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Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Program
Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Program
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
A Perilous Turning Point in the U.S.-Iran Confrontation
A Perilous Turning Point in the U.S.-Iran Confrontation

Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Program

The announcement on 21 October 2003 of an agreement between Iran on the one hand and Britain, France and Germany on the other, is an important and welcome step in resolving the controversy surrounding Tehran’s nuclear program.

Executive Summary

The announcement on 21 October 2003 of an agreement between Iran on the one hand and Britain, France and Germany on the other, is an important and welcome step in resolving the controversy surrounding Tehran’s nuclear program. But it would be wrong to assume that it ends it. The challenge now is to use the breathing space provided by the agreement to tackle the questions – about its implementation, the future of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities and Iran’s own security concerns – that, for the time being, it has deferred.

The evidence of Iran’s putative military program is mixed but disturbing, and by no means to the U.S. alone. Both the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and European countries that have maintained close ties to Tehran have echoed Washington’s views. Iran did not disclose the existence of several nuclear facilities. When it finally did declare these facilities, it under-declared, downplaying what turned out to be extensive and sophisticated plants. It failed to report the importation from China of natural uranium over ten years ago. Most disturbing, there are indications that it introduced enriched uranium into a nuclear site without first notifying the IAEA.

Concerns about Iran’s capacity are matched by concerns about its intentions. While none of the above actions necessarily is a violation of Iran’s obligations, and while all would be consistent with a purely peaceful enterprise, Tehran’s pattern of behaviour is cause for unease. In many instances, Iran simply failed to explain its actions. When it did, those explanations were inconsistent or shifting. The IAEA has documented examples of lack of cooperation and candour. Iranian officials have placed hurdles in the path of nuclear inspectors and, in some cases, denied access. Its economic justifications for developing a nuclear energy program, while not implausible, are not fully convincing either.

Tension over Iran’s nuclear program is further aggravated by deeply-entrenched mistrust between Tehran and Washington. The U.S., alarmed at Iran’s support for groups engaged in terrorist acts and hostility to the Arab-Israeli peace process and persuaded that it is determined to develop a bomb, has grave reservations about allowing Tehran to develop any nuclear program at all. Iran believes it has a right to a peaceful nuclear program and is determined to be treated fairly as a member in good standing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Powerful circles within the country, concerned about increasing encirclement by hostile or potentially hostile countries, fearful that the U.S. intends to change its regime by force, and deeply marked by the experience of its war with Iraq, when Iran was virtually abandoned by the international community, do not appear willing to forsake the possibility of a military nuclear program. Prospects for a durable deal on the nuclear issue are complicated by divisions within the U.S. administration and the Iranian regime alike that hinder clear-cut decision-making.

Ultimately, the nuclear problem will remain an issue of contention between Washington and Tehran at least until they are in a position to strike a grand bargain that addresses their wider and more fundamental dispute. But it would be foolhardy to bank on such an outcome, and in particular on the remote possibility of a change in regime in Iran.[fn]See ICG Middle East Briefing, Iran: Discontent and Disarray, 15 October 2003.Hide Footnote  A nuclear-armed Iran could encourage similar efforts by neighbours, from Egypt to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and deal a deadly blow to the entire NPT regime. The combination of a bomb and Iran’s newly developed longer-range missile, the Shahab-3, could be perceived by Israel as a threat necessitating a military response. Conversely, a U.S. or Israeli pre-emptive strike to forestall development of a bomb could provoke deadly retaliation by Tehran in a variety of asymmetric or non-conventional ways. Moreover, should such a strike not wholly wipe out the program (as is likely), Tehran would remain with a wounded capacity to develop a bomb and a greatly enhanced determination to do so.

For these reasons, the initiative of the three EU countries should be embraced by the international community, including the U.S. On paper, the 21 October agreement signals Iran’s acceptance of the IAEA’s core demands. According to the joint statement it issued with the three EU foreign ministers, Iran will answer all the IAEA’s outstanding questions and clarify remaining gaps, discrepancies or inconsistencies in its previous explanations; sign the NPT’s Additional Protocol and commence ratification procedures; and suspend all uranium enrichment and processing activities.

Iran’s positive decision will avoid a collision with the international community and referral of the matter to the United Nations Security Council in the short run. It shows that Europe’s policy coupling pressure and engagement can produce results. But in order for the agreement to be more than a short-lived reprieve, it needs to be vigorously followed up and strengthened through the following:

  • Immediate and unconditional implementation by Iran of the steps to which it has agreed. Iran will be judged on deeds, not on words. That means, in particular, quickly providing the full transparency it promised and ensuring accelerated ratification and implementation of the Additional Protocol.
     
