One of the more absurd international crises could be coming to an end. The word out of Geneva this week is that the P5+1 (which consists of the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France plus Germany) was impressed with the presentation made by the Iranian delegation. It’s only the beginning of what is sure to be a difficult process. But this is how the beginning of the end of the nuclear standoff would be expected to look.
The absurdity of the drama over the past three plus decades lies in the fact that a war between the US and Iran was something everyone knew would be horribly destructive and could well lead to a larger conflict, the likes of which we have not seen since World War II. That risk was being taken ostensibly over an Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons that probably never fully existed. The lessons to be learned from all of this are profoundly important.
Like so many of the so-called “national security” issues the United States faces today, this one started with Washington. The Iranian nuclear program was initiated in the 1950s, with the full support of the United States. Although Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, the CIA assessed in the mid-1970s that “If [the Shah] is alive in the mid-1980s … and if other countries [particularly India] have proceeded with weapons development we have no doubt Iran will follow suit.” This assessment caused not a bit of consternation in Washington at the time.
Ayatollah Ruollah Khomeini forbade the development of nuclear weapons and dismantled a clandestine weaponization program that was going on in Iran. Until his death, there was little concern about Iran’s nuclear program in any real sense. But the United States, in retaliation for the ousting of the Shah, the anti-American program of Khomeini and the hostage crisis that accompanied the Iranian revolution, thwarted Iranian attempts to proceed with legitimate nuclear programs by pressuring other countries not to cooperate with Iran. While Iran was able, with some effort, to slowly advance its nuclear research, the lesson Tehran was taught was that it needed to minimize its dependence on other countries in nuclear matters.
That lesson would prove costly for Iran later on. American pressures on countries working with Iran on nuclear research and construction, for whatever purposes, made progress difficult. But the nuclear program was important for Iran, despite it being a major producer of oil. Owing to a variety of factors, Iran exports most of its oil and imports energy to make up the shortfall, so a domestic nuclear power program is deemed necessary for that reason as well as others, including medical research, and other peaceful uses.
The nuclear issue became a point of pride for Iran beyond the need it felt for nuclear power. It turned into a banner to be waved, a symbol of Iran’s refusal to give in to American diktats. Additionally, conservative elements within Iran were constantly pushing hard for a real weapons program, but the religious issue is a difficult one to bypass in a theocracy. Both of Iran’s Supreme Leaders, Khomeini and Ali Khameini, have agreed that nuclear weapons violate Islamic law. That is a big obstacle to overcome, but it has not totally wiped out an Iranian push for nuclear weapons research.
As Juan Cole pointed out years ago, the evidence strongly suggests that Iran’s goal, when it has even pursued it, has been nuclear latency, not the actual production of a weapon. Latency, sometimes referred to as the “Japan option,” means having the ability to construct a weapon relatively quickly, but not actually doing so. The definition of a nuclear latent state is fuzzy, but there are certainly several states that qualify.
Between 1990 and 2003, Iran did do some research and development that could eventually have put it in position to develop a nuclear weapon, if it decided to, and if some other capacities were enhanced (including the design of an actual weapon and a delivery system, among other obstacles it would still have to face.. That is an option that stays within the bounds of the religious ruling and also makes some sense. Nearby countries like Russia, India, Pakistan and China are all nuclear powers and Iran’s two bitterest enemies, the United States and Israel, are as well.
But since 2003, such work has stopped, as both US and Israeli intelligence agree and continue to maintain. Yet, the potential for war between Iran and either the United States or Israel has only grown since that time. The reasons for that come from both sides.
In 2002, the self-styled People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), a terrorist group that seeks to overthrow the Islamic regime in Iran, revealed the existence of two nuclear sites that had not been publicly declared. Although Western intelligence was already aware of these sites, and despite the fact that neither construction project had yet progressed to the point where Iran would be required to report them to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the disclosure of their existence was a political bombshell.
