The Iranian Nuclear Crisis and Politics of the Western Powers

By Sohail Mahmood (for Safe Democracy)

Sohail Mahmood explains how despite Iran‘s insistence that it is developing its nuclear program for purely pacific means, it can be reasonably assumed that Iran wants to obtain nuclear weapons. The possession of nuclear capabilities would reduce Iran‘s historical sense of insecurity, and allow the ambitious country to become a leader in the Muslim World. In Mahmood‘s opinion, in order to avoid the further escalation of the crisis, the US and Western powers must learn to be patient, and establish multilateral negotiations with Iran in order to convince the country to give up its nuclear program without losing face. Given the weakening of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran‘s history of prominence in the Middle East, and the lack of support for sanctions, diplomacy is the only viable option available.

Sohail Mahmood is the Associate Dean of the Department of International Relations at Preston University in Islamabad. With a Ph.D. in Political Science from Northern Arizona University, he is one of the leading experts in the world on Musharraf and Pakistan and has published dozens of books and articles on the issue.

UNDOUBTEDLY, ONE OF THE BIGGEST THREATS FACING ASIA is the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Pariah states like North Korea and non-state organizations like Al-Qaeda struggle to attain them, the Global Nonproliferation Regime uses massive preemptive force to contain them, and the state system in Asia is wracked with fear at the thought of them. These are nervous times and hard choices have to be made. Consider the fact that in the new Global War on Terror, preemptive security strategies allow countries the justification for the wide use of military force to avoid nuclear proliferation.
The presence of nukes in Asia will make matters worse, not better, for the existing state system. The greater the number of nuclear weapons present in the region, the higher the chances that they will be used. North Korea’s nuclear test this fall, has put increased pressure on Iran to expedite its own nuclear program, while the global nonproliferation regime pulls itself together in fearful determination to act. A new age is dawning with new risks and new threats.

Iran has had nuclear ambitions for some time. Iran’s nuclear program first began under the leadership of Khomeini (1979-1989) and gradually grew in all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle. With Russia’s assistance, Iran began the construction of its Bushehr reactors; by 1995, Iran had procured dual-use technology from Western sources; by 2002, Iran had established a heavy water production plant and a uranium enrichment facility; and in 2003, the present crisis began, when the IAEA determined that Iran had concealed its nuclear activities for almost two decades, despite its obligation to adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As a signatory of the NPT, Iran still has the right to construct a civil nuclear program. But according to the IAEA, sensitive technology facilities were being developed in Iran, separate from the needs of civil nuclear plants. With evidence that Iran had nuclear equipment supplied by the black market, the IAEA called on the country to suspend its uranium enrichment activities. And for a time, Iran complied.

But in August 2005, Iran broke its agreement with the IAEA, and ever since, its nuclear program has been a matter of great concern to the West. Finally, in 2005, the IAEA passed a resolution to report Iran to the UNSC. And in what may perhaps be remembered as the most generous offer that has ever been made to a country by the international community, the five members of the United Nations Security Council, as well as Germany, established a package of technological and political incentives on October 6, 2006, to offer in return for the freezing of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Iran has yet to accept.

Iran has been insistent that its enrichment of uranium is for purely peaceful purposes; nevertheless, the United States and European Union suspect other motivations and have demanded that Iran abandon its program. If Iran is not sanctioned, they argue, the NPT may break down worldwide. But so far the threats of sanctions and action by the UN Security Council have been nothing but hot air. The UN established deadline for Iran to suspend its illegal activities was August 31st. It is now November. President Bush has acknowledged Iran’s right to have a civil nuclear program, but has questioned why the oil-rich nation would need one.

Suspecting the worst, Bush has vowed to rally China and Russia behind him and take action against Iran in the United Nations. Were Iran to get its hands on nuclear weapons, the US claims, it would be incredibly destabilizing for the entire region. Most of all is the US concern that Iran will share its nuclear technology with other Muslim nations.
India, China, and Russia have all been reluctant to impose sanctions on the Middle Eastern country, defending Iran’s right to civil nuclear energy, and arguing that sanctions could provoke a regional crisis. And to the continued US and European pressure to sanction Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has responded that his country will not be intimidated into giving up its nuclear program.

Officially, Iran has denied any ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons. It has reiterated that it would never use atomic technology to make bombs, does not intend to produce nuclear weapons because of its Islamic laws and does not need them. Recently, Iran declared that it had mastered the fuel cycle, but is nevertheless committed to the peaceful use of this technology as stated within the framework of the NPT, international laws and in cooperation with the IAEA. Iran has reaffirmed its right to possess the full nuclear fuel cycle and has outlined four proposals for its new technology, including an offer to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of its uranium-enrichment program. Iran insists such work is only for peaceful purposes and is a right it may enjoy as a signatory of the NPT.

There are a number of reasons why Iran may want a nuclear bomb. One of the foremost is a deep Iranian insecurity derived from its past experiences. In 1951, the US ousted the populist government of Mossadegh and installed the Shah as the ruler of Iran. The Shah was a brutal, egomaniac, pro-Western king who destroyed Iran’s Islamic identity. The regime was corrupt and ruthless and the Iranian people suffered greatly. Obsessed with modernization and attaining regional power status by building a formidable military, the Shah established a very close relationship with the US, including the trading of arms.

Finally, in 1979 a populist revolution led by Imam Khomeini overthrew the Shah. This Islamic revolution is considered one of the great revolutions in the history of the Third World. Since the beginning, the US intensely opposed the Islamic revolution and to this day, does not recognize the Islamic republic. When the Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980, the US gave considerable support to Saddam Hussein’s aggression. The war lasted eight years, claimed millions of lives, ravaged the Iranian economy, and destroyed Khomeini’s regime. Afterwards, the leadership vowed to acquire the military strength necessary to never again be vulnerable to such destruction. In the current international system, a country that possesses nuclear weapons has less insecurity than a country that does not.

