Now is the Time for U.S., Iran to have their Overdue Talk: Nuclear Diplomacy has Breakthrough Potential

November 2, 2004

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


George Perkovich


Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Threats of nuclear weapons proliferation emerge episodically on the world scene like Steven Bochco cop dramas.

In the 1980s and early '90s, the world watched anxiously as Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Taiwan, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus either acquired or were trying to acquire the bomb. Each episode ended happily, as the United States and other leading actors coerced or cajoled the would-be proliferators to be free of nuclear weapons.

After Sept. 11, Iraq, North Korea and Iran became the leading bad guys in the proliferation drama. President Bush labeled these three the ``axis of evil,'' primarily because of the nuclear threat they posed. The administration justified the war in Iraq as a bold strike to remove a weapons-of-mass-destruction menace.

With Saddam Hussein dethroned, and North Korea in diplomatic isolation, Iran became the featured story. Iranians and much of the world fretted that this episode would have a violent denouement following the Iraq script. An agreement late last month appears to have ended the immediate crisis, but negotiations on how to implement that agreement will almost surely prove more challenging than reaching the pact. Here's how the case has unfolded so far:

Thanks to a tip from Iranian dissidents, U.S. and International Atomic Energy Agency ``detectives'' found evidence last year that Iran was acquiring equipment and experience necessary to produce bomb materials, in violation of its treaty commitment not to seek nuclear weapons. Iran offered inconsistent and unsatisfactory explanations that these activities were merely to generate nuclear electricity.

The IAEA, goaded by the United States, demanded that Iran clarify its nuclear intentions, account for recent dubious activity, and suspend further work that could give Iran the capability to make nuclear weapons. If Iran did not comply with these demands by Oct. 31, the threat of international sanction and possible U.S. military action loomed.

Good cop, bad cop

On Oct. 21, Iran surprised many observers by meeting with the foreign ministers of France, Germany and the United Kingdom and agreeing to the international demands. The European ministers had played the role of good cop, taking Iran's plea, while the Bush administration stood, necessarily, like the bad cop outside the interrogation room.

Yet, the Oct. 21 agreement only suspends Iran's most troubling nuclear activity. As the key Iranian negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, put it, ``As long as Iran thinks this suspension is beneficial it will continue,'' and whenever Iranians don't want it, it will end.

The bargaining is just beginning, and already signs are emerging that the Iranians are ``lawyering up,'' feeling pressure from hard-liners to resist the deal or get better terms.

If Iran now truly wants nuclear technology only to produce electricity -- as it asserts -- the path forward will be relatively easy. The Europeans already have hinted at a deal whereby Iran would permanently abandon indigenous production of dual-use nuclear fuels. Because this permanent abandonment would go further than any state is required to go under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran will want compensatory benefits.

To this end, the international community could accept completion of the Iranian-Russian nuclear power plant at Bushehr, with guarantees that Russia or other foreign producers will supply the fuel for the reactor. After the fuel has been ``burned,'' it must be shipped back to the suppliers, so Iran could not use the plutonium contained in it.

Security dilemmas

A nuclear-energy based bargain will work only if Iran and the United States are willing to treat the nuclear crisis in isolation. Iran would have to stick with and act on its dubious story that it was only seeking nuclear-generated electricity, not bomb capability. The United States would have to allow Iran to save face and complete at least one reactor to make electricity. Neither actor is likely to let the drama end this neatly, though.

American and Iranian officials want more from each other than a nuclear bargain. Yet, the execrable state of U.S.-Iranian communications and diplomacy leaves both states unable to resolve a number of classic security dilemmas.

The United States alleges that Al-Qaida and other terrorists have used Iran as a base. At the very least, Iran has not done everything it could to apprehend these bad actors.

Tehran, for its part, demands that the United States turn over to Iran Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK or People's Mujahedeen) terrorists based in Iraq. The U.S. State Department has placed the MEK on its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations. For more than two decades, the MEK has assassinated Iranian political figures, planted bombs in Iranian cities, launched missile and mortar attacks, and otherwise terrorized Iran, frequently from bases in Iraq. But the United States has refused Iran's request to turn over MEK terrorists in Iraq.

The U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan also complicates the American-Iranian relationship. U.S. officials say that Saddam's Iraq was the gravest threat to Iran's security, followed by the Taliban government and its brand of Sunni extremism. Since the United States removed both threats, those officials reason, Iran should have less interest in getting the bomb.

But many Iranians don't feel comforted by that. Iran now confronts on its western and eastern borders the most powerful military in the history of the world and a radical ideological government in Washington bent on overturning governments like Iran's.

Regime change

Perhaps the ultimate dilemma for Iranian and American officials concerns the question of ``regime change.''

Iranian citizens essentially have voted for regime change several times and not obtained it. The non-elected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the judiciary and security apparatus that he controls have prevented the elected president, Mohammad Khatami, and parliament from directing the state. Unfortunately, these non-elected men determine whether Iran will seek nuclear weapons, conduct terrorism or recognize Israel's right to exist.

Yet few inside or out of Iran believe the United States can or should remove Iran's real power brokers. So, if international problems need to be resolved, there is little choice but to deal with those men.

Important members of the Bush administration disagree and refuse to make deals with an ``evil'' government. This raises an acute dilemma for Iranian decision-makers. They ask, ``Why should we make concessions to the United States if it is going to overthrow us anyway?'' The prospect of U.S.-pushed regime change is a reason to seek a nuclear deterrent, not to give one up, in this view.

To get past those differences, skillful diplomacy is needed. The Iran-EU deal last month could be the beginning of a process of reciprocal reassurance that could address the larger issues affecting Iran's nuclear ambitions. The basic choice is whether Iran will decide that it has more to gain from integration into the Persian Gulf and broader international community than from being a nuclear threat that could cause its neighbors and Europe to isolate it and the United States or Israel to attack it.

Unresolved plot lines

The United States should clarify that it does not wish to use Iraq as a military base against Iran and is prepared to work with Iran in facilitating the integration of Iraqi Shiites -- who follow the same branch of Islam as most Iranians -- into a representative Iraqi government. The United States must also decide whether it can remove the implicit or explicit threat of regime change if Iran will verifiably end its nuclear weapon-related activities and support of terrorism, including against Israel.

Iran, in return, would likely demand that Israel's nuclear arsenal be seen as part of the regional problem. (Still, the dialogue might move forward because Iran's concern is less that Israel poses a military threat and more that there is political inequity in Israel's having nuclear weapons and Iran's being denied them.)

A broader regional dialogue would help build the necessary confidence in Washington and Tehran. Much as the United States has brought China, Japan, South Korea and Russia into diplomacy with North Korea, it could now invite EU leaders, Iran, and other gulf states into a diplomatic process to clarify intentions and set out principles and practices that will promote regional security at the lowest cost.

These issues are too important to leave as unresolved plot lines for yet another violent proliferation drama.