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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

The Houthis Are Not Hezbollah

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Donald Trump wants to ramp up Yemen's proxy fight against Iran. One small problem: Tehran doesn't really have a proxy there.

The first arena in which the Trump administration confronts Iran is shaping up to be Yemen. To the delight of Trump’s Persian Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the president’s national security team appears to view the Houthis — a Yemeni militia rooted in the country’s Zaydi Shiite tradition that is currently fighting alongside large parts of the army and northern tribal groupings aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against an array of domestic opponents — much as they view Hezbollah. That is to say, as part of an Iranian grand plan to build a powerful Shiite alliance against arch-foe Israel and regional competitor Saudi Arabia.

There’s only one problem: The Houthis are not Hezbollah and, despite their publicly expressed sympathies for the Islamic Republic, have not developed a similarly tight relationship with Tehran. Yet the combined efforts of Washington and its Gulf allies could still drive the Houthis into Tehran’s arms.

It’s instructive to compare the rise of the Houthis with that of Hezbollah. Lebanon’s “Party of God” was born in the cauldron of Israel’s 1982 invasion and occupation of that country. It fed on the Lebanese Shiite population’s myriad resentments: their under-representation in Lebanon’s political system, the presence of Palestinian militants (who used southern Lebanon as a launching pad for attacks on Israeli soil), and Israel’s indiscriminate response, of which they were among the main victims. This was a mere three years after the Islamic Revolution, when Iranian Revolutionary Guards, buoyed by political victory and having blocked an Iraqi invasion, were keen to spread their ideology across the Shiite world.

[T]he combined efforts of Washington and its Gulf allies could still drive the Houthis into Tehran’s arms.

Hezbollah started out as an Iranian experiment, an opportunity Tehran could exploit. But over time, it became something far more substantial: a true and popular (if not universally lauded) representative of Lebanon’s Shiite community with a militia willing to stand up to Israeli infringements of Lebanese sovereignty. This earned it grudging support among Lebanon’s Sunnis and Christians, and — as long as it didn’t pose as a sectarian actor — broad admiration in the Arab world as well. For decades, the fact that Hezbollah received its arsenal from Iran via Syria remained a minor Arab concern — until the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel highlighted for some Arab regimes its troublesome military power.

In the last four years, the perception of Hezbollah has changed dramatically. Its intervention in the Syrian civil war transformed it into Iran’s indispensable partner in preserving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime and, thereby, the party’s own weapons lifeline. As the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia reaches a boiling point across the Middle East, Hezbollah has embraced the sectarianism that some claim has long defined it.

The Houthis’ genealogy differs from Hezbollah’s, but there are important similarities as well. The group professes to protect Yemen’s Zaidi community — Shiites who in religious belief are closer to Yemen’s Sunnis than to adherents of Twelver Shiism predominant in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon — and started in national politics as a grassroots revivalist movement opposed to Salafi expansion into Zaydi areas. In the early 2000s, they morphed into a militia with a political affinity for Iran and Hezbollah, and a posture explicitly opposed to the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Between 2004 and 2010, they fought six rounds of war with then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s army, gaining strength in the process from captured army depots.

The Houthis might have fought on but for the outbreak of the Yemeni uprising in 2011, when the Arab Spring shook the Saleh regime and culminated in a transition brokered and enforced in part by Saudi Arabia. Saleh was replaced by his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. For two years, the Houthis played politics, participating in a national dialogue even as they worked to turn the military balance in the north in their favor. When the political transition faltered, the Houthis reverted to arms, storming capital of Sanaa in September 2014 and, a few months later, ousting Hadi, who fled to Aden and, shortly after, Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis also forged an alliance with their former enemy, Saleh. The ex-president saw in the Houthis — strong fighters but poor administrators — an opportunity to exact revenge on those who had turned against him in 2011, and possibly to regain power. The combined strength of the Houthis and parts of the armed forces still loyal to Saleh crossed a Saudi red line: In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with assistance from the United States and United Kingdom, launched an air and, soon after, ground assault to reverse advances by the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Almost two years later, they are still fighting — laying waste to the Arab world’s poorest country in the process.

Saudi Arabia has become to the Houthis what Israel has long been to Hezbollah.

