Learning Lessons From the Iranian Nuclear Problem


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July 27, 2015 22:33 EDT

The Iran deal presents an opportunity to celebrate the contribution of the NPT to international peace and security, says former British Ambassador Peter Jenkins.

The journey to a comprehensive agreement offering the US and its European allies an opportunity to feel more confident about the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program has been a long one. It began in the summer of 2003, following Iran’s admission of secret contacts with the A.Q. Khan nuclear supply network, and of covert development of dual-use (civil and military) nuclear technology: uranium enrichment.

Can one make unashamed use of hindsight to identify lessons that may come in useful if the West is ever again confronted with a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) hiding nuclear activities?

The question is worth asking because in the Iranian case, the US and Europe have ended up taking a diplomatic sledgehammer to crack a nut. The deal that emerged in Vienna on July 14 is remarkably similar in its essentials to the deal that Britain, France and Germany could have negotiated with Iran in 2005, if they had been ready to concede Iran’s right under the NPT to enrich uranium for use as reactor fuel.

Assumptions about intention

In 2003, the United States and the European Union (EU) saw only one explanation for the “policy of concealment” that Iran had pursued for 18 years: Iranian decision-makers wanted nuclear weapons. This judgment determined the West’s policy in those early years of the journey: Iran must be persuaded or coerced into surrendering its dual-use enrichment equipment—as well as abandoning construction of a reactor that had potential to be a good source of weapon-grade plutonium.

When Iranian diplomats explained that they had been driven to a policy of concealment by Western nuclear supply restrictions, the thought occurred to their Western counterparts that the Iranians were taking them for simpletons.

It was true, of course, that the Nuclear Supplier Group, which was created in the mid-1970s, had agreed guidelines that made its members very reluctant to supply dual-use equipment to any member of the Non-Aligned Movement, especially to revolutionary regimes (which is how the Islamic Republic was perceived in the 1980s and into the 1990s).

But given those supply restrictions, why were the Iranians so determined to acquire an enrichment capability, and why were they so determined to retain it now that their policy of concealment had landed them in deep trouble in the boardroom of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)? Surely there could only be one reason: they wanted the bomb.

It was only very slowly that the West acquired a better understanding of the influence of nationalism on Iranian thinking. Mastering difficult technologies satisfies an Iranian need to reassert Iran’s identity as a major Asian civilization and a regional power. In the case of enrichment, it also guarantees against Iran feeling the humiliation it experienced in the early 1980s, when nuclear cooperation with and nuclear supply from the West were cut off.

Overestimation of the effectiveness of sanctions

In August 2005, after the collapse of Europe’s attempt to persuade Iran to give up enrichment, the West switched to a policy of coercion. It turned to the United Nations (UN) and bilateral sanctions to induce Iran to reengage and negotiate the cessation of enrichment.

To this day, the US government appears to believe that this policy has been successful. In public statements, American politicians ascribe to sanctions Iranian engagement—a diplomatic process that resulted, eventually, in the July 14 Vienna Plan of Action.

What this interpretation of events overlooks is that early in 2012, the US and the EU stopped insisting on Iranian suspension of enrichment as a precondition for talking, and that in 2011, there had been muffled indications that the first Obama administration might have been ready to accept Iran retaining a limited enrichment capability.

Of course, sanctions have supplied Iran with a motive to negotiate and the West with negotiating chips to trade off against Iranian negotiating concessions. Sanctions have been useful (albeit costly for some and painful for others). But it would be a mistake to believe that without sanctions a deal could never have been achieved—not least because of the similarities between the deal offered to the three Europeans in 2005, well before any sanctions and the Vienna Plan of Action.

Inappropriate precedents 

In 1991, after Saddam Hussein’s troops had been driven out of Kuwait, the US and its allies pushed through the UN Security Council a resolution that demanded an end to almost all nuclear activity in Iraq, where the development of enrichment for military purposes was underway. The resolution also required Iraq to allow UN inspectors to roam at will throughout the country—often referred to as “anytime, anywhere access”—and to interview whom they chose.

The memory of this achievement, which was later found to have eliminated Iraq’s nuclear weapon program, has lingered on in Washington. US politicians and policymakers have hankered after meting out to Iran the treatment inflicted on Iraq. They seem to have had difficulty grasping that the circumstances of Iraq in 1991 bore no resemblance to the position in which Iran found itself in 2003 and beyond.

Iraq had violated a fundamental international norm by invading another state. This was accepted by UN Security Council members as justification for depriving Iraq of certain sovereign rights. Iran’s offence was of a much lesser order: withholding information from the IAEA. Although the US and its European allies somehow persuaded the Security Council to accept that Iran’s infringements represented a threat to international peace and security, they could never have got the council to treat Iran as it had treated Iraq in 1991.

Outside Interference

The American and European approach to the Iranian case has suffered greatly from Israel’s political influence in Washington and European capitals, and from Israel’s security relationship with the US.

Israel is a regional rival of Iran. It resents Iran’s refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. It suffers from Iranian support for organizations that refuse to tolerate the way Israel treats Palestinians. For more than 20 years, some Israeli politicians have seen political advantage in propagating belief in an Iranian nuclear threat to Israel.

These and other factors ought to have made Israeli motives suspect as far as Iran is concerned. Intelligence emanating from Israeli sources ought to have been marked “interesting if true.” Policy prescriptions from that quarter ought to have been disregarded. Attempts to countervail the Israeli influence on Congress and pro-Israel campaign contributors ought to have started in early 2012, when US President Barack Obama decided to recommit to a diplomatic solution to the problem.

None of that happened. Instead, to this day, Israeli influence continues to bedevil rational problem-solving. The US administration and European governments have at last emancipated themselves, made wise by the deranged nature of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s opposition to a deal with Iran. But far too many members of Congress remain in thrall.

In the End

All this begs the question of whether there will be any further cases of non-compliance with nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

In the NPT nuclear-weapon states (the US, Britain, France, Russia and China), there is a tendency to imagine that the non-nuclear-weapon states are itching to get their hands on a few nukes. That may come from overestimating the value of their own nuclear arsenals and underestimating the security and political benefits that non-nuclear weapon states experience from collective compliance with this non-proliferation norm.

Since the NPT entered into force in 1970, there has been proof of only two non-nuclear-weapon states (Iraq and North Korea) having decided to go all the way to weapon acquisition. A larger number of states have renounced acquisition plans and adhered to the NPT or reverted to compliance. At this point, there is no hint abroad that any non-nuclear-weapon state is secretly seeking nuclear weapons, and all but five states—of whom four are already nuclear-armed and the fifth is a recent creation—are NPT parties.

None of this will deter so-called counter-proliferation experts in the nuclear-weapon states from lying awake and trying to devise ways of eroding what few rights the non-nuclear-weapon states possess. But for the rest of us, the peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem presents an opportunity to celebrate the contribution of the NPT to international peace and security.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: MyImages – Micha /

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