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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’s Protests: Time to Reform
Iran’s Protests: Time to Reform
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

Iran’s Protests: Time to Reform

Originally published in Open Democracy

Without addressing head-on the drivers of the protests and pursuing popular reform, the Iranian leaders are only buying time until the next standoff between the state and the society.

The protests in Iran seem to have died down, but if Iranian leaders fail to recognize that the status quo has become untenable and major reforms are unavoidable, they are only buying time until the next uprising, which could lead to greater instability.

It is easy for the leadership in Tehran to dismiss the outpouring of popular ire over economic and political stagnation. The latest protests were leaderless, too amorphous, too scattered, too provincial, and too shallow. Above all, they lacked a unifying objective. Protesters knew what they did not want, but differed on what they wanted. Slogans ranged from “death to inflation” to “death to embezzlers” to “death to the dictator” and “give up on Syria! Think of us”.

Conversely, the Islamic Republic remains too resilient, its leadership’s resolve to cling to power too strong, the capacity of its parallel security organizations and paramilitary squads for coercion too fearsome, and its control over the airwaves and cyber arena too inviolable.

The three million demonstrators who marched silently on the streets of Tehran on June 15, 2009 shook the political system to its core, but failed to dislodge it. Despite Iran’s practiced capacity to surprise, it was naïve to believe that tens of thousands of demonstrators, mainly outside the capital, could bring the current order to its knees in 2018.

Long-standing Grievances

The story of what transpired on December 28th, 2017, in Mashhad, the site of the first demonstration and supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s hometown, remains to be told. Its trigger was disgruntlement over economic malaise, endemic corruption and glaring income inequalities, but some of president Hassan Rouhani’s hardline rivals might have poured fuel on the fire – that they initially loudly welcomed the protests suggests this possibility. But who/what lurked in the shadows is not as important as what was in plain sight.

In 90 percent of more than 80 towns and cities that experienced unrest, riots already had occurred in the past six months over basic socio-economic issues: from unpaid wages to lost deposits and environmental disasters. Dashed expectations of rapid economic recovery after the 2015 nuclear deal, compounded by unbreathable smog that had descended on several metropolitan areas, a chain of earthquakes and their mismanaged aftermath, and an austerity budget hiking prices, and slashing subsidies, while granting more perks to religious and military institutions – these together made for a perfect storm.

The Islamic Republic remains too resilient, its leadership’s resolve to cling to power too strong.

The state’s response, however, was atypical as security forces refrained from resorting quickly to brute force – at least by their own standards. The restraint might have been because most of the protesters seemed to be the system’s own constituents – the more pious, lower-income, blue-collar workers from the country’s peripheries. It might also have stemmed from the leadership’s reluctance to alienate human-rights conscious Europeans, on whom Tehran counts for salvaging the nuclear deal in the face of president Donald Trump’s hostility towards it; or from a calculation that violence could play into the hands of those who are seeking to destabilize Iran, and thus roll back its gains in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.

Many outsiders were projecting their hopes onto this Iranian drama, but in the end, they were mere spectators. The question is what Iranians will do next.

A History of Reluctance

Rouhani has struck the right tone: admitting that the ruling elite is out of touch, recognizing people’s right to protest, noting that their dissent stemmed not just from economic malaise, and emphasizing that they seek a more open society and polity. Ayatollah Khamenei, however, has blamed the protests on a triangle of Iran’s enemies: the U.S. and Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iranian exiled dissidents.

What is not clear is whether the leadership can accept a civic culture in which peaceful protests are tolerated and deemed normal, and whether it can evolve.

The question is what Iranians will do next.

Past patterns, especially the record of Rouhani’s predecessors, are not promising. In the face of popular and/or elite wrath at their reforms, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (after the protests of the early 1990s) and Mohammad Khatami (after the 1999 student uprising) became more risk-averse and pursued only superficial change.

Yet marching in circles this time potentially could bring the country to the brink. Its predicaments, from chronic unemployment (hovering around 30 percent for the educated youth) to its bankrupt financial system and its environmental challenges can neither be ignored nor resolved using the failed policies of the past. After years of sanctions and economic mismanagement, the unemployed and disgruntled Iranian youth have less to lose, which means they may be more prepared to throw caution to the wind and resort to violence.

There is still a significant constituency, however, who while sympathizing with the popular grievances, fears the chaos that will come with radical change. The 1979 revolution’s memory and the Arab uprisings’ experience have been instructive for the large, and increasingly mature Iranian middle class, which has sought reforms for nearly 20 years. The hashtag “we will not become Syria” was trending among middle-class Iranians.

Managing Reform

Ayatollah Khamenei has the authority to drive change, but is nearing 80 and almost certainly is not eager for fundamental reforms. Denouncing this “sedition” as a foreign conspiracy is more familiar ground, and – to him – less risky. For his part, Rouhani’s ambition to succeed the leader might stop him from forcefully pushing for change and instead invest in the longer term. Among the political and military elite, there is also strong vested interest in preserving the status quo.

But by failing to allow gradual evolution, Iran’s leaders, themselves former revolutionaries, could be making instability more likely in a country that experienced two major revolutions in the past century (the constitutional revolution in 1906 and the Islamic revolution in 1979). At some stage, events might spiral out of control.

Iran’s recent history offers constructive lessons.

President Rouhani should turn the crisis into an opportunity, pivoting from the protesters’ target to their champion for change.

First, it might get too late too soon for the system to absorb the shock. The Shah realized in the late 1970s that there was a need for change. But the reforms he implemented were tardy and timid. Second, ill-conceived action could be worse than inaction. In 1989, shortly before his death and cognizant of the deadlock in the system’s power structure, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini started a process to amend the constitution and abolish the prime minister’s office. In the end, however, that change bifurcated the political system and created more, not less, friction between the system’s theocratic and republican institutions.

Bearing these precedents in mind, President Rouhani should turn the crisis into an opportunity, pivoting from the protesters’ target to their champion for change. He should secure Ayatollah Khamenei’s consent and submit to parliament a package of major reforms, including constitutional amendments that would empower elected institutions and a timetable for implementing them. Without such bold measures, the major surgery that the Iranian president admits the country’s economy is in need of simply will not happen. A fragile garrison state is certainly not a legacy Ayatollah Khamenei should be satisfied with.

The recent Iranian protests might not augur deep change, as the country’s leaders may not be prepared to relinquish their old ways. But without addressing head-on the drivers of the protests and pursuing popular reform, they are only buying time until the next standoff between the state and the society.