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Iran’s Nuclear Program, the Risk of War and Lessons from Turkey
Iran’s Nuclear Program, the Risk of War and Lessons from Turkey
In Heavy Waters: Iran’s Nuclear Program, the Risk of War and Lessons from Turkey
In Heavy Waters: Iran’s Nuclear Program, the Risk of War and Lessons from Turkey
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

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

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. 

In this podcast, Hugh Pope lays out a plan to defuse tensions and points to Turkey as a potential model for engaging Iran. CRISIS GROUP

You can find below a transcript of this podcast.

Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I’m Ben Dalton, Communications & IT Officer, here with Caucuses Analyst Medea Turashvili in Crisis Group’s Tbilisi office.

Georgia is in the midst of transitioning from a presidential to a mixed parliamentary system, in which much government power will lie with the newly created office of the prime minister. I am speaking with Medea about how this may affect Georgian governance and foreign policy. 

Medea, in 2010 some changes to the Georgian constitution were approved, which go into effect over the next year and half or so. What changes exactly were made to the constitution?

Georgia initiated constitutional amendments in 2009, and the constitutional commission was created which was composed of six opposition parties, the ruling party, NGO representatives and academics. They drafted the new constitution, which was adapted in October 2010, but the constitution will enter into force after the presidential elections in 2013.

The main idea of the constitution was to move from the presidential system of government to the rather mixed system, where the executive power is in the hands of the government, which is elected and accountable to the parliament. So, accordingly, the new amendments will diminish the powers of the president and increase those of the prime minister, who becomes the head of the government, with the executive authority over domestic and foreign policy. The prime minister, together with the cabinet, will be elected by a simple parliamentary majority, while the president remains head of the state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces but without the right to initiate laws, to introduce the state budget or hold an official post in a political party. 

Parliamentary powers, however, have not been increased. There are a few new functions--one of them was the approval of the cabinet--but other parliamentary oversight mechanisms--such as scrutiny of state expenditures, holding individual ministers accountable and the setting up of temporary investigative commissions--wasn’t strengthened, so the parliament has limited power. For instance, the parliament cannot amend the budget without government consent. The Venice Commission, which is the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional and other legislative matters, noted that the role of the parliament in budget matters is too limited. So even after 2013, much power and influence will still remain in the executive branch. 

At this point, Saakashvili, the current president of Georgia, has served out most of two terms, and according to term limits, he will not be able to stand again for president. However, with the changes that are coming to the constitution, is there a chance that he might possibly move to stand for the newly created and empowered position of prime minister?

Technically, there is no prohibition in the constitution against Saakashvili becoming the prime minister, because naturally specific names cannot be written in the constitution. Technically, there is a possibility for him. However, publicly at least, though Saakashvili hasn’t ruled out becoming the prime minister, authorities here in Georgia realize that this could be damaging for the democratic image of the country. Especially in a situation when Saakashvili seeks to contrast himself with Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin. We think it is unlikely Saakashvili will be willing to become a prime minister

Although, an interesting observation is that, according to some polls, the Georgian population still would like to see him in power. For instance, according to one poll, 24% of the population said that they want to see Saakashvili as prime minister after 2013. Another survey found that 39% of respondents are positive about Saakashvili staying in power after his second term. 

As you said, under the new system, the president is more than merely a ceremonial position. He still would retain some power over, for instance, matters of foreign affairs. Is there a chance that the prime minister and the president’s policies, or perhaps personalities, might clash, and  if so, is there is a mechanism for resolving those conflicts?

Yes, the president retains important powers, notably in the field of international relations, the armed forces and during emergency situations. He or she is in the position of establishing direct relations with the parliament, by pressing the government in cases which affect the unity of the state. Accordingly, the Venice Commission concluded that there is a concrete risk of conflict with other institutions, which is enhanced by the fact that the president is directly elected and the government is the expression of the parliamentary majority. So they advised the Georgian legislation to amend the relevant clauses. However, not all recommendations from the Venice Commission were adhered.

