The West must adopt a new approach to Iran

April 14, 2013

by Anu Lehtonen

Emblem_of_Iran The Western states keep rattling their sabers, but Iran does not seem to yield. It is nearly impossible to reach an agreement on the nuclear program of Iran. The recent debate circles mainly around the enrichment of uranium for its reactors. This is misleading, since under international law the Islamic Republic of Iran has a right to a nuclear program as well as to enrichment. These are guaranteed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty(NPT) which Iran ratified at its conception.

Every State Party to the NPT has the right to develop a peaceful civilian nuclear program, which includes the right to enrichment. Iran is no exception. Except that it is. Western powers maintain that owing to Iran’s failure to abide by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement and to their suspected activities of pursuing nuclear weapons technology Iran has lost this entitlement. But the matter is not as straightforward as to say that Iran has not complied with the regulations of the Treaty.

The main issue in resolving the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program is lack of trust between Iran and the Western states. Consequently whatever offers are made by the parties involved are rejected by the other as their validity and future reliability is regarded with suspicion. A further complicating factor is the desire of each to be the winner of a political game, rendering any concessions impossible and drastically reducing the chances of achieving a compromise.

So far there is no concrete evidence to show that the Iranian nuclear program is not peaceful. In general Iran is blamed for lack of transparency. It has concealed parts of the program but also allowed several visits and offered IAEA staff continuous presence at their nuclear facilities. The IAEA was also granted partial access to the Parchin military site in 2005, during which nothing pointing to the presence of nuclear material was discovered. The IAEA continues to seek access to further, more thorough inspections on the site, with Iran resisting on the grounds that Parchin has no connection to their nuclear program and is thus not relevant for the agency.

The accusations concerning the alleged studies into nuclear warheads stem from a laptop computer, supposedly obtained by the CIA from a contact inside Iran. Some refer to material supplied by an Iranian opposition group, without mentioning that they are in exile and considered a terrorist group by the EU and the United States. The IAEA has been permitted to view some of the contents, but Iran has been denied access to any of the material, with the U.S. claiming this would endanger their source, effectively blocking Iran’s chances to respond to the accusations.

Ongoing supply of oil
The Iranian leadership has repeatedly stated that it does not want or need nuclear weapons. The supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a religious decree against the weapons, claiming they are a sin. Strategically it is not likely that Iran would use nuclear weapons against another state, since there is high probability this will be swiftly retaliated by either Israel or the U.S.
Concerns remain, though, that Iran might sell nuclear weapons to terrorist groups that would then do the dirty work for them, thus avoiding a direct confrontation. But this also pertains to current nuclear weapons powers. India, Pakistan and Israel are all not Parties to the NPT. India and Pakistan are confirmed nuclear weapon powers and, behind the veil of ambiguity, Israel with high plausibility possesses some. Furthermore, North Korea has conducted nuclear tests. Without accusing any of supporting terrorist groups, it cannot be excluded that they might supply weapons to such units if it serves their goals.

The crux of the problem resides in rebuilding the pillars of confidence that have been hammered down into a heap of crumbles in the course of the last century. The unfortunate state of constantly failing to reach an agreement is the result of a long process of complicated relationships between Iran and the West. The roots of mistrust can be derived from the colonial relationship of Iran with Great Britain and the ensuing attempts of U.S. governments to manipulate Tehran to ensure ongoing supply of oil as well as pro-Western politics.

The beginnings of the struggle for control over Iranian leaders extend to early 1900s when oil was discovered in the area by a British oil exploration company. The founding of the Anglo- Persian Oil Company in 1909 was the first in a long line of more or less obvious attempts of here British, there American governments to dominate the Iranian oil supply. Under its conditions the British were sure to make their voice heard. What ensued was the presumably British sponsored coup d’état in 1921 which brought Reza Shah to power – paternalist but not entirely independent from the British. His son Mohammad Reza Shah succeeded him to the throne in 1941 only to find himself to be under equally high pressure from British and American influences, in particular to westernize the country.

The British failed to take note of the rising feeling of discontent among the Iranian people and politicians. By the early 1950s the people reached their limit and elected the nationalist Mohammad Mosaddeq as Prime Minister. He set out to nationalize the oil industry, rejecting the 50/50 compromises in share of oil revenues that other Middle Eastern countries accepted, and passed a bill that required agreements with foreign powers to be ratified by the Iranian parliament, effectively hindering the government from negotiating on its own. In 1953 Mosaddeq’s government was overthrown by a joint U.K.-U.S. operation. Reza Shah stayed in power until the 1979 Islamic Revolution expelled him alongside the foreign influences from the country. This defining moment demonstrated that the Iranian nation was not willing to swallow everything the foreign powers attempted to feed them.

Independent production
Ironically, as with other American plans that have backfired – notably the Taliban – it was American influence that originally sparked Iran’s nuclear program to life. The program started in the second half of the 1950s under the auspices of the ‘Atoms for Peace’ initiative of U.S. President Eisenhower. The U.S. continued to support the program by supplying fuel and material until the late 70’s, then effectively suspending it following the lead-up to the Islamic Revolution and mounting apprehension about Iran’s intentions.

In the light of history it is easy to understand why Iran is incredulous of the West. Furthermore the Iranian system of governance lacks transparency and makes it difficult for the Iranian public and foreigners alike to grasp who is really making the decisions. But not everything is about controlling oil or having a proxy state to counter Communist or, more recently, rising terrorist threats. The trust issues are not unilateral and there is a real concern among the international community that Iran will attempt to acquire nuclear weapons.

