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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
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

Map showing casualty rates for provinces, cities, towns and specific curfews. CRISIS GROUP

Turkey’s PKK Conflict: The Death Toll

On 20 July 2016, the first-year anniversary of resumption of violence in Turkey's PKK conflict, Crisis Group made public an open-source casualty infographic in order to draw attention to the rising human cost, trace conflict trends and demonstrate how the tactics on the ground are evolving. The infographic is meant to function as a clear, impartial, and factual account of the conflict’s changing dynamics.

The failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016 has focused renewed attention on Turkey’s military and security apparatus at a time when violence is already high.

Exactly one year ago, on the afternoon of 20 July 2015, an Islamic State (IS) suicide bombing tore through the majority Kurdish town of Suruç in south-eastern Turkey, killing 33 and injuring over 100 people, mostly young activists en route to support reconstruction efforts in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.

Just three hours later in the nearby province of Adıyaman, militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) accusing Turkey of abetting the IS attack, killed 23-year old Müsellim Ünal, a corporal in the Turkish military. PKK militants killed five more security officials in the following week.

The two-and-a-half-year ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK – internationally listed as a terrorist organisation – had broken down. Since then, the PKK conflict has entered one of the deadliest chapters in its three-decade history. Over the past year, more than 1,700 people have been killed, according to Crisis Group’s interactive, open-source database of the casualties, published online in English and Turkish today.

A fragile ceasefire, which had already been faltering, collapsed as the region was engulfed in the unpredictable mayhem of clashes and security operations, resulting in the displacement of more than 350,000 civilians and massive urban destruction in some south-eastern districts. A year later, whole swathes of Turkey’s majority Kurdish south east have been devastated, bombings have struck at the heart of the country’s largest metropolitan centres, and the PKK conflict is inextricably linked with conflicts in the Middle East, especially the war in Syria.

Though dynamics have changed considerably, the past year contains echoes of what had been the worst period of the PKK conflict in the early 1990s. Then, information was hard to obtain and there were many obstacles to travel in the region. Now the problem is that information is tightly controlled, travel is limited for some, and it can take months to work out what exactly happened even in high-profile incidents.

Tracking the Data

International Crisis Group has long worked to track the rising cost of violence using open-source data, including reports from Turkish-language media, local Kurdish rights groups and the Turkish military. In the last bout of violence, from June 2011 to March 2013, Crisis Group was able to confirm the deaths of 920 people.

Crisis Group is now making public in real time the death toll since 20 July 2015, based on its open-source methodology. The goal of this project is to draw attention to the rising human cost of the conflict, trace the trends of the conflict and demonstrate how the tactics of the parties are evolving. We aim to present a clear, impartial, factual account of what is happening in the conflict, and where violence is taking place to guide policymakers, researchers and public opinion in Turkey and beyond. This is an important task, as casualty figures are generally politicised by all parties as they present competing narratives. This resource should be viewed within the framework of Crisis Group’s calls for de-escalation of the PKK conflict.

Crisis Group first started formally tracking the casualty toll of the 32-year conflict during the July 2011-March 2013 cycle of violence. We used the casualty information released by the PKK and the Turkish military for their own losses, relying on the fact that a relatively clear distinction between militants and civilians was possible in a conflict that mainly took place in rural settings. We were generally cautious about the use of figures presented by either side for the opposing party’s losses, since these were often inflated to mobilise support and legitimise further action.

As the fighting moved to urban areas during the current conflict cycle, the line between PKK militants and civilians became increasingly blurred. The difficulty of distinguishing between civilians and militants led Crisis Group to create an additional category for “youth of unknown affiliation”, covering male and female casualties, aged 16-35, who were killed in curfew zones or areas of clashes, but who were not claimed by the PKK’s military wing (People’s Defence Forces, or HPG) or its urban youth wing (Civil Protection Units, or YPS).

The visualised dataset for casualties since July 2015 utilises a more complex methodology, systematically tracking casualty data together with other indicators such as urban versus rural casualties; types of attacks targeting security forces; age of civilian casualties; breakdown of security force casualties into police, soldiers, village guards; breakdown of PKK militant deaths into HPG, YPS, and TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, the PKK’s affiliate responsible for attacks in the west of Turkey). The data also accounts for curfews enforced by security officials in majority Kurdish-speaking south-eastern districts, specifying the duration of the curfew and the minimum number of individuals confirmed dead during these operations.