In addition, the president has quite a big role in parliamentary affairs. For instance, if the parliament fails to approve the new government three times, the president is entitled to dissolve the legislature and call for new elections. The Venice Commission considered the president’s ability to dissolve the parliament as not compatible with European concepts of a constructive vote of non-confidence. Also, the time-frame during which this procedure may continue is four months, which is quite long, which increases the risk of prolonged deadlock and crisis in the government.   

One last question. Saakashvili, of course, has been identified with very a pro-Western, pro-NATO policy. Georgia contributes a very large number of troops proportional to its size, for instance, to ISAF in Afghanistan. Is there a possibility that we might see a change from that policy if an opposition candidate were to become prime minister or president?

The most visible opposition at the moment is composed of four political subjects—this is a political unity, “Georgian Dream”, which has around, according to different polls, from 30 to 50% of approval by the population. 

This political subject, which is headed by a billionaire-turned-politician Bidzina Ivanishvili, this political force has indicated that they will follow the pro-Western direction, pro-Western orientation for Georgia. Bidzina Ivanishvili has also indicated that he will likely continue the Georgia contribution to Afghanistan, although the level of contribution, he said, will depend on discussions with society. So he may be reconsidering the decrease of the number of troops in Afghanistan. At the same time, this bloc is comprised of mostly pro-Western parties who have been insisting on European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Therefore, the foreign policy of Georgia is likely to continue even if there is a change of power in the country.

Thank you so much, Medea.

Report 116 / Middle East & North Africa

In Heavy Waters: Iran’s Nuclear Program, the Risk of War and Lessons from Turkey

As the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program edges closer to military confrontation, talks may be a way out but require mutual compromise and Western abandonment of the notion that a mix of threats and crippling sanctions will force Iran to back down.

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Executive Summary

The dramatic escalation in Israel’s rhetoric aimed at Iran could well be sheer bluff, a twin message to Tehran to halt its nuclear activities and to the international community to heighten its pressure to that end. Or not. As Israel sees it, the nuclear program represents a serious threat; the time when Iran’s putative efforts to build a bomb will become immune to a strike is fast approaching; and military action in the near future – perhaps as early as this year – therefore is a real possibility. While it is widely acknowledged in the West that war could have devastating consequences, and while U.S. and European efforts to restrain Israel are welcome, their current approach – ever-tightening economic sanctions designed to make Tehran bend – has almost no chance of producing an Iranian climb­down anytime soon. Far from a substitute to war, it could end up being a conduit to it. As 2012 begins, prospects of a military confrontation, although still unlikely, appear higher than ever.

The nuclear talks that appear set to resume could offer a chance to avoid that fate. For that to happen, however, a world community in desperate need of fresh thinking could do worse than learn from Turkey’s experience and test its assumptions: that Iran must be vigorously engaged at all levels; that those engaging it ought to include a larger variety of countries, including emerging powers with which it feels greater affinity; that economic pressure is at best futile, at worse counterproductive; and that Tehran ought to be presented with a realistic proposal. If it is either sanctions, whose success is hard to imagine, or military action, whose consequences are terrifying to contemplate, that is not a choice. It is an abject failure.

The picture surrounding Iran, rarely transparent, seldom has been more confusing or worrying. One day Israel issues ominous threats, hinting at imminent action; the next it announces that a decision is far off. Some of its officials speak approvingly of a military strike; others (generally retired) call it the dumbest idea on earth. At times, it appears to be speaking openly of a war it might never wage in order to better remain silent on a war it already seems to be waging – one that involves cyber-attacks, the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists and mysterious explosions. U.S. rhetoric, if anything, zigs and zags even more: the secretary of defense devotes one interview to listing all the catastrophic consequences of war and another to hinting a military confrontation cannot be ruled out. President Barack Obama, among others, appears seriously resistant to the idea of yet another Middle East war, yet keeps reminding us that all options are on the table – the surest way to signal that one particular option is.

Iranian leaders have done their share too: enriching uranium at higher levels; moving their installations deeper underground; threatening to close the straits of Hormuz and take action against Israel; and (if one is to believe Washington) organising a wild plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. More recent reports of actual or planned Iranian terrorist attacks against Israeli targets in India, Georgia, Thailand and Azerbaijan are equally if not more ominous. Confusion is a form of diplomacy, and all sides no doubt are engaged in an intricate political and psychological game. But confusion spawns uncertainty, and uncertainty is dangerous, for it increases the risk of a miscalculation or misstep that could go terribly wrong.

