Why There’s No Quick Iran Fix

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Why There’s No Quick Iran Fix

The Diplomat speaks with Joseph Costa, co-director of the Truman National Security Project’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Experts Group, about the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

What’s your impression of the current British Embassy crisis? How much does the history between Britain and Iran play a role in the conflict? Do memories of Iran’s relations with Britain in the past still run deep, or does the current situation have more to do with Iran’s nuclear program?

The last three months have witnessed the crisis with Iran turn from a simmer to a boil. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived to the September U.N. General Assembly meeting with a message worth entertaining. He offered to “cease the domestic enrichment of uranium of up to 20 percent” if the same fuel was provided to Iran in the form of fuel rods to operate a domestic research reactor that produces medical isotopes.

The Obama administration played down Ahmadinejad’s offer. A month later, it announced an explosive indictment against the Iranian regime, accusing senior members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp of being behind a plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States. Only nine of 193 member state countries voted against a U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for the Islamic Republic to cooperate with investigations into the matter. 

In November, the U.N. body in charge of monitoring Iran’s nuclear program released a report that provided the most comprehensive account of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons related activities. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s Safeguards Report on Iran was unequivocal: “Information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to development of a nuclear explosive device” and  “some activities may still be ongoing.”

The United Kingdom responded to these developments by becoming the first state to cut off all financial ties with Iran, including with the Central Bank of Iran.  

Enter the current crisis: Hundreds of furious Iranian protestors were free to storm the British Embassy.   

Lingering memories of the United Kingdom’s opportunistic invasion into Iran during World War II and its role in the 1953 coup that overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh are two of the most well known historical occurrences that continue to haunt Iran’s relations with the “old fox.” In fact, the Iranian government’s distrust of the British runs deep.  The storming of the British Embassy, however, must be seen within the context of recent events that have surrounded the nuclear issue.

Contrary to the opinion that this event demonstrates the increasing radicalization of the Iranian government, it once again proves the complex and divided domestic environment in Iran.  While some elements of the government clearly condoned this unacceptable attack on the British Embassy, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said he was “deeply sorry” for the raid.

How much does the current British Embassy crisis damage the possibility of talks on Iran’s nuclear program? Is there any possibility of discussions in the near future over a possible resolution?

Any prospects of near-term talks on the core nuclear issues for the duration of President Obama’s first term were dead long before the British Embassy crisis. Even talks on a small technical matter such as a 20 percent enriched fuel swap received a strong domestic backlash in both the U.S. and Iran.

Foreign policy is determined by domestic politics. The prospect that the Obama administration will be prepared to make any shift in policy prior to the November 2012 presidential elections is slim. As calls to pressure Iran will increase during the campaign season, the likeliest scenario is that the administration will remain locked in its current isolate and sanction policy, producing the same underwhelming results.

Iran has its own set of internal challenges, and the intense public struggle between President Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader’s allies continues unabated in the lead up to Iran’s 2013 presidential elections.

What’s your view of the recent IAEA report that discusses Iran’s nuclear program? Do you feel there’s a smoking gun in the report? Are there any inherent problems with the report itself? Does the fact that parts of the report were leaked before its official release make the report politicized, and so not a fair assessment?

There are new details about Iran’s alleged military activities, but none of it provides a smoking gun. We’ve long known that documents exist which provide evidence that Iran has allegedly worked on a nuclear explosive device. For the first time, this report provides extensive details on the structure of this program. This is significant. One key analytical question is what entities are presently involved in Iran’s possible military nuclear program, and how are they organized. This helps advance the story on that question. At a minimum, it provides additional clues.

The report also hints that Iran may have a more advanced nuclear weapon design than previously thought.    

The question of the credibility of intelligence provided to the IAEA on Iran’s weaponization activities is a long-standing debate. This report provides additional detail on why international U.N. inspectors believe Iran must still address international concerns about its nuclear program. The report notes that “over a thousand pages“ of information, provided by more than 10 member states, have been “carefully and critically examined,” leading the Agency to conclude that the information provided to the IAEA regarding Iran’s military nuclear activities is “overall, credible.”

This report is also intriguing because it’s a window into the bureaucratic politics within the IAEA. Under the watchful eye of former IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei, safeguards reports on Iran were cautious and restrained, dribbling out minor bits of information on Iran’s possible military related activities. This report indicates once again that current IAEA head Yukiya Amano doesn’t entirely share that philosophy.

