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Iran's Nulcear Program

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Hamid Karimianpour     Permalink
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 Iran has clashed with the West and Israel in the last decade over its nuclear enrichment program. The country insists that its nuclear program is ex clusively for peaceful purposes. The West and Israel suspects that Iran is trying to develop WMD under the guise of nuclear energy production. And some critics of the Western Iran policy suspect that the West is only seeking a regime change in Iran under the cover of preventing proliferation of weap ons of mass destruction. The mistrust between Iran and the West that has been building up on both sides over a century expresses itself through the nuclear standoff. Right before President Ahmadinejad ascended to power, the EU3 , Britain, France, and Germany, engineered a joint proposal to allow Iran de velop nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes but in compliance with the UN Non-proliferation Treaty. The proposal would stop all uranium enrich ment activities in the country. The Western countries would supply the enriched fuel necessary for reactors to generate electricity or for legitimate research and medical purposes.

The Iranians rejected the proposal immedi ately. The proposal would mean that they would be dependent on Europe for their energy needs indefinitely. From the Iranian perspective, by hold ing the key to Iran's access to nuclear energy, the West would be able to enforce its way squarely on the country, if the day comes when fossil fuel is no longer available. Western countries have been dependent on Middle Eastern petroleum more than a century, but the West has had the political leverage and military strength to enforce a steady flow of oil westwards. As a weak country, an agreement that put the Islamic Republic at the mercy of a stronger power for its energy needs is synonymous to risking its long-term sovereignty. The Islamic Republic and the West have long lists of griev ances against one another, and the countries that will be able to control Iran's access to energy, when Iran's petroleum reserves are ended in future, will be able to set the political agenda.

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The Western media portrait of Iran's position is that different West ern countries have extended a hand of friendship, offering Iran a way out of the gridlock, while Iranian authorities have been evasive and stubbornly seeking to build nuclear weapon. But the media fails to understand that the nuclear standoff is a real impasse caused by actions of both sides, and not just an expression of Iranian evasiveness. From the Western perspective, Iran has nothing to worry about, if it is not in pursuit of nuclear weapons. But even if Iran is truly not pursuing WMD and is only interested in peace ful nuclear energy, no easy solution can be found to this problem unless one realizes that there is much more involved in the nuclear standoff than a mere cat-and-mouse game.

If history has taught the Iranian policymakers one thing, it is that they cannot rely on Europe for issues so significant to their national security, such as access to energy. America would not rely on Europe for its national security; why should Iran? As the historian, Nikki Keddie, points out, Iranian leaders early in the last century never built a capacity to defend Iran's interests. They relied instead on foreign protection. As a result, the British, Russians, and other European powers frequently intervened in the internal affairs of Iran, constantly threatened its central government to win conces sions, and nearly colonized the country.

The modern history of Iran is filled with broken promises by the European powers as well as frustrated efforts by the Iranians to live in peace with the Europeans. This is past history, but the wounds seem fresh still. To understand what history can do one needs look no further than the Europe itself. Not only the EU is still plagued with mutual mistrusts and memories of past misdeeds on the account of bitter European rivalry in the past few centuries -- there is a large repertoire of ex amples to back this claim --, but also interestingly Norway is one of the two or three countries in Europe, which did not join the EU as a fully integrat ed member state because its history of being trampled by the Danish and Swedish kings until 1814 still scares its people to join the club of big powers.

Iranians have only themselves to blame for their long history of weakness. Incompetent kings, corrupt central government, lack of democracy, and re gressive culture enabled the Western powers to suppress Iran's population and extort its government for favors. Nevertheless, history's lesson for Ira nian policymakers of the modern generation is that giving away their right to enrich uranium without securing mechanisms that guarantees the flow of nuclear fuel to their reactors will be the same as giving the West a blank check to withhold the fuel in case of a future dispute to pressure Iran. No such guarantees can be made indefinitely. Iran does not have the capacity to defend its rights, if promises are broken in the future. The country has been put under sanctions and its assets have been frozen in foreign banks. The country has been under the threat of coup, invasion, and isolation. The Islamic Republic bitterly remembers its role in assisting the US forces in Afghanistan post 9/11, only to be named an axe of evil. Iran's history does not leave much room for trust.

