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Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Program
Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Program
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
How Biden Can Score a Diplomatic Win in the Gulf, With an Assist From Europe
How Biden Can Score a Diplomatic Win in the Gulf, With an Assist From Europe

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

How Biden Can Score a Diplomatic Win in the Gulf, With an Assist From Europe

Originally published in World Politics Review

Many world leaders, dismayed by four years of Donald Trump, are hoping that President-elect Joe Biden will return to an American foreign policy that is more pragmatic and balanced, less fickle and pettily punitive. One region crying out for an urgent recalibration in the U.S. approach is the Persian Gulf. Thanks to an emerging European initiative to help bring a modicum of calm to the tense region, Biden will have the opportunity to do a lot of good early in his term without having to invest too much political capital.

Ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution, tensions between Iran and the United States, and between Iran and its Arab neighbors, have given rise to violent conflict—whether fought directly, as during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, or by proxy, as in Iraq, Syria and Yemen today. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran have made an already volatile region even more dangerous. 

Events of the past 18 months, in particular, have shown the escalatory potential of small-scale confrontations. Last year’s attacks on Gulf shipping routes and oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, allegedly at the hands of Iran or its proxies; Iran’s shooting down of an American surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz; the U.S. killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander, in January; Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes against Iraqi army bases housing U.S. troops; and the assassination in late November of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior Iranian nuclear scientist, allegedly at the hands of Israeli agents—any one of these incidents could have spun out of control, triggering a war that no one wants. The weeks leading up to Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20 may be particularly perilous, as they present an opportunity for the Trump administration and Israel to escalate tensions in a way that would vastly complicate Biden’s efforts to return the relationship with Iran to a more stable footing. [https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/29253/trump-s-mad-dash-in-the-middle-east-could-leave-a-mess-for-biden]

As a first step to pulling back from the brink with Iran, the Biden administration is likely to prioritize finding a way for the United States to return to the nuclear deal—officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—and for Iran to return to full compliance. After Trump withdrew from the agreement and reimposed devastating economic sanctions, Iran progressively began to violate aspects of the deal. It started increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium beyond the agreed amount; began enriching uranium above the deal’s limit of 3.67 percent, including at its underground enrichment facility in Fordow; and ceased observing the JCPOA’s cap on centrifuge quantities. In response to the Fakhrizadeh killing, the Iranian parliament passed a bill—which was subsequently approved by the Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog body—calling for the immediate resumption of enrichment to 20 percent, a critical threshold that would allow Iran to more quickly produce weapons-grade fuel.

If the nuclear deal has survived nonetheless, it is because Tehran made clear that these steps are reversible, and that it would be prepared to reverse them if the U.S. were to lift its sanctions. The JCPOA’s other signatories—Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the European Union—have also stuck by it despite their evident distress at the U.S. withdrawal and Iran’s incremental breaches.

The Biden administration’s top priority in the Middle East next year will be to repair the damage done to the nuclear deal and reset the uneasy U.S. relationship with Iran.

The Biden administration’s top priority in the Middle East next year will be to repair the damage done to the nuclear deal and reset the uneasy U.S. relationship with Iran. It won’t be easy, but if Biden is successful, it will be a major step toward halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and lowering the temperature in the region.

At the same time, lifting sanctions and resuming negotiations with Tehran will not automatically erase four decades of enmity, nor would canceling “maximum pressure” ensure a major reduction in tensions between Iran and America’s regional allies. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, in particular, will hardly be reassured by a U.S. approach to Iran that they fear will increase their rival’s power and influence. Part of the reason the UAE and Israel recently agreed to normalize relations is their desire to forge a common front against Iran.

What is needed most urgently to reduce the heat is for Iran and Saudi Arabia, along with the other Gulf states, to open new channels of communication and to start talking to each other directly, at various levels of political, military and intelligence leadership. From Washington’s perspective, the timing for such dialogue could be opportune. There is no love lost for Iran in the incoming Biden administration or in Congress, given Tehran’s violent meddling in the Syrian and Yemeni wars. But U.S. officials are also increasingly wary of Saudi Arabia, which started a destructive and unwinnable war in Yemen, brutally murdered the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and escalated a dispute with fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar, also an important American ally.

A United States seeking a more balanced approach to the Middle East would want to find a workable accommodation with Iran, while also reining in Saudi leaders who are prone to ill-considered and destructive adventurism. What better way to deal with both problems simultaneously than by nudging them toward a mutual dialogue that could serve to stabilize a strategically and economically important part of the world? The talks would also be an opportunity to address head-on a common complaint about the JCPOA: that it ignored Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region. 

Given the many challenges on his plate, however, Biden may not have the bandwidth to devote substantial energy and resources to this effort, at least during his first year in office. He could instead entrust the role of go-between in the Middle East to U.S. allies in Europe, which have been strategizing for months about how they could work together most effectively toward this diplomatic objective. A number of informal discussions have already taken place in European capitals, in some cases also involving NGOs and think tanks that have long pursued “Track II” dialogues, which don’t involve current government officials, in the Middle East. My organization, the International Crisis Group, has also taken part in these discussions.

European governments realize they cannot move forward in any substantive way without at least an implicit green light from Washington.

European governments realize they cannot move forward in any substantive way without at least an implicit green light from Washington. They knew they would never receive such a signal from the Trump administration, given its single-minded focus on bringing Iran to its knees. But now, they rightly believe the Biden administration would be more likely to give their diplomatic efforts a chance.

The process would begin with a core group of European governments, and possibly others with a stake in the stability of the Middle East, laying the groundwork for a Gulf-based dialogue by exploring the receptiveness toward such a move in Washington, Tehran, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Eventually, Gulf states and Iran would need to take ownership of the process, but they may require nudges, reassurances and possibly guarantees from external actors with a stake in the region—the United States foremost among them—even if the Biden administration does not take the lead. 

This could take the form of U.S. officials observing the dialogue, while working the corridors to show their allies that Washington is actively backing the effort. It could also include concrete and material incentives for constructive participation. Separately, the Biden administration would have to find ways to neutralize opposition from Israel’s right-wing government to reducing the threat from Iran through diplomacy, rather than coercion.

The idea for a Europe-mediated Gulf dialogue has been around for a long time, but the right opportunity to jumpstart it had not presented itself until now. Tensions in the region are at an all-time high, and the incoming U.S. president is likely to be both more even-handed and more favorably inclined to a diplomacy-focused approach than his predecessor. When European governments come knocking early next year to seek the new administration’s help, all Biden would need to do is say, “Go ahead, give it a try. The United States has your back.” It could be a quick and easy foreign policy win for an administration keen to have one after a difficult presidential transition.