Iran came up with a proposal in 2003 to ease the tensions. That proposal looked a lot like what seems to be emerging now, but while Europe was open to the idea, the United States wouldn’t even acknowledge its existence. After this, there were a number of attempts at diplomacy, but they all failed. In 2005, another proposal was rejected by the EU because Brussels had changed its stance to match the US’ view that Iran would not be permitted any uranium enrichment on their soil. Meanwhile the United States, especially after the election of Barack Obama (who has been far more hawkish on Iran than his predecessor who,) steadily and consistently ratcheted up the sanctions on Iran. For its part, under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s leadership, Iran was more reluctant to cooperate with the IAEA, providing all the impetus needed in the West to support ever more crippling sanctions.
Behind all of this were constant apocalyptic warnings from Benjamin Netanyahu, who had made Iran’s nuclear program a main issue as far back as the mid-1990s. Bibi’s doomsday preaching had the behind-the-scenes support of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies as well. This has always been the real crux of the issue. Pushed to the wall about is actual intentions in publicizing the “Iranian threat,” Netanyahu has always been able to point out that Gulf states were equally anxious about Tehran’s nuclear program, as well.
Iran frequently points out that it has not been involved in a war of aggression since the 19th century. This is, indeed, an important point to keep in mind, but it’s not the whole story. Iran is a proud Muslim nation and, though not Arab, it is a part of the Middle East, and sees its role as a natural leadership one in the region. Not only does that pit it against the Saudis and Gulf States, but Iran’s Shi’a majority supports fellow Shi’a throughout the region, most of whom exist in Sunni-dominated countries. Iran’s support for Hezbollah and, to a much lesser degree, Hamas, and its frequent anti-Zionist rhetoric make it both a political and physical annoyance for Israel, one which can easily be magnified into an existential threat, especially when an actual Holocaust denier like Ahmadinejad is power.
With the destruction of Iraq by the United States, the main buffer to Iranian power in the Persian Gulf region was removed. It is no coincidence that the simmering sanctions regime accelerated after that buffer was gone. For Israel, the Saudis and the Gulf States, as well as other Western-friendly Arab countries who saw Iran as either a threat or a competitor, such as Jordan, the sanctions and, indeed, the nuclear tension was the new way to contain Iran with Iraq no longer able or willing to do so.
The threat of a regional conflagration has consistently kept American, Israeli and European intelligence agencies and military leaders opposed to attacking Iran. But politicians have continued to fan the flames, and until the election of Hassan Rouhani this summer, Iran has providing all the excuses needed to increase sanctions and ratchet up tensions. As Trita Parsi points out, “…it’s worth noting that the central parameters of a final deal have hardly changed at all over the last decade, in spite of the steady escalation of the standoff by both sides.”
Those contours entail gradually lifting sanctions in exchange for steps toward full transparency. Ultimately, Iran will allow full access, including snap and very short-notice inspections, and sanctions will be fully lifted. That should work for the US, Europe and Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia, however, are not pleased with the prospect.
Netanyahu has been threatening unilateral actions again. Those threats are ringing decidedly hollow, as Israel may be capable of hitting Iran by itself. However, it is unlikely to cripple Iran’s nuclear project. Without outside help, such an Israeli venture would be very risky indeed. Jim Lobe reports that Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to London and Washington, Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud told an audience in Washington that Iran is “…seeking regional ‘hegemony” and intervening in Arab countries.”
Still, the EU, and especially the United States, are hardly going to ignore their two key allies in the region. A deal can be struck without addressing their concerns, perhaps, but in order for it to stick in the long term, the Western powers will be compelled to allay the concerns of the Israelis and Saudis over growing Iranian influence in the region. Those concerns have been at the root of the escalating tensions.
What this probably means is that there will be a new chapter in US-Iran tensions that will look different than this one. There will be a great deal of political fallout from a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Nevertheless, it’s a fair bet that the US and Europe are not going to stand idly by while Iran’s influence grows as a result of reduced or eliminated sanctions.
It is likely that as we approach an endgame, the US will want some commitments from Iran regarding its allies in the Persian Gulf, as well as Israel. That’s when we will really be down to the heart of the matter, and when we will really know if there really will be a deal. You can bet that Benjamin Netanyahu, who knows that such a prospect will greatly increase international pressure on him to reach a deal with the Palestinians, will do whatever he can to avoid getting to that point.