Features | Security | Central Asia

Time to Talk (Properly) to Iran

Iran is almost certain to go for a full enrichment programme. But the West should still talk to it, says Abdullah Baabood.

On the sidelines of the Valdai conference in Malta, The Diplomat speaks with Abdullah Baabood, director of the Gulf Research Centre at Cambridge University, about Iran's nuclear programme.


Do you think sanctions are an effective way of dealing with concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme?

I don’t think sanctions are going to work. For Iran, this is an issue of national pride. I believe the international community should talk with Iran and discuss with it its programme, its intentions, to see how we can all convince it not to follow a military option, and instead help it achieve its stated objective of civilian nuclear power. I don’t think international efforts should stop, but I don’t think sanctions are going to work to force Iran to change course, and they may even bolster the Iranian leadership position. I think dialogue, exchanges of views and probably helping them achieve a civilian programme would probably be more conducive.

So you’d like to see the US engage properly with Iran?

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Certainly. Iran hasn’t always been at odds with the United States. Iran during the Shah was a close friend and ally and one part of the US policy in the Gulf. The US was relying on Iran as one of twin pillars, the other pillar being Saudi Arabia. Of course, since the Islamic Revolution, relations haven’t been friendly, but that doesn’t mean they have to continue on this trend.

I think the United States has an interest in talking to Iran, and I believe Iran also has an interest in talking to the US. At the moment there’s a problem of who’s going to start first, but I believe that finally they’ll have to talk and I think that can resolve many issues.

Iran needs to be comfortable as far as the United States’ intentions go, and the regime needs to be recognized as a regional power–and rightly so. Iran, on the other hand, also needs to re-establish its relationship with the international community, and so it can’t continue to be at odds with the United States. They may have issues that they don’t see eye to eye on, but it’s something they can try to iron out. I think in the end, the Iranian-American relationship is going to be conducive to rehabilitating Iran and bringing it back to the international community.

Do you think it’s inevitable that Iran will continue down the nuclear programme path that it’s now on?

I think that it’s inevitable that it will go for the full enrichment programme. They’ll most likely want to achieve at least the capability of producing nuclear arms, which they believe will add a lot to their international status and their position as a regional power. Whether they’ll go all the way toward producing a bomb, though, is questionable. I do hope that they don’t and that the international community will be able to find a solution. But they believe they have a right to enrich and to have their own nuclear technology that’s not dependent on outside powers and outside supply. And as long as they do that under international supervision and scrutiny, and with the intention of it being civilian power, I think the world should be able to work with them.

I’m not supporting in any way Iran producing the bomb. It’s a very fragile and unstable area and we don’t want further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But Iran is of course being very ambiguous and saying that if we want to talk about this, we should bring in the whole Middle East and make sure that Israel’s nuclear facilities are also brought under scrutiny. And this is where I think the international community is at odds in that they’re trying to stop Iran developing what they say is a civilian programme, but they’re not trying to deal with the ambiguity of Israel’s supposed nuclear arsenal. The international community isn’t subjecting its facilities to international supervision and scrutiny even though that would help not only in terms of knowing what’s there, but also ensuring that international safeguards are being implemented.

If you consider that Israel declared during the 1973 war that they had plans to use nuclear arms, then that’s very worrying indeed. So this is why I think the international community should work toward disarmament, or at least bringing arms under control. This doesn’t just apply to Israel, but any other country in the region. We don’t need an arms race, especially with weapons of mass destruction.

How destabilizing do you think a military strike against Iran would be?

Initially it was thought that the United States would do the first military strike, but I think the US government now doesn’t have the stomach to do that—they’re too entrenched in the Afghan and Iraqi quagmires and they need to find solutions to those. So I don’t think they want to start another conflict in the region.

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Israel is threatening to strike against the Iranians. But I think it’s rather difficult because of the way the Iranians have prepared their facilities; they expected there might be such a move so they have either hidden them or built them in civilian areas so it makes it very difficult to destroy them, or at least all of them. And on the other hand, Iran has said it will retaliate for any strike. They’d start with the American bases and the American presence in the region, which is quite extensive. This would mean attacking bases in the Gulf, and that could lead to an all out war in the region.

The Gulf is a very important region for many reasons, including supplying the world with its energy needs. So if there was an all out war, it would be devastating not just for the Gulf, which would bear the brunt of this conflict, but also to the global economy, which has already been suffering from the financial crisis. And I think Iran is very serious in terms of retaliating, so I don’t think the military option should be there. The region has witnessed many wars over the last few decades and no one has an appetite for another long drawn out war.

I believe that the international community should find a solution, even it means living with a nuclear armed Iran. It’s not something I would propose, but I’d rather have that than war in the region. We’ve lived with other regional nuclear powers – India, Pakistan and Israel – and we should learn to live with a nuclear armed Iran, although only as a last option.

How stable would you say the regime in Iran currently is?

That’s a good question in that it also relates to the nuclear programme. I believe that the regime in Iran is unstable and that the regime sees state security through the prism of the regime’s security itself. There’s of course the fact that the regime feels threatened internally and externally, and the two are related. What we have to remember is that this is a regime based on theocracy and the Shiite teaching of the Imam. It’s also the only Shiite regime in the world, and therefore they feel that they have to protect it.

But when they look around them, they see there’s a lot of internal dissent supported by the West and that there’s opposition from the United States and some other countries in the region who are against it and who have made it clear they want regime change. So I think the whole issue of nuclear arms in Iran is related to the regime’s insecurity and this may relate to one of your questions earlier about whether the United States should have a dialogue with Iran. I think if they do, it would go a long way toward helping the regime feel comfortable and that other countries are not out there to change it and that they accept it is as it is so it doesn’t need to go all the way to becoming a nuclear power to protect itself.

I believe that the regime feels under threat. Iran sees itself surrounded by nuclear powers – India, Pakistan, Israel, nuclear submarines belonging to the US. So they feel threatened by all this and believe to protect their regime, they need to develop nuclear technology.