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From the Western standpoint, Iran's recent aggressive behavior seems counterproductive to its nuclear ambitions. The more aggressive the country is, the more the West is convinced that Iran should never be allowed to gain nuclear technology that can potentially be used in weapon development. From the Iranian perspective, the Western behavior seems counterproductive to Western ambition for curbing in the Iranian nuclear program. Sanctions and threat of invasion simply convinces Iranian policymakers that they cannot rely on the West and encourages them to pursue their nuclear program more vigorously. In any way, exces sive pressure on Iran to sign a deal will not necessarily produce a legally solid foundation for nonproliferation, as Iran could in the future back away from the deal citing that it signed the dotted line under duress.

The Islamic Republic knows, as indicated above, that if it gives in to pressure, there is no reason for the West not to use its leverage again to score other wins in the future, such as to curb in Iran's support for Hezbollah or Hamas, Iran's trade relations with Chavez's Venezuela, etc. Whatever one may think about the behavior of the Islamic Republic, it would never voluntarily put itself in a situation that would force it to abandon its ways. If Iran is truly intend ing to build WMD, the West's effort to isolate the country, makes it more insecure and more fixated on getting a fat man of his own. As Ahmadinejad has pointed out clearly, "[we] know well that a country backing down one iota on its undeniable rights is the same as losing everything"" Even if the Iranian nuclear program is truly for peaceful purposes, Ahmadinejad under stands that curbing in on this issue means nothing less than opening up the flood gates for more US pressure.

The EU and the United States secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have repeatedly refused talking with Iran about any issues other than the nuclear question. But the Islamic Republic knows that if the US succeeds in pressuring Iran on the nuclear issue, it would be irrational for the US not to use its leverage to pressure Iran on other issues, such as its support for Hezbollah or Hamas. If the West is going to have an agreement that can be used to pressure Iran on other issues in the future, it needs to be prepared to talk about all issues with Iran. Any deal would have to be a comprehensive deal, taking into account all Iran's legitimate national interests and security needs, which will enable and encourage the country to play a more positive role in the region.

The West has insisted numerous times that Iran should halt all enrich ment activity immediately as a confidence building measure. If the negotia tions are going to have a chance of producing an agreement, the West too must make a bigger effort to build mutual trust. The so-called all-options-on-the-table or the threat of covert or overt action to topple the regime in Tehran is not exactly a language designed to gain the opponent's trust.

The question that Washington has been grappling with is how to bring Iranians to the negotiation table. President Obama has acknowledged the need for a diplomatic solution to the problem although he has maintained all options on the table. Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan are finally be ginning to sink in and the White House is keen to avoid a military confron tation, at least in the short term. Yet, President Obama's handling of the nuclear situation cannot go without a critique.

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As explained in Nation Building or Democracy by Other Means, President Obama extended a hand of friendship to Iran. He addressed Khamenei in writing, made statements about the US--Iranian relations on the US TV, and sent a video New Year message to the Iranian people, but to no avail. The core of President Obama's messages was twofold: firstly, that his administration would accept an Iran elevated to a position of re gional significance and he would work with Iran to see that happen in a smooth and orderly manner, and secondly, that his administration would not accept a nuclear armed Iran. The fact that the Islamic Republic rejected both calls was a great disappointment for the Administration, but it should have been expected.