  • Indefinite suspension of all uranium enrichment by Iran or, at a minimum, its resumption only under rigorous and intrusive international monitoring. Iran’s decision to suspend all uranium enrichment is a very important element of the 21 October deal. But it also is the most fragile. Iran made clear both before and after the agreement that it reserves the right to enrich uranium and has pointedly refused to specify how long its suspension would last. This issue needs to be nailed down lest it unravel the entire agreement. Ideally, Iran’s peaceful nuclear program would not include indigenous enrichment, but if Iran is otherwise in compliance with NPT, including Additional Protocol, requirements, it will be difficult to make that case. The key is to remain focused on the ultimate goal: preventing Iran from possessing an unfettered capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium. At a minimum, therefore, Iran should state that while it reserves its right to enrich uranium, it will not exercise that right without agreeing to measures – such as intrusive, permanent international monitoring and perhaps joint Iranian/international management of its enrichment facilities – beyond those demanded by the NPT and Additional Protocol.
     
  • Pending establishment of a solid track record of transparent behaviour, a halt by Iran of any effort to build a heavy water reactor and a pledge not to put any such reactor into operation without reaching agreement with the international community on appropriate arrangements. While there is nothing in the NPT that requires such a step, there is much in Iran’s heretofore evasive behaviour that warrants it. Absent the requisite confidence that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapons program, a decision to proceed with its declared intent to build a heavy water reactor would have to be strongly resisted by the international community.

If Iran responds satisfactorily, along the lines indicated, the international community should respect its right to develop a peaceful nuclear program and provide it with the necessary technology and materials. It would be helpful at the same time to develop a set of confidence-building measures – such as a U.S. commitment not to use force against Iran and the establishment of a regional security forum – to reassure Iran about its own security concerns and to encourage it to become a fully participating, responsible international player. In all these respects it will be important to develop and maintain a strong international consensus, in particular between the U.S., EU and Russia, which will require adjustments in the positions of all parties.

Amman/Brussels, 27 October 2003

Iranians in Tehran protest against the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. air strike in Iraq. 3 January 2020. AFP/Fatemeh Bahrami

A Perilous Turning Point in the U.S.-Iran Confrontation

With the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the U.S.-Iran standoff has shifted from attrition toward open conflict. Tehran will retaliate – the only question is how – prompting another response from Washington. Allies of both should intercede to stop the exchange from spinning out of control.

The killing by the U.S. of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, marks a dramatic turning point. Soleimani had been in Washington’s crosshairs for many years, and successive U.S. presidents could likely have ordered his assassination in the past. That they chose not to do so suggests that they worried the costs would outweigh the benefits. With his decision, President Donald Trump is making clear that he abides by a different calculus: that, given the vast power imbalance, Iran has far more to fear from war than does the U.S. The strike that killed the Iranian general along with others – notably Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior commander of the pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militia – was, in accordance with this view, meant as a deterrent to further Iranian attacks.

It is almost certain to be anything but. Iran may fear U.S. retaliation, but it fears projecting that fear even more. From its perspective, it cannot allow what it views as a declaration of war to remain unanswered. It will respond and now must decide whether its reaction will be direct or through the array of proxies and allied forces Soleimani helped build; immediate or deferred; in Iraq or elsewhere – in the Gulf, Syria or beyond. The U.S. presence in Iraq, already shaky after the 29 December strike that killed two dozen members of a pro-Iranian Iraqi militia, is now hanging by a thread; the Trump administration may decide to depart preemptively rather than be forced to leave on Baghdad’s orders. The truce in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran-backed Huthi fighters also is in greater jeopardy. Watch in particular for Iran’s announcement of its next steps on the nuclear front, taken in response to Washington’s violation of the 2015 deal. A serious step on 6 January had been predicted; in all likelihood, it just got far more serious.

A U.S. president ... has just brought war one step closer ... many across the region will pay the price.

The U.S.-Iranian game has changed. Their rivalry for the most part played out as an attritional standoff: Washington laying siege to Iran’s economy in hopes that financial duress would lead either to its government’s capitulation to U.S. demands or to its ouster; and Tehran responding with actions that maintained a veneer of plausible deniability. Targeting Soleimani is liable to mark a shift from attrition toward open confrontation.

In short, a U.S. president who repeatedly claimed that he does not wish to drag the country into another Middle East war has just brought that war one step closer. And a U.S. administration that argues it killed the Iranian general in order to avert further attacks just made those attacks more likely. Iran will retaliate; the U.S. will avenge the retaliation; and many across the region will pay the price.

Crisis Group is in the business of policy recommendations aimed at averting conflict. It is also in the business of realism. Some kind of conflict is now all but guaranteed, facilitated no doubt by a series of Iranian actions of which Soleimani was a mastermind, but rooted in President Trump’s ill-advised and reckless decision to exit the nuclear deal and embark on a policy of “maximum pressure” that led, almost inexorably and certainly predictably, to today’s crisis. The outcome is all the more tragic because the contours of a solution have been apparent for months: a tactical détente whereby Iran fully restores its compliance with the nuclear deal, and ends its regional provocations, in return for a reprieve from the crushing impact of U.S. sanctions.

One can only hope that, with encouragement and pressure from the two sides’ respective allies, this perilous tit-for-tat will be relatively contained and of relatively short duration. That, after a few rounds of attack and counter-attack, Washington’s desire to avoid getting sucked into another Middle East war and Tehran’s interest in averting devastating U.S. strikes, will drive both toward de-escalation. One can only hope. The alternative is too horrific to contemplate.