Is Iran Just Fooling Us?

Are we just being fooled by Iran? Are we being seduced by a Persian snake charmer only to later be stung by his nuclear bite? According to Israel we are. Israel’s Minister of Intelligence, International Relations and Strategic Affairs, Yuval Steinitz says that newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani "has launched a charm offensive on the West, but he plans to charm his way to a nuclear weapon". Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it equally cleverly: "The Iranians are spinning in the media so that the centrifuges can keep on spinning". Netanyahu then warned the world that "One must not be fooled by the Iranian president’s fraudulent words". Steinitz said that the U.S. has to escalate its military threats to Iran, echoing the words of Obama, Kerry, and Netanyahu that Syria only abandoned her weapons "when there was a real military threat".

But both parts of the Israeli warning – that we should not fall for Rouhani’s charms and that we should intensify the military pressure – are deceptive.

Rouhani declared in a September 18th NBC interview that "We have never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb, and we are not going to do so". The interviewer pressed him to clarify: "Can you say that Iran will not build a nuclear weapon under any circumstances whatsoever?" Rouhani responded, "We have time and again said that under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever".

But despite the constant implication by the media that Rouhani is initiating a fresh, new approach, and despite the Israeli warning that his assurances are just the seductive words of a new charm offensive, though the tone may be new and welcome, the substance is not. As Rouhani himself prefaced his assurance, Iran has made this assurance "time and again".

Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in November 2012 that "The Iranian nation is not seeking an atomic bomb". He told the Washington Post that Iran has no requirements for enriched uranium beyond energy and medical isotopes:

For power stations, we need uranium of 3.5 percent, and we are producing that fuel. For the Tehran reactor, we need uranium grade of 20 percent, and we are producing that. We have no other requirements. Of course at the beginning we had no interest to produce uranium grade 20 percent. But the West refrained from giving us that uranium, so we had to start producing uranium grade 20 percent. . . . Even if they gave us now uranium grade 20 percent, we would not continue with the production of this fuel. . . . We don’t want to produce uranium of 20 percent. Because they did not give us that uranium, we had to make our own investments. If they start to give us that uranium today, we will stop production. . . . If they give us uranium grade 20 percent, we would stop production. . . . I repeat: If you give us uranium grade 20 percent now, we will stop production.

Both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his predecessor, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have insisted that the Islamic Republic would not pursue nuclear weapons because nuclear weapons are against the precepts of Islam. As recently as February of last year, Khamenei declared again that "from an ideological and fiqhi [Islamic jurisprudence] perspective, we consider developing nuclear weapons as unlawful. We consider using such weapons as a big sin." Ahmadinejad also frequently repeated this religious explanation. In September of 2012 he told CBC that "because of our beliefs, we do not believe in nuclear weapons, we are against it". The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, also explained to CBS news in 2010 that making nuclear weapons is "against our religion".

In 2003, in a comprehensive proposal approved by Khamenei and President Khatami, Iran offered to welcome international inspectors, make her nuclear program entirely transparent and to sign the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty on top of having already signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty.

So Rouhani’s assurances are not the beginning of a new charm offensive, they are the continuation of a foreign policy that goes back, through each successive President and Ayatollah, to the beginning of the Islamic Republic.

Even the tone of the message is not particularly new. Presidents Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Khatami all employed rational and diplomatic tones that reached out to America. Rouhani, who is a protégé of Rafsanjani and who served under Khatami, is simply restoring that tone after the more confrontational tone of Ahmadinejad.

However, to the extent that the tone is new, that it represents a return to a more diplomatic tone, the new tone should be welcomed by those who most criticized the more confrontational tone of Rouhani’s predecessor. In an attempt to strike a meaningful new tone, at least from the perceived tone of the Ahmadinejad administration, Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad-Zarif has recently recognized the holocaust as a historical fact and condemned the killing of Jews by the Nazis, according to Hossein Mousavian, the former head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. Zarif recently tweeted about the holocaust, saying, "Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone". To dismiss the new tone as a charm offensive that should not be believed puts Iran in a no win situation. To maintain the old tone is proof of hostility; to adopt a more desirable tone is to disguise the hostility.

But Iran is not just presenting new words in a new tone. Her assurances are also being backed by actions. According to the International Atomic Energy Association, Iran has been putting the brakes on her accumulation of 20% enriched uranium because she has been converting it into solid uranium oxide powder to turn it into fuel plates for medical isotopes. Ali Akbar Salehi reports that Iran’s stock of 20% enriched uranium has dropped significantly from 240kg to around 140kg due to conversion to fuel plates for medical use. He also offers the assurance that the rest is being converted.

