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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
Iran Unites as Tehran Struck by Middle East’s Proxy Wars
Iran Unites as Tehran Struck by Middle East’s Proxy Wars
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

Members of Iranian forces take position during an attack on the Iranian parliament in central Tehran, Iran, on 7 June 2017. TIMA/Omid Vahabzadeh.

Iran Unites as Tehran Struck by Middle East’s Proxy Wars

The 7 June attacks in Tehran struck at the symbolic heart of Iran’s revolutionary republic. In this Q&A, Ali Vaez, Senior Analyst for Iran, says the outrages show how the region’s proxy wars are now reaching far beyond the battlefield.

How unusual are these attacks for Iran?

If this indeed was, as it claimed, an attack by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it would constitute the first time the organisation has been able to strike Iran inside its borders. But terrorist attacks are not new to Iran. In the early years of revolutionary turmoil, the leftist-Islamist Mojahedin Khalq (MEK) resorted to violence. In the 1980s, up to 120 terrorist attacks occurred in Tehran perpetrated by MEK and other violent groups, killing hundreds of Iranian officials, including the president and prime minister in August 1981. Even the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was targeted. He survived the assassination attempt, but lost full use of his right hand.

Consequently, the Islamic Republic developed a powerful counter-terrorism capacity through intelligence and security forces that, along with its paramilitary Basij militia, turned Iran into one of the most stable countries in the region – at the cost of highly repressive methods. The only exception to Iran’s successful counter-terrorism record was the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists at the height of the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. But those were targeted assassinations as opposed to indiscriminate terrorist attacks.

The targets seem to have been chosen in order to maximise political impact rather than fatalities.

That ISIS had failed to attack Iran up until now wasn’t for lack of trying. There have been multiple reports of foiled attacks in several Iranian cities. According to Iranian officials, Iran’s intelligence agencies detected and dismantled 58 ISIS-affiliated terrorist groups in the past few years. In March 2016, the Iranian army reported killing two alleged ISIS recruits in the western province of Kermanshah. In June 2016, Iranian media reported the arrest of eighteen people who were trying to recruit new members through social media. In August that year, the Iranian intelligence minister said that authorities had prevented 1,500 young Iranians from joining ISIS. In recent months there was an uptick in its propaganda against Tehran as ISIS published a rare video in Persian in March, encouraging Iran’s Sunni minority to wage a religious war against the Shia ruling elite.

The attacks are in all likelihood linked to the extreme sectarianism of the fighting in Iraq and Syria. Iran, a Shiite Muslim power, is heavily involved in both conflicts. Salafi and Sunni Muslim groups like ISIS have long heaped vitriol on the Shiites.

In this sense, it’s not the attacks that are surprising, it’s that Iran was able to avoid one for so long. The attacks were a wake-up call for Iran’s security apparatus, but so too will they probably serve as one for jihadists, who will be encouraged to exploit Iran’s vulnerabilities.

What’s the immediate impact of this attack?

There are different voices coming out of Tehran. Some in the leadership have sought to downplay the attacks. The supreme leader said the “terrorists fumbling with fire crackers” won’t affect Iran, while the speaker of the parliament, where twelve people were killed and many were injured, called them a “trivial incident”. The Revolutionary Guards, however, have vowed revenge, drawing an unsubstantiated link between the attacks and a joint Saudi-U.S. effort to push back against Tehran’s regional policies. The minister of intelligence, however, has said it is too early to blame the Saudis. Nevertheless, the harsh rhetoric on both sides is likely to exacerbate tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and further diminish the already slim chance of any kind of reconciliation anytime soon.

The attacks could better enable the Revolutionary Guards to resist [Rouhani] and crack down on internal dissent.

Still, I don’t see any immediate escalation of friction between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Neither the leadership in Tehran nor the one in Riyadh appears keen on a direct confrontation. Still, with increased tensions, there is higher likelihood of miscalculation on both sides. And of course, all of this fuels sectarianism in the region, which is a gift to ISIS and al-Qaeda.

What was the symbolism of the chosen targets?

