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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 PKK Conflict in the Context of EU-Turkey Relations
The PKK Conflict in the Context of EU-Turkey Relations
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 PKK Conflict in the Context of EU-Turkey Relations

On top of major challenges, including the spillover from the war in Syria, Islamic State terrorism and increasingly heavy-handed governance, Turkey's conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) also reignited last year. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to increase efforts toward two related objectives: improving relations with Ankara and finding a political end to the PKK conflict.

This commentary is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

The relationship between EU and Turkey is in flux, while Turkey – amid shifting strategic fault lines in the region – faces multiple challenges: Islamic State (IS) attacks, the pressures of hosting three million Syrian refugees, a deteriorating economy, and domestic upheaval exacerbated by the failed coup attempt and increasing social and political polarisation, all feature alongside a dramatic intensification of conflict between the state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Reflective of deep-seated animosities, the increasingly febrile domestic scene, and spillover from fighting in Syria, the renewed PKK conflict has killed some 2,500 and displaced up to 300,000 since July 2015. Bringing the violence under control and back on the path of a sustainable settlement will be crucial to restoring stability. In this fraught environment, the EU – whose relations with Ankara have suffered amid mutual feelings of disappointment and betrayal – has options to refine and better coordinate its strategy toward Turkey, with a view both to helping calm the conflict in the south east, and halting strategic drift in relations.

A Worsening Conflict

Alongside fatalities and displacement, intense fighting between the security forces and the PKK between December 2015 and June 2016 led to the destruction of some towns and districts in Turkey’s south east. In the last few months, PKK militants have increased improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in big cities around the country. Fighting in the south east, which subsided with the onset of winter, is expected to pick up in the spring.

Ankara’s crackdown against the Kurdish political movement has intensified. Twelve MPs from the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) including the party’s co-chairs, more than 60 elected co-mayors and thousands of party members and supporters are under arrest for broadly-defined charges of support to or membership of a terrorist organisation or making terrorist propaganda. More than 150 journalists have been arrested on the basis of the anti-terror law, some for alleged links with the PKK.

In northern Syria, Ankara’s Euphrates Shield military operation aims, among other goals, to block gains by PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG), in particular PKK/YPG ambitions of creating a contiguous corridor of Kurdish territory along the Turkey-Syria border. Ankara has threatened to push into YPG-held Manbij, which would lead to armed confrontation between the Turkish military and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

All these dynamics have severely reduced the chances of a return to peace talks between the government and the PKK – even as this remains the only way to a lasting solution. In the short term, the focus needs to be on preventing further escalation of violence, de-escalation in the south east, and laying the groundwork for a new political process.

An Approach for the EU to Mitigate the Conflict

Against this backdrop, growing anti-Western rhetoric and mounting mistrust between Turkey and the EU are narrowing avenues for cooperation, including for the EU to play a meaningful role in helping Turkey find a sustainable path out of the PKK conflict. Yet these twin imperatives – improving relations and an end to the conflict – form part of a mutually reinforcing loop, one unlikely without the other. At the same time, in the context of the Syria crisis the EU urgently needs to better integrate its Syria, Turkey and Russia policies. In this context the EU, in addition to supporting a political solution to the PKK conflict, should focus on measures aimed at dialling down tensions between it and Ankara. This means delivering on its commitments, for example on visa liberalisation, as soon as feasible, while maintaining a principled stance on international human rights norms.

EU institutions and member states should continue to support civil initiatives in favour of a political solution to the PKK conflict.

EU institutions and member states should continue to support civil initiatives in favour of a political solution to the PKK conflict. European support for local media and civil society platforms conducting independent/impartial reporting on the Kurdish issue is also important if these organisations are to be able to continue to function.

Human rights violations and the stifling of freedom of expression on Kurdish demands such as for decentralisation and mother tongue education must inevitably be addressed in any lasting peaceful settlement. However, European support for such reforms is often decried by the Turkish political leadership and nationalist circles as support to the PKK. These criticisms, alongside seeking to balance out other strategic interests with Ankara (such as on refugee/migration issues, counter-terrorism, investment and trade), have rendered EU member states increasingly reluctant to raise such issues. However, recent legal measures taken by the Turkish government following the Council of Europe Venice Commission’s opinion on emergency decree laws, which calls for stronger human rights protections, shows there are ways to positively influence human rights through existing international mechanisms to which Ankara is a party.

Overcoming the Impasse on Anti-terror Laws

Now that accession talks have stalled, visa liberalisation is the most enticing prospect Brussels has to offer to help re-energise the relationship. However, it hinges primarily on Turkey amending its anti-terror legislation. The EU sees this as a key element in finding a long-term solution to the Kurdish issue, but would also like to see the reform of legislation which is draconian and also qualifies more Turkish citizens to receive asylum in EU states – Germany alone received over 5,000 applications from Turks in 2016, four fifths of them of Kurdish origin. Ankara has claimed the legislation is a proportionate response to the threat faced. Despite the publicly reported standoff, Turkey is, according to officials, considering adjustments to current anti-terror laws in line with EU requirements in the spring. Once the EU’s conditions are met, Brussels should move to grant visa liberalisation quickly.

EU institutions and capitals need to better explain that the expected reforms to anti-terror laws will not hamper legitimate measures to restore public order and combat terrorism, but are meant to help Turkey abide by its own commitments on fundamental rights and freedoms. To address the widespread agitation within Turkey over perceived European interference in domestic anti-terror legislation, they need to make it clear to the Turkish public how it is that the anti-terror laws in their current form allow Turkish citizens to qualify as ­asylum-seekers in Europe.

EU member states should also communicate more explicitly their position on the PKK – which the EU lists as a terror organisation –both to the Turkish public and to Ankara. This will help overcome a widespread perception in Turkey that EU states harbour PKK activists and permit financial flows to the organisation. EU states should publicise measures they currently take against the PKK but about which the Turkish public remain largely unaware – for example Germany’s current investigation of around 4,000 names allegedly linked to the PKK for a range of alleged offences, and the UK’s effective curbing of funding channels to the PKK through its UK-based affiliates.

Making the Refugee Deal Work

Ensuring the March 2016 refugee deal remains in place and functions well will also be vital to stabilising relations, complemented by strengthening recognition of the refugee burden Turkey is bearing in large part in Europe’s stead. As controversial as the refugee deal is, its unravelling would be a disaster. As well as damaging EU-Turkey relations and undermining the EU’s internal cohesion, it would – most importantly – create additional insecurity for the refugee community. While the flow of EU funding for Syrian refugees has reduced negative rhetoric coming out of Ankara, the perception that EU countries prioritise stemming the flow of refugees from Turkey has undoubtedly given Ankara a sense of leverage over European counterparts.

EU member states need to continue to support refugee integration in Turkey’s labour market and education system.

EU member states need to continue to support refugee integration in Turkey’s labour market and education system, also focusing on social cohesion by supporting NGOs working at the local/community level to foster social dialogue and defuse tensions between host and refugee communities. This should be in addition to the ongoing imperative to offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk through resettlement as a clear demonstration of a greater commitment to equitable burden-sharing.