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Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Program
Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Program
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

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

Iran: Preserving the Nuclear Deal

U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has exacerbated tensions between the two countries and endangered the agreement. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to uphold the deal conditionally and to handle other security concerns in the region separately.

The Trump administration’s decision to exit the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and unilaterally reimpose sanctions on Iran as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign has put the agreement in significant jeopardy and set the U.S. and Iran on a possible collision course. The remaining signatories to the deal, including the EU and three member states (France, Germany and the UK, collectively known as the E3), are striving to preserve it and Iran has continued to adhere to it. But as sanctions take a severe toll on the Iranian economy, the urge to retaliate against the U.S. withdrawal is building up in Tehran. The accord’s collapse would lead to a renewed and perilous nuclear crisis at a time when tensions across the Middle East are already high, including between Iran and regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The EU and its Member States Should:

  • Uphold the JCPOA so long as Iran remains in compliance with its nuclear obligations and implement mechanisms such as the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to ensure the accord delivers at least some of its anticipated economic dividends.
     
  • Undertake more effective public diplomacy, particularly toward Iran and the European private sector, to clarify its policies and explain the complexity of European efforts in adopting such mechanisms.
     
  • Continue discussions with the U.S. regarding member state exemptions on secondary sanctions, particularly with regards to humanitarian trade with Iran.
     
  • Separate efforts to save the JCPOA from their response to other security concerns, including purported plots against Iranian dissidents on European soil and Iran’s ballistic missile tests and transfers.
     
  • Encourage Iran to deepen and widen ongoing EU-Iran discussions on Yemen to include other regional issues as well as Iran’s ballistic missile program and human rights.

Threats to Diplomacy and Regional Stability

In May 2018, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would terminate its participation in the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions lifted in 2016 as part of the nuclear agreement. Washington’s repudiation of the JCPOA is part of a wider “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran seeking to not only coerce Iran into renegotiating the terms of a concluded and functioning multilateral accord, enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution, but capitulating to a longer list of U.S. demands on Iran’s regional policies and ballistic missile program. The risks in the coming year are threefold: that Iran, seeing dwindling benefits from its continued adherence to the JCPOA, decides to curb or terminate its participation in the accord, sparking a renewed nuclear crisis; that the U.S. and Iran will keep edging toward a direct conflict; and that regional frictions between U.S. and Iranian allies could escalate and draw in other parties.

If Iran’s dividends from the nuclear deal keep shrinking, hardliners in Tehran who call for abrogating the JCPOA and assuming a more confrontational posture in the nuclear realm and the region could gain ground. Sanctions have already weakened Iran’s economy, driving a significant devaluation of the rial, pushing up inflation, curbing the country’s oil revenue (some limited oil waivers notwithstanding) and sinking the economy into a recession. With a parliamentary election in 2020 and a presidential vote in 2021, pragmatic politicians associated with an increasingly fruitless diplomatic approach could lose ground to more hard-line forces critical of international engagement.  

At the same time, tensions over Iran’s regional role and a U.S.-led drive to curb it could leave Washington and Tehran jostling for the upper hand across a string of regional flashpoints, from Afghanistan and the Gulf to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Tensions between Iran and Israel are of particular concern, with Israel acting more frequently to counter what it perceives as Tehran’s rising influence across the Levant. A confrontation between Hizbollah and Israel, for example, could rapidly escalate in Lebanon and Syria, drawing in Iran and the U.S. in support of their respective allies.

Bolstering the Deal and Broadening Dialogue

As core participants in the nuclear deal, the EU and three of its member states have thus far delivered a consistent and unified message against Washington’s JCPOA withdrawal and sanctions. High-level European participation in the upcoming ministerial meeting on the Middle East in Warsaw, which will likely see significant U.S. emphasis on criticising Iran, could erode this message and European credibility in Tehran. EU measures to protect the deal, such as the blocking statute introduced in August 2018 and the SPV expected in early 2019, backed by the E3 and designed to facilitate European trade with Iran in a way that bypasses U.S. sanctions, are critical to forestalling the accord’s collapse, and should be fully implemented. Such efforts would be more effective alongside more robust political signalling and public diplomacy campaign underscoring the extent of the EU’s work to preserve the JCPOA, both to the European private sector and Iran itself. Visits by high-level EU officials to Iran, outreach to Persian-language media platforms explaining EU decisions and policy, and the production of readily-accessible information in Persian of relevant EU statements and announcements could each serve to increase the visibility and explain the importance of EU decisions on Iran. Brussels should also intensify its consultations with the Islamic Republic to allow the establishment of an EU delegation in Tehran.

In parallel with these efforts, the EU should encourage the U.S. to issue extended and ideally expanded sanctions waivers for member states, and press for clarity on nuclear and humanitarian exemptions. It can also maintain its dialogues with Tehran on Yemen (there were four rounds of discussions that France, the EU, UK, Germany and Italy held with Iran in 2018) while exploring wider avenues of engagement on both regional and domestic issues. Such conversations may be crucial for eventual talks on building on the nuclear agreement, not least if the U.S. chooses to re-engage diplomatically in due course. 

Preserving the JCPOA does not preclude the EU from pressing Tehran on other security issues, particularly alleged assassination attempts against Iranian dissidents on European soil, renewed ballistic missile testing, and potential Iranian weapons transfers to local allies in the Middle East. The JCPOA does not constitute a carte blanche for Iran to behave in ways that damage European interests. Still, should the EU and its member states eventually place targeted sanctions on Iran, it should make it clear that these measures do not prejudice continued cooperation on the nuclear front.