Resolving Iran’s nuclear stand-off with the west

By Alireza Ahmadian, 7th August, 2012

The two days of talks in Moscow between the representative of P5+1 (US, UK, China, France, Russia and Germany) led by Catherine Ashton, the European Union High Representative and Dr. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, ended with no major breakthrough and the possibility of further negotiations in Istanbul in July. “It remains clear that there are significant gaps between the substance of the two positions,” commented Ashton.

Concerned about uranium enrichment in Iran and the possibility of weaponization of its nuclear programme, the United Nations Security Council has imposed four sets of sanctions, resolutions 1737, 1747, 1803 and 1929 on Iran asking the country to “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.” Moreover, The US House of Representative passed a resolution on May 11, 2012  asking for “the full and sustained suspension of all uranium enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.” Jalili, on the other hand, has repeatedly stated  that “enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes in all levels is an inalienable right.”

In Baghdad, in return for the smallest incentives such as the sale of spare parts for civilian planes, the P5+1 wanted Iran to give up 20% enrichment and export all stockpiles in addition to fully cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency. That in the words of Dr. Seyyed Hossein Mousavian , the former spokesperson for the Iranian nuclear negotiation team from 2003 to 2005 and current visiting scholar at Princeton University was like asking Iran “to give diamond in return for peanuts.” Iran rejected the deal, but both sides agreed to meet in Moscow.

In Moscow the P5+1 asked Iran to suspend enrichment of uranium to 20%, close down an underground enrichment facility, Fordow, near the city of Qom and export its stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium. However, as illustrated before, repeated United Nations Security Council Resolutions ordered Iran to stop all uranium enrichment activities. The P5+1 and Iran agreed that the nuclear experts from both sides would meet in Istanbul on July 3 to make sure they understand the nature of each other’s proposals. Iran considers the UN resolutions and the EU and US embargo’s illegal and asks for the removal of sanctions.

The way the western powers treat Iran and its nuclear dossier reminds me of some of Samuel Huntington’s arguments in The Clash of Civilization. He observed that “the West in effect is using international institutions, military power and economic resources to run the world in ways that will maintain Western predominance” and that “the primary purpose of arms control in the post-Cold War world is to preclude the development by non-Western societies of military power that could threaten Western interests. The West tries to do this through economic pressure, international agreements and control regimes.” Huntington was arguing that in effect we live in a world of double standards and he was absolutely right.

Diplomacy, according to Sir Harold Nicolson is the management of international relations by negotiation. Alexander George, who coined the term ‘coercive diplomacy’, argued that the use of force and threats of force are at times necessary instruments of diplomacy. The aim of coercive diplomacy is to change the policies of another state. It does not aim at a regime change.

There is a discrepancy between the previous demand raised by the UN Resolutions to suspend all enrichment and the P5+1 demand in Moscow to suspend enrichment up to 20%. It must be noted, that as Iran has always argued, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation on Nuclear Weapons (NPT) does not ban uranium enrichment. It is true that there are different interpretations of the NPT, but the treaty does not ban enrichment. On the Fourth Annual Meeting of the Arms Association Control on a panel on preventing nuclear-armed Iran  , Thomas Pickering, former US Ambassador to the UN, Dr. Moussavian, former Iran nuclear envoy and Dr. Tarja Cronberg, Chair of the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with Iran, unanimously agreed that Iran has a right to enrich uranium, but they disagreed on the acceptable level of enrichment.

Instead of dealing with the cause of the problem that is the reason for which Iran might want to weaponize its nuclear programme and addressing those grievances to resolve the nuclear standoff, the western powers are imposing punitive sanctions and threatening Iran with the use of force. One wonders whether the eventual aim is to change Iran’s policy or a regime change. As long as the western powers do not have a clear answer to that question, the Iranian regime, concerned with its own survival, is not going to concede to their demands. Coercive diplomacy never works when the coerced are fighting for their existence.

The leadership in Iran is well aware that they have minimal legitimacy amongst Iranians. The case was evident when the government used brutal force to suppress the pro-democracy Green Movement after the 2009 fraudulent presidential election (to see just how oppressive the government of Iran is look at Amnesty International , Human Rights Watch’s annual reports).

