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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
Trump Can’t Deal With Iran If He Doesn’t Understand It
Trump Can’t Deal With Iran If He Doesn’t Understand It
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

Trump Can’t Deal With Iran If He Doesn’t Understand It

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Tweets about putting Iran "ON NOTICE" are no replacement for appreciating the sources of Iranian conduct in the Middle East.

It took only 12 days in office for U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to put Iran “on notice” that the era of compromise had been replaced by an era of confrontation. In a stern message on Feb. 1, then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn accused Iran of a “provocative ballistic missile launch and an attack against a Saudi naval vessel conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants.” Two days later, Washington slapped sanctions on 25 individuals and entities involved with Iran’s ballistic missile tests, even though U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 had only called on, not enjoined, Iran to refrain from such tests.

In response, Iran threatened its own sanctions and held a military drill, including rocket launches. Gen. Amir Ali Hazjizadeh, an Iranian air force commander with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), threatened: “Should the enemy make a mistake, our roaring missiles will rain down on them.”

Despite the bombast, both sides have so far been careful not to escalate too far, too fast. The sanctions designations were carefully selected so as not to violate the terms of the nuclear deal. Likewise, the missiles tested during Iran’s military drill were not ballistic, and these launches therefore did not contravene the U.N. Security Council resolution.

It is not helpful to exaggerate Iran’s sway and power.

But such tit-for-tat measures, if they continue, could easily spiral out of control and provoke a military confrontation. This is especially true since the bilateral communication channels born of the nuclear talks, which helped to contain tense episodes under the Barack Obama administration, are no more. Unlike the previous administration, Trump’s National Security Council and State Department appear uninterested in engaging their Iranian counterparts.

If Washington hopes to develop an effective strategy for dealing with Tehran, it must first understand the sources of Iranian conduct in the region. It is not helpful to exaggerate Iran’s sway and power: While Tehran has more influence in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa than it used to, its role in all four is more bitterly contested by state and nonstate actors than in the past.As a Persian nation among Arabs and Turks, a Shiite state among Sunnis, there are natural barriers to Iran’s reach — hence its failure to export its nearly four-decade-old revolution to any neighboring country. In the words of former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, “Iranian influence is self-limiting. The harder they push, the more resistance they get.”

The policies of all contemporary Iranian leaders, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, have been shaped by two impulses: regime preservation and restoration — critics would say expansion — of Iran’s role as a regional leader.

The pursuit of self-preservation, the principal objective of any political system, borders on paranoia in an Iranian political culture steeped in a deep sense of insecurity and solitude.

Consider the words of this aggrieved Iranian leader: “Why is it normal for France and Britain to even have nuclear and hydrogen weapons, but for Iran, which is not a member of NATO and its security is not guaranteed by any country in the world, the simple principle of self-defense becomes so problematic?” This complaint was not lodged by a turbaned anti-American official in the Islamic Republic but by the Shah of Iran, the steadfast American ally and a prime recipient of U.S. weaponry who launched the country’s nuclear program.

The security perspective of Iran’s current leaders is shaped by the traumatic 1980-1988 conflict with Iraq

The security perspective of Iran’s current leaders is shaped by the traumatic 1980-1988 conflict with Iraq, in which almost the entire region and the West supported Saddam Hussein’s war effort. Subsequently, they witnessed the United States invade Afghanistan and Iraq, their neighbors to the east and the west.

To compensate for its sense of encirclement by U.S. forces and pro-U.S. states, and its inferior conventional military capacity compared with that of its neighbors, Iran developed a network of partners and proxies to push threats away from its borders. Tehran dubs this its “forward-defense policy,” a euphemism for many in the region for Iran’s exploitation of other states as buffers at the expense of their sovereignty.

The Lebanese Hezbollah is the cornerstone of Iran’s forward-leaning strategy. As a senior Israeli official once put it: “For us, Iran is a 1,000 kilometers away, whereas for Iran, Israel is 10 meters away from across the Lebanese border.” Many in Tehran are convinced the primary reason Israel did not strike Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities and heavy-water reactor during the nuclear crisis was its fear of hundreds of Hezbollah’s Iran-supplied missiles pointing at Israeli cities.

What Iran calls the “axis of resistance” to Israel and the United States — known to Iran’s Sunni neighbors as the “Shiite crescent” — is a more aggressive extension of its forward-defense policy. It not only gives Iran strategic depth but allows it to project power in the Levant. Iran long rejected the notion that sectarianism lay at the root of its alliances, but as Syria’s zero-sum proxy war deepened, it has shed even the pretense of staying above the sectarian fray. Tehran now mobilizes Shiite militias from across the region to fight in Iraq and Syria while it fails to condemn — and even facilitates — the atrocities they commit in these countries’ Sunni heartlands, stoking resentment and providing Sunni extremists a potent recruitment tool.

