Is Iran’s uranium enrichment programme really geared towards creating a civilian nuclear energy capacity that Iran, as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is allowed to develop, asks Barbara Zanchetta.
Since the Obama administration declared “engagement with Iran” as one of its top foreign-policy priorities, the debate around Tehran’s nuclear ambitions has dominated international political discourse. Is Iran’s uranium enrichment programme really geared towards creating a civilian nuclear energy capacity that Iran, as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is allowed to develop? Or is Tehran concealing its intentions to develop nuclear weapons? And if it is, then how should the United States and the international community respond to the challenge posed by a potentially nuclear-armed Iran? In this context, the discussions evolve around highly complex technical details: such as how much enriched uranium the US would “allow” Iran to develop; the percentage of uranium that Iran could enrich on its soil compared with the quantity that could be sent outside of Iran; and the number and size of the nuclear reactors.
In short, Iran’s nuclear programme is assessed outside the broader context of US-Iran relations, as if this issue existed somehow in isolation. However, to anyone familiar with the intricate, and in some cases dramatic, history of US-Iran relations, this approach reveals a certain degree of naivety on Washington’s part and, most significantly, a limited vision. How can the US hope to achieve progress on a highly controversial issue when dealing with a country and a leadership that is almost completely inscrutable?
It is undeniable that the nuclear issue is of crucial importance not only for promoting the nuclear non-proliferation regime, but also in terms of regional stability, particularly considering Israel’s position and the concerns expressed by Iran’s Arab neighbors. At the same time, however, on the basis of a realistic assessment of the state of US-Iran relations it seems vital that a more wide-ranging dialogue, geared towards building a degree of trust between the two sides, needs to be established before seeking to deal with the single thorniest issue.
To the contemporary observer it may be difficult to recall that the United States and Iran were once close allies. Yet, it is impossible to understand the motivations of the present day enmity and mutual distrust without assessing the legacy of America’s problematic involvement with Iran. The list of grievances is long and has yet to be overcome: the repercussions of the CIA-sponsored coup of 1953; the decisive tightening of Washington’s ties with the Iranian leader during the 1970s, despite the growing internal instability in Iran; the hostage crisis of 1979 and the immense shock that it caused within the United States, are only a few examples.
Since 1979, US-Iran relations have been practically non-existent. Though tensions have repeatedly risen and abated between the 1980s and recent years, there was never a real breakthrough. Ultimately, the legacy of hatred and fear was never challenged. Thirty years of isolation have only deepened the mutual suspicion on both sides, hindering any realistic capacity to assess acutely the prospects of a renewed relationship.
Today, despite the latent and at times open hostility, it is imperative for Washington and Tehran to seek common ground. Iran borders Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the areas declared to be of “utmost concern” for US foreign policy. From Washington’s standpoint, the benefits of a constructive relationship with Tehran would, therefore, be evident. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Iran aligned itself with the international community in condemning the terrorist attacks while supporting the anti-Taliban campaign in Afghanistan. This could have been an opportunity for improving relations that was, however, almost immediately lost in the midst of former president Bush’s rhetoric on the “axis of evil.” But Iran’s interest in the stabilisation of Afghanistan remains alive today. Therefore, the United States should recognise the immense potential for Iran’s active role in the region.
Analysts warn that Iran’s capacity to militarise its nuclear capability is near and that the international community should move quickly to stop this process. But these “interventionist” views fail to consider some critical points: first, that the non-proliferation regime is, in itself, quite ambiguous. It allows the signatories of the NPT to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes but not to enrich enough quantities that would permit the creation of a nuclear weapon. Nations that use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes also possess the theoretical “know-how” to produce weapons, but commit not to stockpile quantities of uranium that would enable them to do so. Hence, stating that Iran is entitled to a peaceful nuclear programme also signifies allowing Tehran to develop the theoretical capability to be able to build a bomb. For this reason, it is essential to establish a degree of trust with Iran, even if it were “demonstrated” that its nuclear programme is, indeed, meant only for peaceful purposes.
Second, the Iranian regime has been successful in portraying the country’s nuclear programme as a means of internal development and progress. Therefore, it is likely that for many Iranians the US constant criticism of the programme may come to signify that America is, yet again, intervening in Iran’s domestic process and opposed to Iran’s internal development and modernisation. Moreover, the US (and in general Western) intransigence on Iran’s nuclear programme appears one-sided and incoherent when juxtaposed to the stance taken towards Israel (whose nuclear capability is no longer doubted). And, historically, America’s reliance on Pakistan, deeply grounded on geopolitical interests, was never seriously questioned despite Pakistan’s problematic possession of nuclear weapons.
Judging from the few signals that come from Iran, the country’s leadership seems to be both inherently proud and adamantly insecure, a combination that often characterises nations with a particularly multifaceted and ancient history. Dictating conditions will probably only continue on the one side to offend, and on the other to enhance the innate paranoia of an increasingly fragile regime.
dialogue with Iran is crucial for many reasons, not just and not only because of its nuclear programme. While the US has repeatedly stated that it won’t talk with Iran “for the sake of talking,” sometimes, when the legacies of the past are so inherently complex, talking for the simple sake of talking may be the precondition for success.