It is these wider fears that are at the heart of today’s impasse. The nuclear crisis is not the cause but the effect of a wider clash between Iran and the west and it is this underlying relationship that must be addressed for any resolution to be found. At each stage of the last ten years of negotiations an imperfect understanding of what Iran really wants has precluded a diplomatic solution. All the supposed major breakthroughs of the crisis, notably the 2003 Tehran Agreement, in which Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment while wider issues such as the program as a whole, security, and the situation in the Middle East were addressed, and 2004’s Paris Agreement, which reaffirmed its suspension, have failed to tackle this point. On both occasions, European diplomats never adequately understood that for the Iranians the issue transcended the nuclear. Satisfied with the suspension, the Europeans made no effort to address Iran’s broader concerns. Iran eventually resumed uranium enrichment. It has refused to suspend it ever since.
More than thirty years after the coming of the Islamic Republic and exactly ten years into the nuclear crisis the question of how to integrate a country with 70 million people, and among the largest reserves of oil and gas in the world still remains. The Islamic Republic bases its legitimacy on the need to protect Iran from a hostile world that has ill-used it for two centuries. Because of its oil, because of its geostrategic location between two of the world’s great energy sources, the Caspian Basin and the Persian Gulf, Tehran believes the country will always be a target for more powerful nations; but the shameful capitulations of history will be consigned to history if Iran possesses the necessary means to defend itself. This impulse – prominent within Iranian decision-making circles – is the great danger the world faces; and it is this that must be addressed.
As long the P5+1 continues to continue to dance with Iran without tackling the central issues, a lasting solution is impossible. Thus far, talks have largely focused on the narrow issue of uranium enrichment. Only by broadening out the scope of engagement can the P5+1 offer Iran anything that will make it compromise. Engaging Iran on regional affairs, involving it in multilateral discussions and forums and attempting to alleviate its fears – and, indeed, its neuroses – is the only way the nuclear crisis can be resolved peacefully. Iran now possesses enough low-enriched uranium to make several bombs and while Iran could not enrich to the necessary levels for a nuclear weapon without throwing out the IAEA inspectors, the prospect of a bomb is not a distant one.
Unless a diplomatic breakthrough is made the world may have to deal with the unpleasant reality of a nuclear-armed Iran.
David Patrikarakos is a U.K.-based writer and author of the upcoming book “Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State.” His work has appeared in the New Statesman and Financial Times, among other publications.