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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
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
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

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.