Tehran’s conventional deterrence appears no less threatening to the region. Its centerpiece is a ballistic missile program — a legacy of having been a victim of these during the Iran-Iraq War. As the only Iranian weapon that could reach its adversaries on their soil, the missiles are deemed an existential asset by Tehran, which will pursue their development regardless of whatever sanctions are imposed. The Iranians refused to put their missiles on the bargaining table during the nuclear negotiations and are unlikely to compromise on them, absent fundamental changes to the region’s security structure of which Iran would be an integral part.

It’s hardly surprising that what looks defensive from Tehran would be perceived elsewhere as aggressive. But what makes Iran’s regional policy seem especially menacing is the second impetus behind it — its desire for regional power status, which to neighboring capitals looks like a bid for hegemony. To them, that scenario is as unbearable as Iran’s isolation from the region is unacceptable to Tehran.

Any U.S. policy toward Iran’s regional ambitions must take these dynamics into account. This will allow Washington to develop a realistic assessment of Tehran’s likely reactions, of which the following are the most obvious:

First, the United States could continue its decades-old pursuit of containing Iran. This entails sanctioning Tehran and ensuring that it is unable to modernize or significantly expand its military capabilities and reach while supplying its regional rivals with the latest cutting-edge weaponry. The problem with this policy is that it has plainly failed, as new wars and instability have opened opportunities for Iran to increase its influence in the region. It is also clear that the more Washington sides with and arms Iran’s Sunni neighbors, the more it pushes Tehran to double down on means of asymmetric deterrence and forward defense.

The idea of designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization is one initiative sure to backfire. Ironically, the IRGC is likely to welcome this step. Given its extensive role in Iran’s opaque economy, the designation will further chill foreign investment in Iran, thereby helping it preserve its vested economic interests and boosting its domestic standing as a champion of resistance to the United States.

But the most damaging impact, as some in the U.S. military and security establishment have warned, would be on U.S. troops who operate in proximity to Iranian advisors and Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq. Defeating the Islamic State and stabilizing Iraq will become much more difficult if these militias turn their guns on U.S. military advisors — as they did when the United States still had 130,000 troops in Iraq — instead of their shared foe. For now, the help of these militias may prove indispensable in liberating Mosul.

Second, Washington could up the ante and resort to military confrontation. During the campaign, President Trump vowed to put that option on the table — promising to shoot Iranian boats that harass U.S. Navy ships “out of the water.” But direct military confrontation in the Persian Gulf could have perilous consequences, pushing the Iranians toward familiar asymmetric responses: to either use their speed boats, mini-submarines, or mines to directly target U.S. ships or employ partners (like the Houthis in Yemen) to fire missiles at U.S. Navy vessels or those of its allies in the Red Sea.

Those risks could make an indirect and limited conflict more attractive. The Trump administration could consider targeting the Houthis, which it sees as an Iranian proxy, in order to send a strong signal to its Gulf allies and Tehran alike. So long as the conflict is containable, going after Iranian and Houthi equities in Yemen might seem less risky than in Iraq and Syria, where Iran could retaliate directly against U.S. forces.

[E]ven limited use of military force could have disastrous ramifications

But even limited use of military force could have disastrous ramifications. So far, Iran has provided just enough assistance to the Houthis to provoke Saudi Arabia into launching a military campaign that has cost it billions of dollars, with no end in sight. But a U.S.-led escalation of the conflict could further radicalize the Houthis, who have a history of ignoring Tehran’s advice, and push them to invade Saudi Arabia’s southern provinces if negotiations fail to yield a settlement. This would further intensify a ruinous war, weakening Yemen internally, to Iran’s advantage, and pushing the Houthis further into Tehran’s arms.

Finally, the best option — albeit one that currently appears inconceivable given the Trump administration’s marrow-deep suspicion of and belligerence toward Iran — would be for the United States to take into account Tehran’s legitimate security concerns and explore whether cooperation on areas of common interest is possible. At the same time, it could clearly communicate red lines that could trigger a strong response, such as reprisals against Mosul’s population by Iran-backed militias, or attacks by Hezbollah against Israel from the Golan Heights, or shipments of sophisticated weapons to the Houthis in Yemen.

Washington does not need to bring its guard down, throw long-standing allies under the bus, or turn a blind eye to Iran’s behavior in the region. But in the same way that the Trump administration is prepared to have a dialogue with Moscow — whose actions in the region are also not aligned with Washington’s — to understand its hopes and fears, cooperate with it when possible, and contain it when necessary, it must engage Tehran.

Washington may eventually be able to help create the conditions or even lead in building a sustainable order that guarantees peace and prosperity for both large and small nations in the region. In the meantime, however, it should operate by the dictum: First, do no harm. That means it should avoid deepening the chaos by picking a heedless fight with one of the region’s few stable countries.