How perilous is Iran’s nuclear program and how close the regime is to assembling a weapon are matters of opinion, and often substantially divergent opinion at that. Israelis express alarm. Others point to important technical obstacles to Iran’s assumed goal: it has had problems expanding its enrichment program; is at least months away from being able to enrich at bomb-grade level; and is probably years away from the capability to manufacture a deliverable atomic weapon.

Too, there is disagreement regarding intent. Few still believe Tehran’s motivations are purely innocent, but whereas some are convinced it is intent on building a bomb, others hold the view that it wishes to become a “threshold state” – one with breakout capacity, even if it does not plan to act on it. There also is disagreement as to what the critical redline is. Israelis speak of a “zone of immunity”, namely the point after which nothing could be done to halt Iran’s advance because its facilities would be impervious to military attack, and say that point is only months away. Again, others – Americans in particular – dispute this; the divergence reflects different military capacities (immunity to an Israeli attack is not the same as immunity to an American one) but also differences in how one defines immunity.

Israelis, not for the first time, could be exaggerating the threat and its imminence, a reflection of their intense fear of a regime that has brazenly proclaimed its unending hostility. But they almost certainly are right in one respect: that sanctions could work and nonetheless fail, inflicting harsh economic pain yet unable to produce a genuine policy change. There is no evidence that Iran’s leadership has succumbed or will succumb to economic hardship; the outlook of its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, rests on the core principle that yielding to pressure only invites more. Seen through the regime’s eyes, such apparent stubbornness is easy to understand. The measures taken by its foes – including attacks on its territory, physical and cyber sabotage, U.S. bolstering of the military arsenals of its Gulf enemies and, perhaps most damaging, economic warfare – can only mean one thing: that Washington and its allies are dead set on toppling it. Under such conditions, why would the regime volunteer a concession that arguably would leave it weaker in a hostile neighbourhood?

Europeans and Americans offer a retort: that only now have sanctions with real bite been adopted; that their impact will be felt within the next six to eighteen months; and that faced with an economic meltdown – and thus with its survival at stake – the Islamic Republic will have no choice but to finally engage in serious negotiations on the nuclear agenda. Perhaps.

But so much could go wrong. Confronting what it can only view as a form of economic warfare and feeling it has little to lose, Iran could lash out. Its provocative actions, in turn, could trigger retaliatory steps; the situation could well veer out of control, particularly in the absence of any meaningful channel of communication. Israel’s and the West’s clocks might not be synchronised: the West’s sanctions timetable extends beyond the point when Iran will have entered Jerusalem’s notional zone of immunity, and Israel might not have the patience to stand still.

Placing one’s eggs almost exclusively in the sanctions basket is risky business. There is a good chance they will not persuade Iran to slow its nuclear efforts, and so – in the absence of a serious diplomatic option including a more far-reaching proposal – the U.S. might well corner itself into waging a war with high costs (such as possible Iranian retaliatory moves in Iraq, Afghanistan and, through proxies, against Israel) for uncertain gains (a delay in Iran’s nuclear progress countered by the likely expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, intensified determination to acquire a bomb and accelerated efforts to do so).

Among countries uneasy with this approach, Turkey notably has stood for something different. It is highly sceptical about sanctions and rules out any military action. It believes in direct, energetic diplomatic engagement with a variety of Iranian officials. It is of the view that Tehran’s right to enrich on its soil ought to be acknowledged outright – a nod to its sense of dignity. And it is convinced that small steps that even marginally move the ball forward, even if far from the finish line, are better than nothing.

Ankara is not a central player, and its opposition to broad sanctions and support of dialogue are not dissimilar to the views of key actors such as Russia and China. But Turkey knows Iran well – an outgrowth of its long, complex relationship with a powerful neighbour. As a non-traditional power, anchored in Western institutions but part of the Muslim world, it can play to Tehran’s rejection of a two-tiered world order. This is not to say that Turkey is amenable to a nuclear-armed Iran. But it is far more sympathetic to the view that the West cannot dictate who can have a nuclear capacity and who cannot; is less alarmist when it comes to the status of Iran’s program; and believes that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is both distant and unsure.

