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Iran’s Nuclear Program, the Risk of War and Lessons from Turkey

15 March 2012: The risk of war between Iran, Israel and the US has rarely been so high. Hugh Pope, Turkey/Cyprus Project Director for the International Crisis Group, lays out a plan to defuse tensions and points to Turkey as a potential model for engaging Iran. 11:10

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Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I'm Kimberly Abbott. Today, I'm speaking with Hugh Pope, Crisis Group’s Turkey/Cyprus Project Director, about a new report, called In Heavy Waters: Iran’s Nuclear Program, the Risk of War and Lessons from Turkey. 
Why don’t you start by laying out the arguments on both sides, Israel and Iran, and the holes that you see in their arguments.
A lot of the current crisis is based on what Israel perceives as--what it calls--a zone of immunity:  the point at which Iran’s progress to what it sees as an inevitable end of nuclear weaponization will become impregnable to Israeli attack, and that after that point Iran can continue freely towards a nuclear bomb.   

This is not the first time that Israel has raised the fear of nuclearized Iran. In fact, you can find Israel using the issue almost twenty years ago. It has become a new thing, which we have in the current situation, that Israel is going around the capitals of the world insisting that it will have to attack, that Iran has to change, and unless massive sanctions are applied, Israel will take action. The big question is--we’ve being hearing such stories from Israel for twenty years--is this still a bluff, or is Israel actually serious? We talked to a lot of people for this report, we didn’t come to a firm conclusion about it, but we certainly thought this was less likely to be a bluff at this point.
You say that the US has been sending lots of mixed messages, and they’re not the only party. Tell me what you mean by that?
The US has sometimes seemed to be signaling to Iran that, alright, we will agree to your right to enrichment of uranium, as is your right under the nonproliferation treaty, if you get back in good order with the UN nuclear watch dog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, there are also signals from the United States about never taking options off the table, which means military action. There has been unfortunately, recently, because of Israeli pressure, a slight shift in US official policy, which has drawn a red line against Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb at all. 

Now, this is something that hasn’t really been discussed. How much of a danger to the United States is an Iran with a nuclear bomb? Is it more dangerous than a Pakistan with a nuclear bomb, or an India with a nuclear bomb, or a North Korea with a nuclear bomb--all of whom have nuclear bombs and haven’t been attacked by the United States. So why would the United States choose to attack Iran on this question? Hasn’t really been debated, and that is a red line that has been assumed in the last few weeks as Israel has pushed for clearer American commitments to taking action. 

And if there is going to be a resolution of this crisis, at heart, this is a US-Iran dispute, although there is a nuclear component to it, but there is more than thirty years of great hostility between Iran and the US, and to solve it will require some kind of compromise resolution between the US and Iran. And unfortunately, taking this issue into what we see as the dead end of red lines for military attack will almost certainly mean that a negotiated solution is less likely because Iran will then be entrenched in its view that the underlying US policy is regime change, which is one of the reasons why it is so reluctant to engage on a variety of issues with the international community.
You argue that Iran must be presented with a realistic plan. What is the plan that you outline?
Three basic issues that Iran has to deal with: one is the fact that it’s not allowing normal access to UN inspectors to its nuclear facilities under the International Atomic Energy Agency agreement. It’s called the additional protocol. It’s not being implemented at the moment by Iran. There are UN inspectors there. There are safeguards in place, but they are minimal. They need to be put to the normal level. That’s one thing. 

The other thing is something called modified Code 3.1, another IAEA technical term. That is basically that Iran has to tell the UN watchdog when it has decided to build a nuclear facility.  Currently, they are not doing that. 

We also think there should be, at least temporarily, an Additional Protocol Plus, in which UN inspectors will be able to visit non-nuclear sites that may have been used for nuclear testing.  And one of the reasons we say that is that there are something very politely called “the alleged issues” in the official literature, that is, all relating to things that were found, apparently, in electronic data that were handed over by an Iranian to Western intelligence agencies, which appear to show a lot of work towards weaponization. These “alleged issues” have always been denied by Iran, they say they’re a forgery, but anybody who’s actually read the IAEA, which is an international body, a UN body, their report in November 2011, setting out the allegations, it’s quite clear that Iran has a case to answer. And it seems like most of these experiments were in the past, but what happens in such cases is that the country that has been doing these things, if it is true that they have been doing them, has to admit it and say they are no longer doing it, and then it’s a bit like a rap across the knuckles, and then the file is closed. In this case, it would require Iran admitting that they’ve done something that they say they weren’t doing. So that would be embarrassing, and you could see why they would be reluctant to do that, but there’s no other way for Iran to win international trust. This file of past actions is why there is this unprecedented international support for sanctions on Iran.