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When President Bush rejected Khatami's plead for a dialogue among civilizations and opted instead to attack Iran verbally or otherwise, many commentators -- such as Kenneth Pollack -- criticized him for wrecking a golden opportunity for better ties between the two countries. But from Bush's perspective, his approach seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. Iran had been a long-term and unnecessary problem for the US and in the heyday of Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, when the US military appeared to possess unlimited force, the Bush Administration saw an opportunity to root out the Iranian problem once and for all. Iran had been slow to recon cile with the US even under Khatami. Iranian collaboration with Wash ington became forthcoming only after 9/11, when the Islamic Republic felt threatened by the presence of US combat forces all around Iran. While in the fifth gear, why should not Bush go all the way to the heart of Tehran? But the plan failed and the Bush Administration was forced to make a humiliat ing U-turn on Iran. With the U-turn, the table was turned in Iran's favor, and the Islamic Republic could now adopt a similar form of logic as that of the Bush Administration: if the US did not possess unlimited power after all, and if the Islamic Republic had a chance to aim higher and become a regional power, why submit to Obama's plan for Iran? Iran was now in fifth gear. Why should it stop to pick up a hitchhiker from the White House? The Islamic Republic believes or certainly hopes that it can be in power long after President Obama is gone. Who knows if the next US president will honor President Obama's policy vows to Iran? Having burned their fin gers amply before, what guarantees would the Iranian leaders see in taking Obama's hand? History has taught the leaders of Iran to graze as long as the grass is green, as tomorrow may bring the dry season.

Three months after the New Year message, there were some cautious signals that Iran would finally embrace Obama's call for talks and improved relations. Ahmadinejad had prepared a letter to his counterpart in expec tation of official congratulations from the White House upon his possible reelection to a second term in office. The election was on June 12 th 2009, and Ahmadinejad was declared the winner. The opposition claimed election fraud and demanded a recount. Millions of Iranians took to the streets in major cities to protest. After about one week of peaceful gatherings around the country, the police and vigilante groups cracked down the demonstra tions violently, killing at least 19 protesters. Ahmadinejad was later sworn in office for a second term. The violent crackdown of demonstrators made it impossible for the Obama Administration to maintain a friendly posture. Once again the US-Iranian relations would take one step forward, but two backwards. Commentators expected Ahmadinejad's letter would contain a reconciliatory language. Many of those who took to the streets opposed Ah madinejad's uncompromising stance against the West. Some commentators labeled it "the Obama factor." The protestors wanted better relations with the US, but as it is always the case for the Iranian people, they achieved just the opposite of that. This was not President Obama's mistake, nor the mis take of the demonstrators. The problem was the Iranian election process, which inevitably produced the gridlock. Whether or not the election was rigged, it failed to convince many Iranian electorates that the result was fair.

The biggest mistake of the Obama Administration's handling of the Ira nian nuclear issue was the adoption of intimidation as a tactic to force the Islamic Republic to the negotiation table. The P5+1 -- the permanent mem bers of the UN Security Council and Germany -- devised a new prolifera tion-proof proposal for Iran, giving the country only 2 days to respond. On whatever advice President Obama agreed to adopt the two day notice, this was a categorically bad idea, given Iran's proven hard line in the negotia tion. It was as if President Obama was asking for the proposal to be rejected. Every single move Ahmadinejad had made ever since coming to power had reaffirmed that his government would not budge under pressure, not even under the threat of imminent invasion; in fact, the adrenaline rush would make him even more obstinate. Why would President Obama push so hard, when there was so much evidence that it would make even harder for the proposal to be accepted? Did President Obama really think that Ahmadine jad had suddenly changed, or was the two day notice rather designed to boost Obama's domestic image as a tough president? Whatever consid erations went through the corridors of White House, one thing remained clear: the harder Obama pushed on the issue, the more determined Tehran became in opposing the president, and the more America looked helpless.

Whether or not the real intention behind the nuclear scheme is the de velopment of WMD, the program is the most important national security issue for Iran at the moment -- far greater in significance than, for instance, the healthcare or financial overhaul bill for the United States -- and Presi dent Obama was giving Iran only 2 days to make a decision.

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Hamid Karimianpour is the author of Nation Building or Democracy by Other Means, Algora Publishing, 2011.

Karimianpour studied economics and philosophy at the University of Oslo in Norway. He moved to England, where he obtained an MBA degree (more...)

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