Until now, and apart from Tehran’s strong pro-Houthi rhetoric, very little hard evidence has turned up of Iranian support to the Houthis. There has been evidence of some small arms shipments and, likely, military advice from Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guard officers, who may have helped the Houthis in firing missiles into Saudi territory and targeting Saudi vessels in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, U.S. and British military and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition exceeds by many factors any amount of support the Houthis have received from Tehran.

The war is strengthening the Houthis, who have has now taken up the banner of defending the nation against external aggression. In fact, Saudi Arabia has become to the Houthis what Israel has long been to Hezbollah. The Lebanese “Party of God” sees Israel as an alien occupier of Arab land and oppressor of its people that, along with the United States and other Western countries, has larger designs on the region.  For the Houthis, Saudi Arabia is an external aggressor, and likewise part of a U.S-Israeli plot to dominate the region.

But the story of the Houthis’ rise to power shows that they are motivated primarily by a domestic agenda, rather than a regional one. They enjoy strong and durable support in the Zaydi north. Escalating the war will not change that, even with greater U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. If that were to happen anyway, the Houthis would readily accept additional Iranian military and financial support, which Iran may offer. For Iran, Yemen has been a cost-effective way of antagonizing Saudi Arabia, which has spent billions on Yemen’s war while Tehran has operated on a shoestring budget by comparison.

The Trump administration may view Yemen as an opportune area to demonstrate its resolve to counter Iranian assertiveness without triggering a larger war across the Middle East. In Syria, by contrast, the United States is single-mindedly focused on the Islamic State rather than the Assad regime’s depredations against its own people; more forceful action against Iran or its proxies there would carry greater risks, given Iran’s alliance with Russia. In Iraq, the United States may well need Iran — in the form of Shiite militias — as an essential partner of the congenitally weak Iraqi army in the fight against that same Islamic State, which has entrenched itself in Mosul. In the Gulf, tangling with the Iranian navy would risk a broader direct confrontation with Iran.

Washington might thus see increased military support for the Saudi-led coalition and even direct strikes against Houthi assets in Yemen as a strong, low-cost message to Tehran. It would certainly be greeted with delight by Saudi Arabia, whose deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, has staked his reputation on winning the war, and its ally the United Arab Emirates. These states may hope that with U.S. backing they can defeat the Houthi-Saleh alliance, or at least compel it to make significant concessions at the negotiating table.

If Trump rushes headfirst into the Yemeni war, there is a very real risk that the conflict will spiral out of control.

Such a calculation might prove to be a serious mistake. While the Houthis are tied to Iran, Iran does not control their decision-making; according to multiple interviews with U.S. officials and the Houthis themselves, Houthi leaders flatly ignored Tehran when the latter advised them not to take Sanaa. Until now, Iran appears to have done just enough to antagonize and frighten the Saudis — thus ensuring that they are bogged down in Yemen’s quicksand, spending billions of dollars on a war they are nowhere close to winning.

If Trump rushes headfirst into the Yemeni war, there is a very real risk that the conflict will spiral out of control. Yemen would offer an easy place for Tehran to strike back at Saudi Arabia: A possible scenario could be an Iran-inspired uprising in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, combined with a Houthi push into Najran and other cities in the south, and rockets fired at Saudi vessels seeking to cross the Bab al-Mandab strait. This could seriously threaten Saudi Arabia’s internal stability.

Leaders of the Saudi-led coalition argue that they must continue the war because they cannot accept a Hezbollah-like entity on their border. If what they are referring to is a heavily armed and hostile nonstate militia on their border, that ship has sailed and the situation is only aggravated by continued war. But if the fear is an Iranian ally, they are only succeeding in pushing a group with a predominantly domestic agenda into Tehran’s arms.

The way to handle the Houthis is not to continue an unwinnable war. Instead, it is to push Yemeni parties back to the negotiating table: If Saudi Arabia and its allies support genuine decentralization and inclusive governance, the Houthis can only weaken themselves, as their ideology has limited appeal, they are unskilled at governing, and they will inevitably be balanced by Saleh’s party and Saudi-aligned groups. The United States and Saudi Arabia can’t shoot their way out of the war in Yemen — but if they are as strategically astute as Iran, they could allow the Houthis to get mired in the messy political process they themselves helped bring about.

Contributors

Senior Analyst, Arabian Peninsula
Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
JoostHiltermann