And what about the P5+1?
The P5+1 also has to help, and there it’s clear that they have to give an assurance to Iran that they will be allowed to continue their enrichment of uranium if they are in line with the NPT and the IAEA says that they’re not in violation of anything. There’s two kinds of enrichment that Iran is currently doing, one is to 3-5%, which is enough to fuel a nuclear reactor. In order to win the confidence of the outside world, they may have to stop the enrichment at 20%, and here’s where a confidence building measure is still probably on the table, whereby the international community says to Iran, give us your 20% enriched uranium and we will give you the fuel rods which you need for this research reactor, which needs fuel rods. This deal has been talked about for 2-3 years now as a confidence building measure that requires both sides to engage.
And what role does Turkey play in all this? What can Turkey bring to the table?
Turkey’s played a very interesting role in the past couple of years. They had a diplomatic breakthrough in May 2010, where they managed to make confidence-building measures around the Tehran research reactor, swapping enriched nuclear fuel for fuel rods. They made it work, and Iran signed it. At the same time, they’ve had a fairly constructive ability to talk to Iran, which no one else on the Western side seems to have. No one else on the Western side has the ability to go and meet the Supreme Leader of Iran, for instance, which Turkey can. It can act as a messenger, and it can act as an engaged diplomatic party. 

At a more fundamental level, Turkey also in a compare and contrast way is a lesson to the United States about how it’s possible to live with Iran. Iran is not a mad irrational player. Turkey lives next to Iran. They don’t agree with Iran. They’re not an ally of Iran. They’ve always had a suspicious, competitive relationship with Iran, but at the same time they get on. They compete, and they also collaborate. And they have an idea that, whatever happens in Iran, we want the future of Iran to be more international, more open. So they’ve opened up to Iran. Two million Iranians come every year to visit Turkey, which is a Muslim country, but it’s democratic, quite prosperous, and has a very open society, and two million Iranians are seeing that every year. Thirty years ago, right after the Islamic revolution, the Iranian economy was double the size of Turkey. Today, after 30 years of Turkey’s more or less globalized development, Turkey’s economy is now double the size of Iran’s. Now that is a message that no Iranian is missing. 

Turkey’s engagement has managed to show Iran and Iranians a different approach. I’s been rewarded somewhat, in the fact that that Istanbul is going to be the meeting place for the next round of P5+1 talks with Iran. But at the same time, I think we should all remember that Turkey is not the silver bullet on the Iran nuclear question. It cannot solve the problem. When Turkey had the diplomatic breakthrough with Iran in May 2010 on the Tehran research reactor, it wasn’t just because of Turkey’s and Brazil’s commitment to a very heated negotiating session. It was because, at the height of negotiations, the Turks could reach into their pocket and show a letter from Obama, which said that the United States is behind this deal. So at the end of the day, the Iranians thought they were dealing with the United States, and I think it is Iran and the United States that in the end have to sort out this problem.

Do you believe that sanctions are working?

Sanctions have definitely caught Iran’s attention, but mainly because the international community is incredibly united on this issue. Definitely, these are some of the most crippling sanctions we’ve ever seen. The problem is that we came across no evidence that this would change the nuclear calculations of the Iranian leadership, whatever they are. In fact, the more sanctions you have, it’s more likely that you are undermining that goal, which is supposedly a negotiated solutions. These sanctions are so crippling that the seem to Iranians to have only one goal, that is, bringing down the regime. One of the reasons that people do sanctions is because they don’t want to go to war, and one of the reasons that, for instance, Europe is really behind the sanctions is that Israel has been going around European capitals and saying, if you don’t do these sanctions, I’m going to have to do a military strike. Of course, what diplomat is not going to say, no, no, don’t start a war, we’ll have sanctions? 

But unfortunately, the whole logic of this is pushing us towards a more inevitable armed conflict. These kind of sanctions really seem to Iranians as though an end game is being played, and there’s no sign that these kinds of sanctions will do anything except strengthen the Revolutionary Guard and the hardline elements of the regime, which control the situation in Iran, and therefore make it even more unlikely that there’s a negotiated settlement and probably more likely that they will take a decision to actually to go for a nuclear weapon, even though that would be an incredibly negative development for them as much as the world.

Edited for print.
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