The reduction of 20% enriched uranium suggests that Rouhani’s words are not just meant to charm but are meant to be believed. While America and Israel have accused Iran of enriching uranium as part of a military program, Iran has insisted that it is part of a peaceful civilian program.

Iran enriches uranium to 3.5% for energy. She needs uranium enriched to 19.5% for medical isotopes used in the imaging and treating of cancer. In 1988, Iran acquired 20% uranium from Argentina. While Iran had the 20% enriched uranium she needed to keep her hospitals running, she never enriched uranium beyond the 3.5% needed for energy. When she began to run out of the 20% enriched uranium, Iran went to the International Atomic Energy Association and asked for its help in purchasing more. But the US and her European allies prevented the purchase, leaving Iran to either make her own or stop treating her citizens with cancer. Iran has subsequently agreed on a number of occasions to send her 3.5% enriched uranium out of the country to be returned as medical isotopes produced in other countries. Most recently, a Brazilian-Turkish brokered uranium swap was shot down by the United States. Only after Iran had exhausted every other legal means of acquiring 19.5% uranium for her hospitals did she turn to legally enriching her own uranium to 20%.

Iran’s defense, then, is based on the claim that she is further enriching uranium to 20% solely for use in her hospitals and not for use by her military. Now that Iran has enough, according to the International Atomic Energy Association, she is converting her 20% uranium to fuel plates for medical use instead of continuing to produce the amount of 20% uranium that would be necessary to further enrich it to the 90% needed to make a bomb. That seems to back Iran’s claim that she is enriching for medical purposes and not military purposes.

If you ignore that Rouhani’s words are a continuation of a policy that stretches back to the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and you ignore that there is a new tone to those words as well as documented action to back them, then you will see Rouhani’s words as a charm offensive designed to fool the world. The conclusion drawn by the Israelis is that since the words are fraudulent, the threat of military force needs to be real. For as Steinitz, Netanyahu, Kerry and Obama keep reminding us, Syria only abandoned her weapons "when there was a real military threat". In order to compel Iran to stop fooling us while she charms her way to a nuclear bomb, America needs to maintain a serious military threat to terrify her out of building a bomb.

But like the "charm" argument, the "military threat" argument is deceptive. And it is deceptive for at least three reasons.

Firstly, it is a fiction that Syria only admitted to a stockpile of chemical weapons "when there was a real military threat". As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, Syria didn’t suddenly reverse her position and admit to possession of chemical weapons when the US threatened to attack her. Syria officially acknowledged her chemical weapons long ago.

Secondly, not all targets of threats are alike. Different countries have different histories and different characters. As Hossein Musavian has said, ". . . the grand civilization and culture of Iran has made the Iranian nation attach great importance to respect and honor, resisting any form of coercion and humiliation". That military threats will not work on Iran was reiterated by Ayatollah Khamenei when he said recently, "You [Americans] point the gun at Iran and say either negotiate or we pull the trigger! You should know that pressure and negotiations do not go together, and the [Iranian] nation will not be intimidated by such things." Threatening Iran with military strikes despite Rouhani’s moderate approach could have the effect of strengthening the hardliners. When Khatami’s moderate approach failed in 2002, the hardliners who opposed his moderation used his failure, and America’s continued hostility, to argue that Iran must deal with the States from a position of greater strength. Military threats may have precisely the opposite effect to the one desired.

And finally, as Paul Pillar has pointed out, Syria does possess the chemical weapons that threats of force are said to have made her give up; Iran does not possess the nuclear weapons that threats of force are supposed to make her give up. Even if military threats can make you give up weapons you have, they cannot succeed in making you give up weapons you don’t. And military threats are not going to make Iran give up her civilian nuclear program. Respecting Iran’s right under international law to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes has been a condition of Iran’s willingness to negotiate since long before Rouhani’s administration. So the analogy to Syria is flawed.

So, both parts of the Israeli warning are flawed. Rouhani does not seem to be merely charming his way to a nuclear weapon with fraudulent words that are not to be believed. And the lesson supposedly drawn from Syria that military threats alone compel nations to abandon their weapons programs has little, if any, application to Iran. Listening to this flawed warning may accomplish nothing other than missing an opportunity for peace and reconciliation with Iran.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.