.
During the second invasion of Iraq by U.S.-led forces, Iran did not appear to interfere to the degree it could in Iraqi affairs, especially in the Shi’ite south where it has significant influence. Again, the rhetoric against Iran continued.
A U.S. that has not upheld the rule of law, reserves the right to overthrow regimes, does not follow the Geneva Convention and has been belligerent toward Iran now surrounds Iran on all sides. Can anyone blame ordinary Iranians for feeling insecure? While many, or even the majority, of Iranians may not support the mullahs, Washington’s record hardly inspires confidence in the average Iranian. The massive U.S. presence in the region only raises anxiety as evidenced by the results of numerous polls conducted in Muslim countries of the region. If the U.S. goes to war with Iran the effect will be the further solidification of the rule of the mullahs in Tehran and increased animosity toward the U.S. throughout the Muslim world. The U.S. has steadily lost the moral high ground in the Middle East since WWII.
The U.S. approach has not only stiffened the regime in Tehran but has motivated Iranians to defend what they see as their dignity and their rights as an independent nation. A major source of legitimacy for the regime in Tehran in the eyes of Iran’s citizenry is the fact that it has stood up to the U.S. Had the Shah been wise enough to stand up to Washington we might never have witnessed an Iranian Revolution. Furthermore, Iran’s independence from the U.S. buys much support among disenfranchised Muslim masses.
The Significance of Khameini’s March 21 Speech
Ayatollah Khameini has the final word in Iran. If we want to understand where Iran will go from here, we should look carefully at what he said on March 21, 2007 in the Iranian city of Mashhad. After mentioning Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA and emphasizing Iran’s lawful actions in developing its nuclear program, he went on to say:
“However, if they [most assuredly referring to the U.S.] intend to exploit the U.N. Security Council and take illegal actions, we can and will act similarly.
"Until today, what we have done is in accordance with international regulations. But if they take illegal actions, we too can take illegal actions and will do so.
“If they resort to forceful measures, the Iranian nation will utilize its full capacities to respond.”
The message of these words is quite clear to me. If the U.S. robs Iran of what Iranians perceive as their nation’s legitimate rights, then Iran will expel IAEA inspectors, shut down its monitoring devices, and go beyond peaceful enrichment in contravention to the NPT. Moreover, there will be no cooperation with the U.S. or its allies over regional affairs, including Afghanistan and Iraq. Confrontation, as exemplified by the detention of British sailors, will become the policy of the day. Iran will use any and all means at its disposal to fight the U.S.
It is for this reason that the U.S. and its allies cannot continue to try to intimidate Iran and expect all options to remain on the table indefinitely. If Iran is pushed too far it will go its own way and formally or informally leave the NPT. The only remaining option to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear warheads then will be a military one. Are we really ready to wage war with Iran?
The Brief Outline of a Peaceful Solution
Let me again emphasize basic facts. Iran will not abandon its right to nuclear power development, including enrichment. If the U.S. wants to take away Iran’s rights, then there is only a comprehensive military option. Bombing Iran will not achieve U.S. goals because Iran will become even more determined to master enrichment and to develop nuclear weapons. To have any control over Iran’s actions, the U.S. would have to invade Iran and occupy Iran for many years into the foreseeable future. The U.S. should face up to this stark fact.
If on the other hand the U.S. wishes to envision a peaceful solution, a brief outline follows. Again, it must be emphasized that in light of the Iranian Supreme Leader’s March 21 statement, this option will be on the table for a limited time, because Iran may undertake steps that will prove irreversible. The U.S. and its allies had better think hard and fast.
Here are three steps that could help everybody steer clear of an all-out war and that could guarantee the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. First, engage Iran in a dialogue with no preconditions. Second, discuss all bilateral and regional issues with Iran and embrace policies to better integrate Iran into the world economy so that it has demonstrably more to lose by continued isolation. Third, accept Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear enrichment with the understanding that Iran will agree to a number of safeguards (including the most intrusive inspections to date) to guarantee, as much as humanly possible, that it will not develop nuclear warheads. This contract could serve as a model to safeguard the future of non-proliferation and is the only peaceful approach to a resolution of the nuclear standoff with Iran.