Iran's Security Dilemma: Washington is primed for more than a nuclear deal

Posted in Iran , Broader Middle East | 04-Nov-03 | Author: George Perkovich| Source: YaleGlobal

Iran's apparent willingness to prove it is not seeking nuclear weapons shows that the international security system can function effectively. Encouraged by the United States, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has relentlessly investigated Iran's suspicious nuclear activities. After initial inquiries yielded inconclusive results, the governors of the IAEA imposed a firm deadline for Iran to clarify past actions, allow unfettered future inspections, and suspend work related to producing bomb-quality materials. Faced with potential pariahdom and sanction, Iranian leaders sought a deal. British, French, and German officials then stepped in as Good Cops, insisting that Iran come clean and straighten up, promising benefits if it does. The Bush Administration played the vital role of Bad Cop, looming in the background - almost hoping that Iran would be defiant so the US could punish it.

The Iranian-Russian nuclear power plant under construction at Bushehr.
The agreement reached on October 21 only suspends Iran's most troubling nuclear activity, but does not stop it. As the chief Iranian negotiator, Hasan Rohani, put it, "As long as Iran thinks this suspension is beneficial it will continue, and whenever we don't want it we will end it." The bargaining is just beginning.

Iran's assertion that it wants nuclear technology only to produce electricity and other civilian services offers the easiest path to a resolution. The Europeans already have hinted at a deal whereby Iran would permanently abandon indigenous production of dual-use nuclear fuels. Because this permanent abandonment would go further than any state is required to go under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran would want compensatory benefits. To this end, the international community could accept completion of the Iranian-Russian nuclear power plant at Bushehr, with guarantees that Russia or other international producers would supply the fuel for the reactor. After the fuel has been "burned," it would be shipped back to Russia, removing the plutonium contained within it.

A nuclear-energy based bargain will work only if Iran and the US are willing to treat the nuclear crisis in isolation. However, this outcome is highly unlikely. This is because, among other reasons, the Bush Administration refuses to un-bundle its demands of Iran. It finds even the one reactor at Bushehr intolerable, notwithstanding an arrangement to ship spent fuel to Russia. The Administration also demands that Iran cease all support of terrorist activities and organizations, and stop interfering in what is left of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Some in the Administration go further and say that only regime change in Iran will satisfy the US. By insisting that all of these sensible objectives be met before making any concessions to Iran, Washington could spoil a "win-win" deal on just the nuclear issue.

Iranians also want more than a tidy nuclear-only deal. Despite official claims, Iran's interest in nuclear weapons may be offensive. More likely, though, it is to deter coercion by the US, Israel, a new Iraq or other actors, and to earn the respect that seems to come with nuclear weapons. A wide range of Iranians resent the perceived arrogance and hegemony of the US government, loathe the double standard surrounding Israel's possession of nuclear weapons and treatment of the Palestinians, fear US control and military presence in Iraq, and want the deference now accorded to neighboring nuclear Pakistan.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami tells reporters that the agreement with the EU foreign ministers didn't mean Iran has given up obtaining nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.
In the October 21 Iran-EU foreign ministers' agreement, Iran insisted on a clause calling for "security and stability in the region including the establishment of a zone free from weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East." This formulation, overlooked in commentaries on the agreement, shows that Iran sees the nuclear issue as more than an energy problem.

Ultimately, American and Iranian officials want more from each other than a nuclear bargain. However, the appalling state of US-Iran communications and diplomacy leaves both states unable to resolve a number of classic security dilemmas.

One of the most significant such dilemmas is the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was the gravest threat to Iran's security, followed by the Taliban government and its brand of Sunni extremism. The United States removed both threats. Iran should, therefore, feel that its security position has improved significantly. This in turn should reduce Iran's perceived interest in acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities.
However, many Iranians see the same reality from an entirely different viewpoint. Instead of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iran now confronts on its western and eastern borders the most powerful military in the history of the world and a radical ideological government in Washington bent on overturning governments like Iran's. The American presence surrounding Iran has not improved security but rather has put a dagger to Iran's front and back. If ever a country needs nuclear weapons to deter a stronger adversary, it is Iran.

But perhaps the crucial dilemma for Iranian and American officials concerns the question of regime change. Iranian citizens essentially have voted for regime change several times and have not obtained it. The unelected Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamene'I, as well as the judiciary and security apparatus he controls, have prevented the elected president and parliament from directing the state. Unfortunately, these unelected men determine whether Iran will seek nuclear weapons, conduct terrorism, or recognize Israel's right to exist. Few inside or out of Iran believe the US can or should remove this regime. Thus, if vital international problems need to be resolved now, there is little choice but to deal with the people who have power in Iran.

Important members of the Bush Administration disagree and refuse to make deals with an "evil" regime. This raises another acute dilemma for Iranian decision-makers. They ask, "Why should we make concessions to the US, including surrendering nuclear capabilities to which we are legally entitled, if they are going to overthrow us anyway?" The prospect of US-pushed regime change is a reason to seek a nuclear deterrent, not to give one up, from this view.

There is a clear response to this argument, of course. Iran will not face military threats to deter if it does not acquire weapons of mass destruction and abet terrorism. And the US and Iran share interest in a future Iraq that poses no threat to Iran as long as Iran poses no threat to a representative, multi-cultural Iraq. But only diplomacy will be able to resolve the current destabilizing US-Iran security dilemma.

The Iran-EU deal last week could be the beginning of a process of reciprocal reassurance that could address the larger issues affecting Iran's nuclear ambitions. Clearly, though, a broader initiative is needed to involve relevant actors - EU leaders, the US, Iran, and other regional states - in a diplomatic process to clarify intentions and set out principles and practices that will promote regional security at the lowest cost. Buffered by this larger mix, US and Iranian officials could address the specific grievances that fuel their worst-case assumptions about each other.