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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

Taking the Lead

Originally published in Berlin Policy Journal

Much remains uncertain about President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy. But the future of the multilateral nuclear accord with Iran is in grave doubt given his campaign rhetoric and the enthusiasm of his first appointees for regime change in Tehran. It might now be up to the co-signatories – China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom – to take action to save it.

The agreement has been a success so far. More than a year after going into force, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), negotiated between Iran and the E3+3 (France, Germany, and the UK, plus China, Russia, and the United States) has effectively and verifiably blocked all potential pathways for Tehran to race toward nuclear weapons. In return, it has opened the door to the country’s international and economic rehabilitation, even if the pace of recovery in the aftermath of sanctions relief has been more sluggish than anticipated. All the E3+3 members are highly satisfied with the agreement’s implementation so far, and have no appetite for re-designating Iran as a threat to international peace and security.

As will be argued below, they have several mechanisms to shape the incoming US administration’s thinking, and should prepare contingency plans for the worst if the US pulls out.

Unambiguous Condemnation

The newly elected US president has been unambiguous in his condemnation of the JCPOA

The newly elected US president has been unambiguous in his condemnation of the JCPOA as fundamentally flawed. Opposition to the JCPOA appears to stem less from its implementation record than from its narrow nature: an arms-control agreement that allows an arch-adversary to come in from the cold without altering its policies more broadly. For such critics, the question of whether derailing the accord would actually strengthen the US’s ability to press for such policy changes appears to be merely an afterthought.

As president, Trump will have a number of options to scuttle the JCPOA. At the extreme, he can repudiate it as a whole or reject key parts of it, like the waivers that suspend nuclear-related US sanctions on Iran. The agreement is designed in a way that allows one party to unilaterally snapback the UN sanctions, notwithstanding the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism.

But the next occupant of the White House could undermine the deal with a lighter touch, or even with no touch at all, since lackluster implementation would doom it as well. Sustaining the JCPOA requires Washington’s constant good-faith management: the president must grant licenses in a timely fashion to allow legitimate business with Iran, issue guidelines to clarify sanctions-relief ambiguities, and shield the accord from political pressures, particularly attempts by Congress to obstruct implementation.

It is entirely too early to predict the consequences of subverting the JCPOA through any of these means. Still, several observations can be made.

Iran would almost certainly retaliate by resuscitating its nuclear program

First, scuttling the agreement – while Iran complies with it – will almost certainly erode, if not unravel, the international coalition that was critical in enforcing the sanctions that provided leverage during years of negotiations. This implies that the US will be in a weaker, not stronger, position to renegotiate a more favorable deal and/or reshape Iran’s regional or domestic policies.

Second, in such a case, Iran would almost certainly retaliate by resuscitating its nuclear program. The Iranian parliament has mandated its government to rapidly ramp up its uranium enrichment and ratchet down its cooperation with UN inspectors should the US renege on its end of the bargain.

Third, exacerbating tensions could push Iran to double down on policies it presents as essential to its national security, including a ballistic missile program as conventional deterrence and its “forward defense policy” of bolstering regional partners and proxies beyond its borders in the Middle East, in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and elsewhere.

By destabilizing the JCPOA, the incoming US administration could thus usher in what it purportedly seeks to prevent: greater Iranian assertiveness, more regional instability, and lower odds of resolving the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen – places where Iran is part of the problem and thus must be part of the solution.

Salvaging the Agreement

While the new Trump administration determines its eventual policy, the other E3+3 members have an opportunity to discourage and even deter it from undermining the JCPOA. They should also prepare contingency plans for salvaging the agreement if the E3+3 loses its first among equals.

The EU should go beyond expressing its strong support for the JCPOA and revive its so-called “Blocking Regulation” that forbids compliance with US extraterritorial sanctions that lack the consent of the JCPOA’s Joint Commission (comprising the seven negotiating parties and coordinated by the EU). The establishment of this pre-emptive measure would send a strong signal to Washington that if it walks away from the deal, it will do so alone.

The EU should go beyond expressing its strong support for the JCPOA

China, Russia, France, Germany, and the UK should formally announce that new unilateral US sanctions they deem unjustified by Iran’s behavior and interfere with its full realization of the benefits of promised sanctions relief will be taken as cause to initiate disputes against the US at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other international courts and institutions. In the late 1990s, the EU successfully challenged US sanctions with a similar approach. At the same time, these countries should continue to support Iran’s admission to the WTO.

The above initiatives should be conditioned on Iran continuing to honor its JCPOA obligations, as well as refraining from any non-nuclear provocations. Reinvigorating its nuclear activities and severing the International Atomic Energy Agency’s access in retaliation for Washington’s efforts at gutting the deal will make it difficult for others to stand up to the US. By the same token, a firm commitment by other world powers to stand by Iran as long as it upholds the deal could bolster those in Tehran who would advocate continuing to do so.

The E3+3 and Iran should convene another meeting of the Joint Commission before the US transition occurs to draw lessons from the deal’s implementation so far and clarify remaining ambiguities, especially in areas where the accord’s language is insufficient specific (for example, determining what forms of low-enriched uranium should or should not be counted towards the 300-kilogram cap).

The UN’s second report on the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA in 2015, provides a timely opportunity for the incoming UN secretary-general to reinforce the message to the US and the world that the agreement plays a key role in global peace and security by reinforcing international nonproliferation norms.

The same calculus that brought Iran and the E3+3 to compromise after thirteen years of standoff and two years of negotiations still holds: the alternatives to an agreement – a sanctions-versus-centrifuges race that could culminate in Iran obtaining the bomb or being bombed – would be much worse. Regardless of whether the incoming US administration arrives at this conclusion, the countries that negotiated the deal should do their utmost to preserve it.