The acquisition of nuclear weapons also makes sense given Iran’s geographical location in an unstable region. While the USA castigates Iran’s nuclear efforts, it remains silent about Israel’s nuclear weapons. Ever since 9/11, the Bush administration has indulged in rhetoric denouncing Iran as an outpost of tyranny and as a member of the axis of evil. The encirclement of Iran has presented a pronounced and imminent threat to Iranian rulers. For Iran, the US is still a state whose antagonistic attitude cannot be denied and whose power cannot be ignored. In this regard, the Islamic regime can only look toward the nuclear bomb as the ultimate guarantee of good American behavior.

The crisis in the relationship between Iran and the West is not just about nuclear weapons; the real roots go much deeper. Iran is an ancient nation with a strong sense of nationalism to match, and a very ambitious leadership. Iran aspires to become a rising power and the leader of the Muslim world. It is determined to reshape the Middle East in its own image and seems to be deliberately provoking a clash of civilizations with the US. Despite the lack of any direct dispute between the two countries, Iran continues to brandish its Islamic credentials and oppose Israel.

Recent political developments seem to indicate that a new leadership is emerging in Iran: one that can be expected to be a far greater enemy of the US. The previous regime, which elected the old guard of clerics, was perceived to be corrupt. But these recent general elections have empowered the Revolutionary Guards. Ahmadinejad, the first non-cleric to become president since 1981, represents this institution. In the past few years the Revolutionary Guards have solidified their control over the government and their defiance of the West.

Given their animosity towards Iran, it is not impossible that either the US or Israel use force to stop the country from going nuclear. Most likely the US or Israel will conduct a limited air strike on Iran’s suspected nuclear facilities; similar to Israel’s attack in 1981 when it destroyed Iraq’s Osirik reactor. An invasion of the country to force a regime change is hardly on the minds of US and Israeli strategists. The two countries are well aware that such a move would be detrimental to its larger Middle Eastern interests. Therefore, any military intervention by the US can only be of a very limited nature. A repeat of Afghanistan and Iraq is certainly not in the cards. Even limited military action against Iran will only destabilize the region further by radicalizing the Muslim activists, especially the Shia. As the Middle East is already a hotbed of radicalism, further Western military action against another Muslim country is not going to help matters. The US has about 150,000 troops in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq, and Iran has numerous ways to retaliate against a military strike by the US or Israel.

The US should not take Iran lightly. The country has a long history of prominence in the Islamic world. Located in the Islamic arc which stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, Iran is one of only two Islamic nations never to have been colonized by a Western power Most importantly, Iran also has one of the strongest militaries and economies in the region. It possesses one-tenth of the world’s oil reserves and the second largest natural gas reserves in the world, after Russia. Were the USA to use force against Iran, the situation would be very grave indeed.

From another perspective, the Iranian nuclear issue seems to be a question of power. The US is flexing its muscles in front of Iran and continues to threaten the Islamic regime with dire consequences if it goes ahead with its nuclear ambitions. The only country that openly backs the USA on its tough stance vis-a vis Iran is Israel. This alliance is very strange to many Middle Eastern peoples, and the US support to the Israeli aggression in Lebanon against Hezbollah, has done nothing but further isolate the two countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. The current American predisposition to confront the Iranians is not reasonable since the USA is already facing a worsening situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan: more conflict is not in its own best interest. More importantly, other players in the region do not necessarily see Iran as evil. Because the Russians and the Chinese are both major trading partners with Iran, any UNSC measures are likely to be relatively mild, such as embargoes on missile and nuclear technology, and possible travel bans and other penalties on Iranian officials involved in their country’s nuclear program.

The region’s political situation has an obvious bearing on the Iranian nuclear case. The situation in the Middle East is becoming very complex, to say the least. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had many unintended consequences. Iran seems to have gained both power and time with the stalemate in Iraq, while the US has come out weakened. Unbeknownst to the US, Iran has benefited from the defeat of its enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The regime emerging in Iraq is Shia not Sunni, which happens to be the best possible outcome for Iran. And the expulsion of Syria from Lebanon has left Iran as an influence in the country. Also, US insistence on democracy is undermining Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the two traditional allies of the US, and rivals of Iran. Despite contrary intentions, the US has unwittingly strengthened Iran in its policies throughout the Middle East.

It can be reasonably assumed that Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons. It is now only a matter of time. The estimates range from a few years to decades. The London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies claims that it could take Iran five years to build a bomb. The US meanwhile believes that it will take longer, while Israel is alarmed that Iran could build the bomb faster that expected. Meanwhile, it has been reported that Iran is dangerously close to the development of an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle. This would enable Iran to develop a nuclear bomb without the need for outside assistance.

The question now is, what should be done to avert the escalation of the crisis? Now, more than ever, diplomacy must not be abandoned. There is some evidence that the Iranian leadership is ready for some sort of compromise, if given an opportunity to save face. The North Korean model of creating a multilateral forum for prolonged negotiations should be used to deal with Iran. Pakistan can play a crucial role behind the scenes, and countries like Russia, China, India, Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia can be included in the discussions to mediate between Iran and the great Western powers. Despite the conviction in the West that Iran is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, a compromise can still be worked out. For example, the uranium enrichment program may be allowed, as already suggested, to be placed under international supervision, which would allow friendly powers like China and Russia to be involved. The West, especially the US, must show patience in dealing with the crisis. For now, diplomacy is the only realistic option available.

Safe Democracy would like to invite you to subscribe to the weekly electronic newsletter, with analysis and commentaries from our international experts (click here).