Iran's nuclear problem

Iran's nuclear problem: Ever harder to fix

Bulletin article
Tomas Valasek
03 August 2009

Iran’s theocratic regime remains in power, despite persistent divisions within the ruling elite. Whatever the long-term fate of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the unrest that followed June’s presidential election probably makes it harder for the West to persuade Iran to set aside its nuclear ambitions.

Barack Obama has resisted pressure from Republicans to rethink his offer of engaging Iran. But the government in Tehran is distracted and not talking: it has failed to respond to the compromise proposals on its nuclear programme that Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US offered in April. Even before the election crisis, western officials dealing with Iran put the chances of diplomacy’s success at 25 per cent. Now the same officials say the odds have been halved.

The supreme leader runs the nuclear programme directly, which means that presidential elections have little impact on what goes on in atomic energy centres such as Isfahan and Natanz. Even if the challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, had won, Iran would have almost certainly continued to enrich uranium. Mousavi said during the campaign that he would not abandon “Iran’s right to nuclear technology”. In fact, it was under the reformist and relatively pro-western president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) that Iran built many of the nuclear facilities that now cause concern.

Iran’s leaders say their purpose is peaceful but the US and most European countries are convinced that Iran is bent on developing the capability to make atomic weapons, even if the decision to build the bomb has not yet been taken. UN atomic inspectors say that Iran already has enough enriched uranium for one bomb, and that its 7,200 centrifuges can produce the fuel for two more each year. US officials fear that Israel may try to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities before the government has enough material for a small nuclear arsenal. Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007 to prevent those two governments from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Given the dire geopolitical and economic consequences of Iran brandishing nuclear weapons, or Israel attacking it, Obama has made Iran a top foreign policy priority. In April 2009 he promised to join the European-led talks with the government in Tehran. Though they cannot yet say so in public, the Americans and Europeans know that if a deal is to be struck they will have to allow Iran the right to enrich small amounts of uranium, under close international supervision; what really matters is making sure Iran does not build a bomb.

But the post-election protests in Tehran have undermined Obama’s engagement strategy. Iran is not negotiating because the government is “too busy locking people up”, says one EU official. Western officials also fear that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime may now feel too insecure to take the risks required to forge an agreement with the West.

Meanwhile Obama is under increasing domestic pressure not to speak to undemocratic governments like that of Iran. Both chambers of Congress have been discussing measures that would call on the president to impose tough sanctions on Iran. Obama is determined to stick to talks for now; his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said on July 19th that direct engagement was the best way to deter Iran from building nuclear weapons. But if and when Iran responds to the offer of negotiations, Obama may feel compelled to satisfy critics by employing tougher rhetoric. This could well cause the talks to collapse prematurely.

However, if – as seems likely – Obama’s offer of engagement fails to elicit a response from Tehran, he will then want to tighten existing sanctions. He will argue that this would be the best means of persuading Israel not to strike. The Europeans are likely to oblige US requests, though some member-states, like Germany, Italy and Spain, are unenthusiastic about tougher sanctions. EU officials say the violence in Tehran has made the doubting governments more inclined to penalise the Iranian regime. But nobody in Moscow is in favour of tougher sanctions against Iran, except possibly as part of a ‘grand bargain’ under which the US would agree to scrap plans for missile defence in Eastern Europe, and reassure Russia that its ‘privileged interests’ in that region would be respected. China, which is developing close commercial and energy ties with the country, is even less willing to accept tougher sanctions on Iran.

If Russia and China block much stronger sanctions in the UN Security Council, the chances of Israel trying to bomb Iran’s nuclear activities will rise. Israel fears that the Iranian leadership may be irrational enough to attack with nuclear weapons, notwithstanding the near-certainty that it would retaliate in kind. Israeli officials hope that diplomacy succeeds; they are keenly aware that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would cause the oil price to soar and choke off any nascent global economic recovery, while Jewish centres and synagogues around the world could be attacked.

The sight of millions of Iranian antigovernment protesters demanding better relations with the world has had little effect on Israel's resolve to stop Iran’s nuclear programme. Although the many educated and young Iranians are gradually making their country less anti-western, the process is too slow: Iran is on track to have a nuclear weapons capability long before it normalises ties with the West and Israel.

In response to the growing possibility that Iran will build an atomic bomb, Hillary Clinton recently offered to shelter the Gulf states under a “defence umbrella”. This would presumably consist of some combination of missile defences and a US guarantee to defend Gulf states from Iranian attack. The purpose of the umbrella idea is to deter Iran from messing with its neighbours – but also to discourage Arab states from building their own nuclear weapons, and thus to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

The idea is sensible – but it also suggests that Obama is losing faith in negotiations and shifting towards managing the consequences of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Israel and the major EU governments, too, seem increasingly gloomy. The heightened possibility of either a nuclear-armed Iran or an Israeli-Iranian confrontation may turn out to be the deadliest legacy of Iran’s messy presidential election.

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