Kicking the Hornet's Nest: Iran’s Nuclear Ambivalence and the West’s Counterproductive Nonproliferation Policies
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Ultimately, the only long-term solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis will be to reintegrate Iran into the international community, requiring a lessening of tensions and greater cooperation and transparency on the nuclear issue. Both sides must commit to this process of reintegration, which is sure to be as difficult a sell in Iran as it is in Washington. In order to make such an outcome possible, however, Iran and the inter- national community must commit to a process of engagement on all levels in pursuit of issues of mutual concern. Through a process of sustained engagement, both sides will be able to identify areas of potential cooperation and in time should come to identify an end-state that will satisfy most of each other’s demands. Iran must eventually be al- lowed to continue its nuclear development, including enrichment, while the West must insist on imposing sufficiently comprehensive safeguards to ensure the absence of weaponization work.
The experiences of past nuclear ambivalent states like Japan, Argentina, and Brazil have shown that positive foreign relations and strong international partnerships are the key to forestalling proliferation. For the moment, there is no reason to believe that an Iranian nuclear weapon is inevitable. Should the West and Iran escape the cycle of self- perpetuating hostility that has come to define their relationship over the past three decades, then the world community can rightfully expect Iran’s leaders to follow the path of peaceful nuclear technology. The current dynamic, however, is pushing the situation between Iran and the West in the wrong direction, with little hope that a catastrophe may be avoided.
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Such clandestine activities, however, by their very nature can cut both ways. High- profile attempts to damage or degrade Iran’s nuclear technology (such as the Stuxnet virus, which is believed to have been developed through joint cooperation of US and Israeli clandestine services) run the risk of triggering a conflict between Iran and the West. Certainly the attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists, if indeed they were committed by Western intelligence agencies, would constitute a blatant act of aggression with a high likelihood of Iranian retaliation. As with any covert operation, there is a risk that such activity could be interpreted by Tehran as an act of war and could therefore be used to justify an escalatory response. In fact, debate surrounding recent cyberattacks on the Pentagon as well as the Stuxnet virus led the US Department of Defense to conduct a review that concluded that acts of computer sabotage can constitute an act of war.52 Any strategy utilizing covert acts of aggression, therefore, must be carefully calibrated not to provoke a violent Iranian response, or worse: all-out war. Given that the potential upside of these tactics is to delay rather than halt Iranian progress, Western leaders should seriously reconsider whether the risk of triggering Iranian retaliation is worth setting Iran’s enrichment program back a few months.
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The West must make a distinction, however, between two types of sanctions in its dealings with Iran. There are punitive sanctions, which serve no other purpose than to isolate Iran politically and economically, and there are proliferation sanctions, which seek to deny Iran needed materials and technology that could contribute to a weapons program. The former category, as has been shown, stands little chance of succeeding by any measure and risks being profoundly counterproductive. Iran has demonstrated time and again that it will not be bullied into submission, yet leaders in Washington continue to talk of the need for sanctions that ‘‘bite’’ as a way of altering Iran’s behavior.49 It is time to abandon this type of wishful thinking. No combination of increasingly draconian sanctions has yet been shown to alter Iran’s fundamental decision making on the nuclear program. The only remaining leverage that these sanctions might possess involves offering the prospect of removing them in exchange for positive steps from Iran. Fortunately, over the past three decades, the United States and Europe have imposed more than enough sanctions of various types to explore such an approach.
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To be sure, no amount of pressure applied to date has induced an Iranian breakout, and there is no guarantee that a tipping point will someday be reached. After all, kicking a hornets’ nest does not necessarily mean one will get stung. Still, it remains a highly risky proposition. The international community simply cannot know with certainty just how much pressure Iran is willing to withstand. So long as pressure alone is unlikely to succeed as a nonproliferation policy, it runs the risk of being counterproductive. The West must therefore maintain enough flexibility to break out of the cycle of mutual hostility that could lead to escalation. Gradual brinkmanship plays into Iran’s strengths; high oil revenues ensure Iran has sufficient resources to continue nuclear progress, while ‘‘salami- slicing’’ tactics guarantee that no single violation is enough to justify an all-out Western military response. In order for a pressure-only strategy to succeed in the long term, Western leaders must be willing to mobilize for a full-scale military conflict, up to and including an invasion, regime change, and occupation, in order to halt Iranian nuclear development. Barring that, policy makers must maintain the flexibility needed to de- escalate the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. This means that, for Western policy makers, a readiness to reward good behavior is equally or more important than a willingness to punish bad behavior. The leaders of the Islamic Republic must be convinced that they stand to gain from foregoing nuclear weapons and that sanctions can and will be lifted in exchange for cooperation on the nuclear issue.
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The nuclear issue has become a unifying force in an otherwise discordant Iranian political system, and Western pressure has only encouraged this trend. As Iran’s perceived external threat grows, the importance of the nuclear program for Iranian national unity correspondingly increases. This pattern only feeds the West’s determination to try harder to impose some form of constraints, leading to new and ever tougher measures that are always under development. The West and Iran, therefore, are locked in a cycle of hostility wherein the West constantly ratchets up pressure by imposing sanctions and threats, and Iran responds with further entrenchment of its defiance. However, there is a significant danger inherent in this dynamic. Western pressure forces Iran to bear the costs of an illicit nuclear weapons program despite the fact that*in Iran’s view*no such illicit program actually exists. The longer the West imposes punishment for a crime that Iran believes it did not commit, the greater the odds that Iran’s calculus could shift in favor of weaponization, if for no other reason than it has nothing to lose by doing so.48 Ultimately, this path leads either toward confrontation or proliferation.