21 July 2016
The fighting in the southeast, which reignited in July 2015, has killed 1,761 people, according to new figures released by the International Crisis Group. Middle East Eye

— Direnç Balık

Journalist

One of the Most Violent Flare-ups in Three Decades

The July 2015 flare-up of the PKK conflict is one of the most violent episodes in its 32-year history. The most significant indicator for this is the number of state security force members killed, usually accurately reported by military sources and subsequently covered in Turkish media.

Based on its open-source casualty database, between 20 July 2015 and 19 July 2016, Crisis Group confirmed the deaths of at least:

– 307 civilians

– 582 security force members

– 653 PKK militants

– 219 “youth of unknown affiliation”

Since August 2015, security forces have imposed a total of 85 curfews of different durations in 33 majority Kurdish south-eastern districts to ensure government control over areas where members of the Kurdish political movement have declared self rule, and where PKK militant presence grew significantly.

The Turkish military and PKK both maintain their own count of the overall casualties during the last escalation cycle. The Turkish military on 24 May 2016 claimed that since July 2015, 4,949 PKK militants have been killed. The HPG, the military wing of the PKK, claimed on 2 May to have killed a total of 1,557 police and soldiers since July 2015, while for the same period Crisis Group confirmed a total of 465 security force members dead.

What the new infographic shows

The new infographic illustrates changing conflict dynamics in the course of the year, including more large-scale attacks in the west of Turkey, a rise in single PKK attacks creating more casualties, a return to rural clashes in the last two months, and a rise in HPG militant deaths – as opposed to YPS militants in June 2016. Notable also is that one-third of all recorded casualties are concentrated in the districts of Sur, Nusaybin and Cizre, of which the latter two are directly neighbouring Kurdish-inhabited areas of Syria.

  • While the bulk of the PKK conflict has remained highly localised in the country’s majority Kurdish south east, since January 2016 violence has increasingly spread to the west of Turkey. Two bombings by TAK struck Ankara on 17 February and 13 March 2016, killing a total of 38 civilians and 28 security officials. A TAK suicide bomber also detonated herself outside of the Great Mosque in Bursa, a city in north west Turkey, injuring thirteen on 27 April. This was followed by a May 2016 attack in Istanbul’s Sancaktepe district that narrowly missed a bus full of police. TAK also claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack on a police bus on 7 June in central Vezneciler district of Istanbul killing seven police officers and four civilians.
     
  • Between 1 February and 19 July 2016, of the 312 security force members killed, 150 were victims of improvised explosive device (IED) attacks (48 per cent), while in the four months prior (October 2015-January 2016) of the total of 115 security force deaths, 33 were from IED attacks (29 per cent). This suggests the PKK is engaging in more high-profile attacks, killing more security forces with single IED attacks, which has resulted in an increase in monthly security force casualties since March 2016 (a daily average of 1.8 between March 2016 and June 2016; compared to a daily average of 1.3 between November 2015 and February 2016).
     
  • Evaluated together with the urban vs. rural casualty information and the location of casualties, the data also indicates that the PKK is withdrawing its militants from urban centres and focusing its strikes in rural areas. May 2016 was the first month since November 2015 in which the number of total rural deaths was higher than total urban deaths (57 per cent of security force casualties occurred in rural areas in May 2016, as opposed to 33 per cent in April and 13 per cent in February). In June 2016, the ratio of rural security force casualties increased to 62.5 per cent. This clearly shows that the PKK is withdrawing from urban areas and shifting back to its traditional rural tactics. Besides intensified military operations of state security force members against militants in urban centres, growing public resentment among Kurds against PKK actions in restive districts around the country’s south east could be one of the reasons for this change in tactics.
     
  • 30 per cent of confirmed casualties have been in Cizre, Sur and Nusaybin. Over the last year, fighting has been focused in mainly four provinces: Şırnak, Diyarbakır, Mardin and Hakkari. The highest number of casualties were recorded in Şırnak’s Cizre district, followed by Diyarbakır’s Sur district, and Mardin’s Nusaybin district. Casualties in these three districts comprised 30 per cent of the total casualties since July 2015.
     