The role and importance of the IAEA in this matter is vital. Without these quarterly safeguards reports, the international community would have zero insight into Iran’s nuclear program. While there are critical gaps in IAEA knowledge, without this snapshot of the boundaries of Iran’s nuclear program, Israel and the United States would grow increasingly more concerned, heightening tensions further.    

Do you feel Iran wishes to acquire a nuclear weapon? What motivations would Iran have for creating such a weapon? If Iran had such a weapon, what challenges would it face?

Iranian leaders have consistently stated that they aren’t interested in nuclear weapons. The founder of the Islamic Republic, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, asserted that such weapons are “un-Islamic,” a position sanctified by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in a 2004 fatwa that decreed “the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam.”  Leading up to the 2007 U.N. General Assembly meeting, Ahmadinejad pressed this message further, saying, “We don’t need a nuclear bomb,” arguing that, “in political relations right now, the nuclear bomb is of no use.”

Yet a history of nuclear transgressions, unwillingness to clarify “outstanding issues” with the IAEA, and significant investments in missile technology designed more for nuclear rather than conventional warheads, continue to fuel a profound skepticism amongst the world powers of Iran’s claims. 

Iran’s nuclear intentions have thus been subject to great debate. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and former Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen assess that Iran is intent on developing a nuclear weapon. The consensus judgment of the U.S. intelligence community is that Iran hasn’t yet made a decision to acquire the bomb. President Obama seems to share this view, stating in April 2010 that Iran “might decide that, once they have that [nuclear weapons] capacity that they’d hold off.”

At this stage there’s no evidence that Iran has decided to develop a nuclear weapon. If there is some central intention driving their behavior, the most likely is the goal of getting so close to the threshold that any future Iranian leader would be faced with an easy decision of turning the last screw if circumstances change and warrant the construction of a bomb. In a word, the U.S. intelligence community has it right: “Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so.” 

Strategically speaking, Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear deterrent seems a logical response to its precarious geopolitical situation. Positioned near nuclear neighbors in one of the world’s most volatile regions, Iran remains without any natural allies and is encircled by an arc of U.S. bases in neighboring Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf.  Then there’s Israel, a nuclear weapons state, and geopolitical and ideological adversary of the highest order.

Iran's leadership hasn’t forgotten that it was included in President Bush’s “axis of evil.” Ayatollah Khamanei’s nuclear lesson from the recent NATO campaign in Libya is also worth noting. In his Nowruz (Iranian New Year) message, Khamenei declared, “Gaddafi gathered up all his nuclear facilities and gave them to the West. And now, you can see the conditions our nation is living in versus their conditions.” 

From the Iranian leadership’s perspective, nuclear weapons could rationally appear to be a security blanket that deters U.S. attacks. As former IAEA director Mohamed El Baradei said, Iran desires the capability to produce nuclear weapons as an “insurance policy against what they heard in the past about regime change.”

Will new sanctions being proposed on Iran’s Central Bank cause the pain that many in the U.S. Congress and various Republican presidential candidates believe? Would this effectively halt their nuclear program? Could the move backfire?

Sanctions have limited Iran’s access to nuclear technology, the international banking system, foreign direct investment, and refined gasoline. Senior officials in the Obama administration have touted them a success. Gates noted, “Sanctions are biting more deeply than they [the Iranians] anticipated. Former National Security Advisor, Jim Jones, said these sanctions “could well trigger regime change.”  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton credited sanctions for slowing Iran’s nuclear program.

Nevertheless, in the first two years of the Obama administration, Iran has added an additional three bombs worth of low-enriched uranium to its stockpile, began enriching to 20 percent higher enriched uranium, and has installed advanced centrifuges at Natanz, which once fully operational, could cut down Iran’s “breakout” capacity from months to weeks. After Iran was caught developing a 3,000-centrifuge covert enrichment facility with no plausible civilian purpose, it defiantly declared it would build 10 more enrichment plants. 

Sanctioning Iran’s Central Bank will unquestionably cause additional pain and raise the costs of Iran’s nuclear drive.  This is a storm that Iran can weather. Despite the fervent hopes of sanction believers, even hitting Iran’s Central Bank won’t result in a halt of its nuclear program.     

Joseph Costa is co-director of the Truman National Security Project's Nuclear Nonproliferation Experts Group and Harvard University’s Iran Nuclear Negotiations Working Group.