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Tehran follows this pattern of responding to pressure with pressure not out of spite, but rather as a way of showing the West that the Islamic Republic will not back down and will not allow itself to appear weak. Former Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, in an interview in August 2011, explained how past Iranian attempts at accommodation are viewed in Tehran as having failed, validating what he called Iran’s ‘‘soft aggressive’’ foreign policy: What needs to be said about foreign policy during the reformist period is that we had a good ‘‘window dressing’’ foreign policy and it was relatively well received. But, this policy preferred not to get involved in fundamental foreign policy issues. In other words, in my view they tried to work outside the main and key foreign policy issues. The stage was decorated well and the decoration became more important than the stage itself. However, in the program that I presented to the Majles, the foreign policy of the ninth government was going to be a ‘‘soft aggressive’’ foreign policy and by soft we mean diplomatically aggressive. Adopting this approach moved us from a position of the accused to the position of the accuser and gave us the upper hand in negotiations with foreign partners.44
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Just as it did with developing chemical weapons during the 1980s, Iran has responded to what it viewed as provocative Western actions directed toward its nuclear program by escalating its own nuclear defiance. When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, he promised to engage with Tehran in an atmosphere of mutual respect and without preconditions. Hopes were raised in Tehran that Obama might be a different kind of American president. Supreme Leader Khamenei famously responded to Obama’s message of change by saying, ‘‘If you change your attitude, we will change our attitude,’’ admitting that there are in fact some areas where Iran’s policies could warrant alteration.35 Expectations were high leading into the first significant meeting of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). The initial response by Iran’s envoys was positive, and the parties left the October 1, 2009 meeting optimistic that a deal might be in the offing. In the following weeks, however, Tehran made it clear that it would not accept the deal as offered, and Washington declared it to be a ‘‘take it or leave it’’ proposition. By the end of October, the deal had broken down.
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In the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the newly formed Islamic Republic swore off all weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as contrary to humanity, even going so far as to cancel the shah’s preexisting WMD development programs. At the start of the war against Iraq in 1980, Ayatollah Khomeini stated that he had no intention of waging total war, asking his military to ‘‘do nothing to harm the cities which have no defence.... Our hands are tied because we do not wish the ordinary people, the innocent people, to be hurt.’’31 Even after two years of intense fighting on Iranian soil, Khomeini argued that Iranian forces could have inflicted far greater damage ‘‘were it not for their Islamic commitment and their desire to protect the innocent.’’32 After Saddam Hussein’s order authorizing his military to use chemical weapons against Iranian troops on the battlefield, however, Iran’s perspective regarding WMD changed dramatically. Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, as well as the stunning lack of condemnation from the international community for Saddam’s actions, altered Tehran’s calculus about the need to produce such weapons. Despite having sworn off chemical weapons based on their indiscriminate nature and their tendency to harm innocents, Iran’s leaders took the decision to develop an in-kind retaliatory capability and restarted the country’s WMD programs.33 The revolutionary leader and senior Iranian politician Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani reportedly called chemical and biological weapons the ‘‘poor man’s atomic bombs,’’ saying, ‘‘We should at least consider them for our defense. Although the use of such weapons is inhuman, the war taught us that international laws are only scraps of paper.’’34 A corollary to nuclear ambivalence, therefore, could be said to exist with regard to chemical weapons as well. Iran’s chemical infrastructure was such that, once a decision was made to pursue such weapons, the technical capability could be mobilized rapidly toward that end. In this historical parallel can be found a cautionary tale about the durability of ambivalence: regardless of its prior commitments, Iran’s response to outside provocations was to form a consensus in favor of militarization. What, then, does the fragility of nuclear ambivalence mean for ongoing nonproliferation efforts directed toward Iran?
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In order to assess the potential impact of international nonproliferation efforts on Iran’s nuclear ambivalence, it must first be determined whether ambivalence is a durable condition, for if the present divisions within Iran’s political leadership persist for the indefinite future, then Iran will be unlikely to acquire nuclear weapons. It is a basic fact of bureaucracies that unless an authority issues a directive to move beyond the established boundaries of prescribed research and development*which are currently well below the level needed for weapons breakout*then Iran’s program is likely remain confined to its present state. The status quo in Iran’s program has for more than four years now been restricted to a level below active weaponization work, meaning that in order for Iran to obtain a nuclear arsenal, a conscious decision would have to be made to pursue a breakout option, and major resources would need to be marshaled behind a concerted push for weaponization. Barring some unexpected event, such as a military coup or a conservative uprising, this is unlikely due to the absence of a political consensus. If Iran’s ambivalent condition is not durable, however, then such a consensus could readily emerge at any moment. Unfortunately for the international nonproliferation community, nuclear ambivalence is quite fragile.
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Ambivalence, here, means simply that the end result of Iran’s nuclear development has not been predetermined. The nuclear program begun under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was ostensibly created for peaceful purposes, but the shah is believed by some to have desired eventually to acquire weapons.6 Under the shah, then, Iran employed a policy of nuclear ambiguity. This ambiguity demonstrates*but is markedly different from*Iran’s nuclear ambivalence. Whereas ambiguity implies that the shah desired nuclear weapons but chose to conceal that truth from the world, ambivalence suggests that individual actors*even those intimately involved in the formulation of nuclear policy*may not know the precise trajectory of their country’s nuclear development. According to Abraham, the strategy of ambivalence ‘‘is not an instrument of policy under the control of the proliferating state, to be used to deceive or confuse, but rather an effect of the inability of discourse to fix itself unambiguously on one or another nuclear meaning.’’7