The targets seem to have been chosen in order to maximise political impact rather than fatalities. The assailants targeted two key symbolic pillars of the Islamic Republic, the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s theocratic system, and the parliament, the centre of the country’s republican tradition. Assuming that ISIS was the perpetrator, it is striking that it claimed responsibility for the attack immediately rather than wait as it usually does. This is probably because it considers the attack a rare success as it rapidly loses ground in Iraq and Syria.

 What do you think the domestic impact will be?

Initially at least the attacks are likely to rally Iranians around the flag, but this could change quickly depending on two key questions: first, will anybody in Iran use the event politically, and how? Secondly, how were the perpetrators able to carry out these attacks?

President Rouhani is fresh from an election in which he received a strong mandate to deliver on his promise of de-securitising the domestic sphere. The attacks, however, could better enable the Revolutionary Guards to resist him and crack down on internal dissent. If Rouhani succeeds in quickly creating consensus around a path forward that would rectify security loopholes, while tolerating a higher degree of political pluralism, he might be able to prevent a counterproductive blame game and deeper polarisation. This could be done through the Supreme National Security Council, which comprises key civilian and military leaders and takes all key national security decisions in Iran. Given Rouhani’s extensive experience in the country’s national security establishment, he has the know-how to achieve this goal. But at this stage, it is too early to tell whether he will succeed or not.

The answer to the second question is becoming increasingly clear. According to Iranian officials, the perpetrators appear to be ISIS recruits from Iran’s Sunni majority provinces, who had fought for the group in Mosul and Raqqa. This could be used as a pretext to crack down in the country’s western, south-western, and south-eastern frontier provinces where Iran’s 5-10 per cent Sunni population lives. While there is little support for jihadists among Iran’s Sunni populations, despite their discontent with their treatment by central authorities, a government crackdown – if harsh enough and pursued long enough – is the kind of thing that could change that. The single most relevant factor in the radicalisation of jihadists is harsh government treatment. Interestingly, turnout in recent presidential elections was high in majority Sunni provinces like Sistan-Balouchestan (75 per cent) and Kurdistan (59 per cent). They both overwhelmingly (73 per cent) voted for the more pragmatic candidate, Rouhani.

It appears that the Trump administration ... is succeeding where the Islamic Republic failed in the past 38 years: turning Iranians against the U.S.

What has been the reaction in the region?

Some countries like Turkey, Oman and Qatar denounced the attacks, but others like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain had a muted response. Some will see a comeuppance for a country that has freely interfered and stoked sectarianism in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere, until now without a backlash inside its borders. The recent attacks represent a different sort of backlash as well. Iran – like every state in the region – has pulled its punches with jihadists, including al-Qaeda, so long as their guns were turned against Iran’s enemies. But tactical relations with these groups often entail collateral damage.

What has been the reaction in the rest of the world?

The U.S. State Department condemned the attacks in strong terms; but President Trump added insult to injury by underscoring that “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote”. On the same days as the attacks, the U.S. Congress also voted to advance sanctions legislation against Iran, particularly targeting the Revolutionary Guards. Iranian foreign minister retorted on Twitter: “Repugnant [White House] statement & Senate sanctions as Iranians counter terror backed by U.S. clients. Iranian people reject such U.S. claims of friendship”.

Following social media in Iran, I was struck by how much Washington’s insensitivity has offended the Iranian public. For years, Iran watchers were baffled by how pro-American the Iranian people remained despite having a highly anti-American government and being exposed to anti-American propaganda for nearly four decades. It appears that the Trump administration, first with its travel ban, then with hostile rhetoric and now with this statement, is succeeding where the Islamic Republic failed in the past 38 years: turning Iranians against the U.S.

For their part, the European and Asian leaders didn’t hesitate to do the right thing and condemned the attacks in Tehran no less strongly than they do attacks anywhere else. The attacks are a reminder that the effects of the region’s ongoing proxy wars are felt far beyond the battlefield. ISIS’s recent losses notwithstanding, so long as those wars and sectarian demonisation continue, we should expect more tragedies of this nature.