Events

Iran's Nuclear Program

September 29, 2005 // 9:00am10:30am
Event Co-sponsors: 
International Security Studies

Martin Briens, Counselor, Embassy of France; Shahram Chubin, Director of Research, Geneva Centre for Security Policy; Shai Feldman, Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University.

This event was cosponsored by the Middle East Program and the Division of International Security Studies and held as part of the Middle East Program's Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Middle East Forum.

Robert Litwak opened the meeting by framing the issue at hand. Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear technology but forfeits its right to nuclear weapons. Members of the international community fear that Iran is using peaceful technology as cover for a nuclear weapons program, which could have dramatic implications for the NPT regime.

Shahram Chubin discussed the nuclear issue from the perspective of Iran. He asserted that there was a "total incomprehension" between internationalists skeptical of the passivity of Iran's intentions on the one hand, and regionalists skeptical of the intentions of Europe and the US, on the other.

Dr. Chubin suggested the issue with Iran was less a matter of proliferation than it was the nature of the proliferator—and there was just cause (indeed, several just causes) for concern. The shape of Iran's program, with pursuit of enrichment capacity before it has even a single operational reactor, is inconsistent with peaceful use, said Dr. Chubin. Iran conducts itself as though it has been wronged throughout history, he said, and it aims to raise its status. Yet it does so in a "narcissistic" way, without a sense of responsibility for its actions. Moreover, while Tehran is pragmatic, it is also relentlessly opportunistic, and a nuclear capability could open new opportunities to assert power, transforming the Iranian regime from a "status quo" power, intent on maintaining its position, to an aggressive one. While it is obvious Iran is dissatisfied with the current regional order, it remains unclear whether Iran seeks to replace that order or merely redefine its place in it.

Dr. Chubin described the Iranians as skillful negotiators. In the wake of President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" speech and the invasion of Iraq, there was a fear in Tehran that Iran was next on America's list of military targets. However, Iran grew bolder as Iraq consumed America's attention and capacity to respond and their oil windfall grew to massive proportions. Playing on nationalist sentiments at home, Iran maneuvered itself into a position of strength in the negotiations with Britain, France, and Germany (the "EU 3"). Moreover, he criticized the EU and US for making threats they did not have the diplomatic support to carry out, thereby weakening their positions in the negotiation. He suggested that the US has become so distracted by the war in Iraq and domestic concerns that it "outsourced" Iran's problem to the EU, and has backtracked considerably on the issue. He advocated the US laying out a "grand bargain" option for Iran on foreign policy issues, using common goals in Iraq and a meaningful unilateral gesture (such as unfreezing Iranian assets) to help shake Iranian skepticism.

Shai Feldman expanded on many of the points Dr. Chubin emphasized, and added some of his own. He observed that the precarious situation in Iraq magnified the consequences of Iran becoming a nuclear power—the combined effect of a political collapse in Iraq and a nuclear Iran would dramatically destabilize the region, to the benefit of Iran. He echoed Dr. Chubin's concern that a nuclear Iran might grow more aggressive, and less risk-averse.

Dr. Feldman derided what he called the "realm of reciprocal outsourcing," a round of deferring responsibilities around the international community. The US "outsourced" diplomacy regarding Iran to the EU; the EU outsourced enforcement—the "stick"—to the US; in turn, the US outsourced the threat of military action to Israel, which he argued was both ineffective and unwelcome. Ineffective, because the extent of US involvement in the Middle East meant that the US would not have plausible deniability (or even "implausible deniability") of involvement in any Israeli strike on Iran; unwelcome because Israel feels no compulsion to conduct such a strike while the international community is actively engaged in the matter (unlike the Osirak reactor).

Dr. Feldman further argued that the US and EU are neither as serious about the matter of Iran's nuclear program as they profess to be, nor do they have the political energy to oppose Iran. While EU and US diplomats frame the threat of the program in "nearly existential" terms, when confronted with the possibility of military action, they balk at the danger of Iranian reprisals, which hints that their opposition might not be as categorical as their rhetoric suggests. Moreover, President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, and Chancellor Schroeder are fully preoccupied by turmoil in their own polities, leaving only President Chirac with the energy to focus on Iran. Fortunately for the Western diplomats, Dr. Feldman said, the new Iranian negotiators appointed by incoming President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government seem less savvy than their predecessors.

Drafted by Evan Hensleigh

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