However, I am not convinced that Iran wants to be a nuclear state. I believe Iran wants to be a ‘threshold power.’ The leadership, concerned about the regime’s survival, wants to get to a point that makes it possible for them to weaponize its nuclear programme if they decide to do so. Iranian American writer and journalist Hooman Majd argues that as a theocracy, the Islamic Republic has always purported to be committed to justice, fighting against inequality, and independence. The miserable human rights record and the ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor in the country has eroded that image. The Islamic Republic has remained with nothing but its independence. If the leadership gives in to western pressure on nuclear energy, they will lose the last remaining element of their legitimacy. They cannot afford to do that.

Moreover, the Iranian leadership has also learned a good deal from history. The former Libyan dictator Mummar Gaddadi gave up its unconventional weapons, and denounced terrorism to escape its isolation and join the international community. The west welcomed this but after a few years, at the first opportunity, they helped to topple him. Iran will not make the same mistake.

Furthermore, they are rightly critical of western hypocrisy. David Cohen , the U.S. Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, recently commented in Israel that “we have today and over the past years had very close cooperation with the Israeli government across a range of our sanctions programs. They are a very good partner. They are creative. They are supportive and we will continue to consult with the Israelis.”

Correct me if I am mistaken, but are we talking about a nuclear weapon-state outside the NPT, Israel, helping the United States to force Iran to give up its enrichment programme that is not proven to be geared towards weaponization? Let’s remember that on 18 September 2009, the IAEA called on Israel to join the NPT and open its nuclear sites to inspection, but Israel still refuses to join the NPT or authorize inspections. According to the BBC, it is estimated that Israel has up to 400 warheads, but it refuses to deny or confirm this. Why should the Iranians or anyone else accept this double standard?

Enriching uranium is Iran’s right and no future Iranian regime is going to relinquish that right, whether the current dictators or a western-friendly liberal government. Many Iranians compare Iran’s nuclear standoff with the west with nationalization of the oil industry in the 1950s. Every Iranian knows that in 1953, the CIA and the MI6 staged a coup d’état and removed the democratically elected Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq from power. What was Mossadeq’s crime? He nationalized Iran’s oil industry. For a lot of Iranians, the nuclear issue is on par with the oil nationalization with one reservation: the so-called Islamic Republic of Iran is not a democracy and it would be an insult to history to compare Mossadeq with dictators such as the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmood Ahmadinejad. That said, Iran should not give up its right to enrich uranium in Iran.

Advocates of a military strike against Iran always invoke the ‘irrationality’ of the Iranian leadership, Iran’s ‘threat to the world peace’, and the government’s miserable human rights record to support the use of force. They never quite spell out whether they want a policy change on the part of Iranian regime when it comes to its nuclear programme or regime change in Tehran. Meanwhile, the hawkish rhetoric of the supporters of military intervention in Iran has given the government more reasons to crack down on its civil society and wage a war against its citizens.

What is the best way to resolve Iran’s nuclear issue? The Iranian people are fed up, amongst other things, with the government’s mismanagement of the economy and suppression of human rights, so the government lacks domestic legitimacy. Besides, Iran has only a few friends in the world – countries such as Syria, and Venezuela. Its nuclear programme is arguably its last lever to guarantee its survival. Iran is ready for a compromise if it is given security assurances from the west. The removal of sanctions is a must in this process from the Iranian regime’s perspective.

Nevertheless, western powers will betray their own rhetoric about their values such as spreading democracy and promoting respect for human rights if they make a deal with the government of Iran without dealing with its widespread violation of human rights. Western powers need to reconsider how to use coercive diplomacy to achieve a permanent and acceptable outcome.

Iran will give up 20% uranium enrichment, NOT all uranium enrichment activities, if the P5+1 gives Iran security assurances and drops the regime change campaign. To remove sanctions and give security assurance, however, the P5+1 must get the Iranian regime to observe its obligations under different international human rights conventions. That will lead to a durable solution to Iran’s nuclear problems.


Alireza Ahmadian is an Iranian Canadian writer living in London. Ahmadian holds a history BA from the University of British Columbia and is currently completing his postgraduate studies at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

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