Even if a relative newcomer to the nuclear issue, Turkey also has useful experience. In 2010, together with Brazil – another rising new power – it engaged in intensive talks with Iranian officials and, much to the West’s surprise, reached a deal on the Tehran Research Reactor. Iran would deposit 1,200kg of low enriched uranium (LEU) in Turkey and, in return, would receive 120kg of 20 per cent enriched fuel for its reactor. The deal was far from perfect; al­though it mirrored almost exactly an earlier proposal from the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany), time had passed; Iran’s LEU stockpile had grown, and it had begun to enrich at 20 per cent itself, an important though not definitive stage toward possibly enriching to weapons-grade. But it could have been an important start; had it been accepted, Iran presently would have 1,200kg less of LEU and a step would have been taken towards building trust. However, the P5+1 quickly dismissed the agreement and turned to tougher sanctions instead.

Today, with news that Iran has responded to the P5+1’s offer of talks, a new opportunity for diplomacy might have arisen. It should not be squandered. That means breaking with the pattern of the past: tough sanctions interrupted by episodic, fleeting meetings with Iran which, when they fail to produce the desired Iranian concession, are followed by ratcheted-up economic penalties. Instead, the parties would be well inspired to take a page out of Turkey’s playbook and pursue a meaningful and realistic initiative, possibly along the following lines:

  • Iran’s ratification and renewed implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Additional Protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement, thereby accepting a more rigorous monitoring system; enhanced IAEA inspection rights for non-nuclear alleged weaponisation testing sites (Additional Protocol Plus); and resumed implementation of the IAEA’s modified Code 3.1, ensuring that the decision to build any new nuclear facility is immediately made public;
  • Iran’s decision to clear up outstanding issues regarding alleged pre-2003 nuclear weaponisation experiments referred to in IAEA reports;
  • recognition by the P5+1 of Iran’s right in principle to nuclear research, enrichment, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes in conformity with its NPT obligations, subject to its having settled outstanding issues with the IAEA;
  • agreement by the P5+1 and Iran to a revised Tehran Research Reactor deal, pursuant to which Iran would trade its current stockpile of 20 per cent uranium for fuel rods and temporarily cap its enrichment at the 5 per cent level, while the P5+1 would agree to freeze implementation of new EU and U.S. sanctions. In return for some sanctions relief, Iran could agree to limit enrichment activities to its actual fuel needs (one-year backup for the Bushehr reactor). Any excess amount could be sold on the international market at competitive prices. Broader sanctions relief would be tied to Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA regarding its presumed past weaponisation efforts, implementation of the rigorous IAEA inspections regime and other steps described here; and
  • in parallel to nuclear negotiations, the U.S. and Iran would enter into discussions on other issues of mutual concern and interest, such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Of course, this would have to be accompanied by an end by all parties to the kind of hostile behaviour and provocative rhetoric, including threats to attack and involvement in bombings or assassinations, that risk derailing the entire process.

There are more than enough reasons to be sceptical about a diplomatic solution. Mutual trust is at an all-time low. Political pressures on all sides make compromise a difficult sell. The West seems intent on trying its new, harsher-than-ever sanctions regime. Israel is growing impatient. Tit for tat acts of violence appear to be escalating. And Iran might well be on an unyielding path to militarisation. One can imagine Khamenei’s advisers highlighting three instructive precedents: Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, which had no nuclear weapon and the U.S. overthrew; Muammar Qadhafi’s regime in Libya, which relinquished its weapons of mass destruction and NATO attacked; and North Korea, which possesses nuclear weapons and whose regime still stands. There remains time to test whether Tehran is determined to acquire a bomb at all costs and to consider whether a military option – with all the dramatic implications it would entail – truly would be the best way to deal with it. For now, the goal ought to be to maximise chances that diplomacy can succeed and minimise odds that an alternative path will be considered.

Istanbul/Washington/Brussels, 23 February 2012