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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
The Arduous Path to Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal
The Arduous Path to Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal
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

The Arduous Path to Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal

Originally published in Arms Control Association

A change in U.S. administrations brought with it something rare in the often-acrimonious relationship between Washington and Tehran: a point of agreement. Nearly three years after President Donald Trump unilaterally exited the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), both sides concur on the need to restore core elements of the deal that have been sorely tested since: strict restrictions on and rigorous monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Yet, the shared strategic imperative of full mutual compliance remains out of reach so long as a tactical deadlock continues on how to achieve it.

An explanation of the convergence of U.S. and Iranian interest in reviving the 2015 agreement begins with a stocktaking of the state of play inherited by President Joe Biden in January 2021. Under Trump, the United States abandoned the JCPOA in favor of a “maximum pressure” strategy defined by a sweeping deployment of unilateral sanctions and a broad set of accompanying demands on further restricting Iran’s nuclear activity, halting its ballistic missile development, and containing its regional influence.[fn]“After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy,” The Heritage Foundation, May 21, 2018, https://www.heritage.org/defense/event/after-the-deal-new-iran-strategy.Hide Footnote The financial impact on Iran has been substantial, with the World Bank describing U.S. sanctions, along with the more recent global COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on energy markets, as a “triple shock” on the country’s economy.[fn]The World Bank, “Iran Economic Monitor: Weathering the Triple-Shock,” Fall 2020, http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/287811608721990695/pdf/Iran-Economic-Monitor-Weathering-the-Triple-Shock.pdf.Hide Footnote

If the Trump administration had hoped Tehran would bend to its will, however, it was mistaken. In mid-2019, Tehran launched a counterstrategy, dubbed “maximum resistance.” Rather than concede to the administration’s demands and to demonstrate that what it viewed as tantamount to an economic siege would not go unanswered, Iran retaliated against the United States and its regional allies directly and through local proxies in places such as Iraq and the Persian Gulf. It also methodically breached its own obligations under the JCPOA on the contention that the evaporation of the financial benefits the deal had promised justified a reduction in its own compliance.

The cumulative impact of Iran’s JCPOA violations, which have escalated in line with a law the Iranian Parliament passed in December 2020 after the killing of a top nuclear scientist, allegedly by Israel, has been to substantially erode the agreement’s nonproliferation provisions in three different respects. The first relates to an expansion of uranium enrichment that cuts the timeline for producing one bomb’s worth of fissile material from a year to approximately three months; the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) quarterly report pegs Tehran’s enriched uranium stockpile at 14 times the JCPOA cap of 202.8 kilograms and at an upper enrichment rate of 20 percent uranium-235 instead of the 3.67 percent permitted under the deal.[fn]International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Directors, “Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015): Report by the Director-General,” GOV/2021/10, February 23, 2021.

The second concerns the verification and monitoring authorities of the IAEA, which under the nuclear deal is afforded JCPOA-specific transparency accesses, as well as access under the additional protocol to Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement. Iran suspended these authorities in February, although IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi negotiated a three-month “bilateral technical understanding” to maintain key oversight capabilities.[fn]“Joint Statement by the Vice-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Head of the AEOI and the Director General of the IAEA,” IAEA, February 21, 2021, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/joint-statement-by-the-vice-president-of-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-and-head-of-the-aeoi-and-the-director-general-of-the-iaea.Hide Footnote The agency is also set to press Iran on outstanding questions relating to past work at undeclared sites during technical discussions scheduled for this month. Finally, although the expansion of uranium enrichment can be undone and IAEA access fully restored, the third area of concern involves ongoing nuclear research and development activities on advanced centrifuges and uranium-metal production that deliver, as the three European JCPOA parties note, “irreversible knowledge gain.”[fn]For example, see UK Mission to the UN in Vienna, “E3 Statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” March 4, 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/e3-statement-to-the-iaea-board-of-governors-on-verification-and-monitoring-in-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-march-2021.Hide Footnote

The full article can be read on Arms Control Association's website 
5. For example, see UK Mission to the UN in Vienna, “E3 Statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” March 4, 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/e3-statement-to-the-iaea-board-of-governors-on-verification-and-monitoring-in-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-march-2021.Hide Footnote