  • In March, April and May 2016, a sharp drop in the number of deaths among “youth of unknown affiliation” has paralleled a rise in casualties claimed by militias of the PKK’s youth wing, the YPS. Deaths among “youth of unknown affiliation” peaked in early February, when military operations in Cizre saw over 100 deaths in a single week. YPS deaths rose sharply in the following weeks, peaking in March and April. This could be an indication of two dynamics: either the PKK’s young militants are increasingly joining the YPS, or the PKK has begun reporting these deaths to give the appearance that its “resistance” is embraced by a broader group of youth in conflict areas.
     
  • Since February 2016, casualties suffered by YPS and HPG militants have been relatively close in numbers, an indication that the two PKK wings have been engaged in fighting (HPG/YPS killed: February at least 13/23; March at least 28/37; April at least 50/59; May at least 21/21). Casualty figures for June 2016 indicate that HPG casualties are rising, with the balance tipping considerably toward HPG militant casualties (HPG/YPS killed: June at least 45/3).
15 July 2016
Nor would a coup decisively end a revived Kurdish insurgency, which has claimed over 1,700 lives since July 2015, according to the International Crisis Group. Foreign Policy

— Noah Blaser

Journalist

Overall Casualties in the Conflict since 1984

The PKK conflict in Turkey is commonly estimated to have killed around 30,000-40,000 people since 1984. The overall toll of the conflict is difficult to determine given the limitations on accurately verifying death claims. To reflect this ambiguity and minimise the risk of inflation or underestimation, caution in citing the overall death toll is in order.

Over the years, Turkish media and academia have all too often simply cited overall death toll figures voiced by politicians and military representatives. As described in a forthcoming report by Noah Arjomand, an academic at Columbia University, even these figures varied: in December 1997, Süleyman Demirel, then Prime Minister, said 37,000 people had been killed in the insurgency; in January 2005, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the PKK had killed 40,000; in September 2008, the chief of general staff said it was 44,042; in February 2013, a parliamentary commission report estimated the total death toll at 35,576.

The same study shows that the breakdown of annual death toll figures announced by the parliament and gendarmerie (rural police) between 1984 and 2009 are divergent, too. The difference was highest after Turkey launched two large-scale operations into northern Iraq in 1997, accompanied by huge claims of PKK casualties in pro-government media: the overall toll reported by parliament was 3,419 killed, the gendarmerie said 8,234. Confirming casualties during this incursion was particularly difficult since, in contrast to reporting from Turkey’s south east, local human rights organisations did not have the means to verify deaths occurring during these military operations due to limited access to northern Iraq.

According to Turkish military figures compiled by Arjomand, the ratio of PKK militants reported killed by the military has tended to increase considerably compared to security force casualties in years of cross-border military operations against the PKK. For most years, the rate of PKK militants killed is, according to military-issued figures, two to four times higher than state security forces killed during low-intensity years of the conflict. However, a significant hike in the ratio can be observed during high-intensity conflict periods involving incursions of the military into northern Iraq, with the peak being the year 1997, when Turkish military claimed that 14.6 times more PKK militants than members of state security forces were killed.

In the current round of escalation that began in July 2015, the Turkish state claims to have killed around ten times more PKK militants than it has lost security forces. Similarly, the PKK also claims to have killed around ten times more state security forces than it has lost militants. Crisis Group’s casualty count of the last year reflects the security force-to-militant ratio at 1.16, while the same ratio was 1.75 for Crisis Group’s casualty count for the 2011-2013 escalation cycle. However, Crisis Group’s open-source methodology does not always allow for an accurate account of PKK militant deaths, which PKK-linked sources often only announce weeks, months, or even years later. Moreover, means of verifying PKK militant deaths in cross border incursions into northern Iraq are particularly limited. Despite these methodological limitations, it is safe to say that PKK claims for the number of state security forces killed, as well as state figures for PKK members killed are inflated. As a human rights activist in Diyarbakır told Crisis Group in January 2016: “Our cities in the region would be flooded with corpses and we would constantly hold funerals if the number the state announces for PKK members killed was correct”.

Given these limitations and ambiguities, the precise figure for the overall casualty toll of the conflict is impossible to confirm, whether by referring to Turkish state sources, or by using reports of human rights NGOs close to the Kurdish movement – who have collected data with differing methodologies for different years. Furthermore, the number of unresolved murders, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances occurring especially in the 1990s – the conflict’s most deadly period – is unknown. In order to avoid the risk of using inflated figures or excluding unrecorded casualties, the safest option is to refer to the conflict’s overall toll as “tens of thousands of deaths”. Such caution should guide the use of any data on conflict casualties, where even seemingly accurate estimates may be flawed.