This is disconcerting for most since the general behavior of the Iranian state is perceived as unpredictable and in need of control. The hostility of Iran towards Israel is a strong source of vexation for the U.S., the government being pressured by influential Jewish interest groups. Iran also does not act in the international arena in the manner that other states expect them to, given the label “rogue state” by the Clinton administration – a state that needs to be isolated and contained.
The specific point of distress is currently enrichment. Iran, relying on the NPT claims that it is entitled to enrich for civilian needs, and that it needs uranium enriched to 20 percent (highly enriched uranium, HEU) to fuel its medical research reactor and treat cancer patients. Although enrichment to 20 percent is legal under the NPT, it is worrying since from this concentration it is possible to enrich to 90 percent, the grade needed for a bomb, with a lower quantity of uranium. Therefore the West demands Iran to stop its enrichment program and to agree to purchasing enriched uranium converted to fuel rods from third parties.

Once enriched uranium is converted to fuel rods or plates it is much harder to use for military purposes. This is why the Western states are so wary of independent production in Iran and instead want to supply Iran with ready nuclear fuel. Agreements on fuel swaps have almost been accomplished in the past, but lack of confidence stopped them short.

In May 2010 Brazil and Turkey negotiated a deal with Iran according to which part of its low- enriched uranium (LEU) stock would be deposited in Turkey in escrow while waiting for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor to be imported from abroad. It was similar to a proposal by the Vienna Group (France, Russia, the U.S. and the IAEA) from October 2009. Iran initially rejected the Vienna Group plan because it could not trust the West to return the fuel, proposing instead that the swap occur simultaneously on Iranian soil or in small allotments. By the time the May proposal was made Western powers claimed Iran had had time to produce more HEU uranium and was agreeing to the proposal only to avoid upcoming UN Security Council sanctions. Consequently it rejected the unique chance for confidence- building and imposed new, tougher sanctions.

A victim’s position
Aside from realizing their right to take advantage of nuclear power it makes sense for Iran to pursue a nuclear program in a practical sense. Exporting oil is more beneficial for the country than using it for domestic energy production, and since renewable energy is not yet a viable alternative for fossil fuels for Iran it has no other choice but to resort to nuclear energy to cover its energy requirements. Estimates show that Iran’s uranium resources could be large enough to power nuclear plants in the future. In that case, provided sufficient technology, Iran would not have to resort to purchasing nuclear fuel from foreign sellers. If Iran’s uranium resources turn out to be smaller than estimated it will need to buy nuclear fuel from other countries and wants a reliable source for this.

These are the factors that define the balance of the relationship between Iran and the West. The U.S. has demonstrated time and again its readiness to interfere in other states’ domestic affairs, and its double morality in supporting dictatorships while apparently promoting democracy. They will do what it takes to be in control and to come off on top, seeking arrangements that are the most beneficial for them, with little or no regard for the domestic constituency or political elite.

Iran on the other hand suffers from a sense of victimization by the Western powers, the U.K. and the U.S. in particular. A victim’s position is weak, and it is not an easy position to negotiate from, especially if the rest of the world also perceives them as such. But a victim’s weakness can also lead to a certain strength and stubbornness – as well as unpredictability. A growing sentiment of resentment might burst into furious fire when released.

All of the parties involved are sovereign states, with sovereign rights; they are equals. Iran’s status as an equal must be recognized and its rights under international law respected by the others. Countries like Turkey and Brazil, with whom Iran managed to agree on a fuel swap before the Western powers rejected it, have a better track record in treating Iran as a peer.

In order to escape the vicious cycle of proposals and counter-proposals being rejected by each party in each new round of negotiations Iran needs to be treated differently. To start with, some of the gripping hand of economic sanctions should be loosened. Apart from possibly slowing down the nuclear program they have a crippling effect on the Iranian economy and on the supply of important articles, such as medicine, punishing the public and further increasing the victimized feeling and resentment toward the West. According to polls the Iranian public is behind the nuclear program and will consequently back its government in trying to maintain it while accusing the West of trying to control the nation once again.
Since the relations between Iran and the U.S. are so tense, it would be helpful for the negotiations if the U.S. entrusted the IAEA and other states with handling the situation and took a step back, but due to the pro-Israel groups pressuring the government this is unlikely to happen. Not to forget that the United States is the only country in the world that has ever used a nuclear weapon, and continues to boast the largest arsenal of active nuclear warheads.

Under their victimized cover the Iranians are a proud people, proud of their oil reserves and eager to take control of what is theirs. Similar sentiments abound concerning their right to govern over their nuclear program. The international community should work towards including Iran, bringing it back to a position of equality, where it is respected as it should be.

However hard they try, the U.S. and the EU cannot control the whole world’s resources and financial transactions and no amount of economic sanctions is likely to be able to halt the nuclear program completely. It might buy enough time for Israel to convince the U.S. that a preventive military strike is needed, but the consequences of such an attack would be unpredictable and could be direr than anyone is willing to risk. And all the while Iran is enriching further.

Instead of the old tricks of diplomatic pressure, sanctions, sabotage or military action that are proving to be more and more inadequate – as the recent announcement by Tehran to install and operate advanced uranium-enrichment machines demonstrates – in the face of increasingly attack-prone Israeli rhetoric the West should try something new, and that is inclusion and engagement.