Sunday, February 19, 2006

Iran's Nuclear Gamble: Boldness vs. Prudence

[First Draft, February 7, 2006]

Iran’s Nuclear Gamble
Boldness vs. Prudence

Ali-Asghar Kazemi

Keywords: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran's nuclear crisis, crisis management, U.N. Security Council.

The IAEA Board of Governors finally adopted a resolution on February 4, 2006 to report the long awaited Iran’s nuclear activities to the U.N. Security Council.[1] The resolution urged Iran to extend "indispensable and overdue" co-operation to the IAEA and help it "clarify possible activities which could have a military dimension". But it decided to put off any action until the report of the agency’s Director General is submitted at the next IAEA meeting on 6 March.[2]
Immediately after the adoption of the resolution, Iran announced that it would resume all voluntary suspended operations on uranium enrichment. This rather intransigent attitude vis-à-vis the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA may leave the impression that the Islamic government is a bold actor in the international scene, seeking to challenge the rule of the game in world politics. However, this behavior may only please those who have no notion of history and prevailing norms and rules in the fuzzy and chaotic realm of international relations. Many crises in the past dragged nations into hostilities and bloody conflicts[3], because lack of vision of political leaders overwhelmed by their ideological obsessions, religious beliefs or by mere illusion of power. What are the plausible consequences of the impending crisis? Who should be blamed for crisis escalation? How it should be managed? How a confrontation should be avoided?

How to Spell Boldness in Politics?

Boldness may be considered as a virtue in individual performance and in areas such as risk-taking and entrepreneurship. When the risk of an action or decision only has a limited impact upon one’s interest or yield, bold choices may be a value. But in a wider perspective, when it comes to the problem of a nation and its overall interests with large scale and enduring impact upon domestic and world order, then the same virtue becomes a vice to be avoided like pest.
As stated elsewhere[4], for a number of reasons, Iranian leadership has been very uncompromising on the matter of “perpetual cessation” or “indefinite suspension” of uranium enrichment operation. They had always claimed that they may only temporarily suspend their nuclear activities on a voluntary basis, as a measure of confidence building. Now that a consensus has been reached on February 4, 2006 in the IAEA to report the case to the UN Security Council, as threatened before, Iran has decided to undertake the risk of a bold maneuver to resume all suspended activities, based on a domestic law passed by the parliament to that effect.
However, with the recent charges against Iran regarding some dubious activities and “Update Brief by the Deputy Director General for Safeguards on 31 January 2006”, [5] it appears that Iran has a weak hand in the game. Perhaps, it would not be a remote assumption that due to some misunderstanding and lack of confidence, Iran’s provocative and bold behavior would escalate to a full scale crisis susceptible to lead ultimately to extremely dangerous situations which could jeopardize Iran’s national interests.[6]

Prudence Should Prevail

On the basis of the above, it seems rational that boldness should be spelled differently in political realm than in individual interaction. We may even suggest that boldness should mean prudence which is itself based on tactfulness in interaction among nations. The argument here is that prudence and perception of vulnerability may push Iran to move away from the rhetoric of the inexperienced new conservative government and opt for a more cautious, compromising and cooperative stance.[7]
As a matter of fact, despite the initial harsh criticism by the Islamic government officials, two days after the adoption of the resolution by the IAEA, they started to soften their position by sending compromising signals[8]. There are a number of reasons for which the course of action may not necessarily lead to a full scale confrontation.[9]
First of all, there are many indications that the overall political system in Iran is not ready to engage in an adventurous and risky situations in which the very existence of the Islamic regime might be geopardized. Of course, there may be some elements inside the political apparatus that would eventually anticipate some benefits in a limited confrontation with an outside power. But, given that the new conservative government lacks the necessary experience and capacity to deal with uncertain issues, most probably they would abstain to test their chances in such a hazardous issue as nuclear matter.
Secondly, it does not seem that the government and especially those in charge of the nuclear project and the related negotiations have been able to convince the public at large and less the educated people on the rationale of the nuclear project, even for peaceful purposes. Therefore, the nation as a whole seems not prepared to accept and wholeheartedly support another hostility and military engagement or to endure severe economic sanctions and limitation.[10]
In other words, the general public really does not consider the issue to be a vital national interest touching the daily life of the people. Moreover, expectations of those who voted for the new conservative government are quite different and they would not go along with policies that would push them even further down the bottom of poverty line.
Therefore, bold action and behavior is no remedy to the current nuclear crisis and the chances that prudence and rationality will prevail are very high.

How to Manage Crisis Consequences?

First of all, from a legal point of view, Iran’s line of reasoning about its inalienable right to nuclear energy under the NPT may be convincing and no flagrant breach of contractual obligations has yet been reported that necessitate the referral of the nuclear case to the U. N. Security Council. But, the argument fails to appreciate the fact that unfortunately Iran has already lost the confidence of the world community ever since it’s past 18 years secret nuclear activities were revealed by political opponents.

On practical grounds, Iranian leaders do not seem to worry much about an eventual embargo or economic sanctions, though this surely will cause lots of trouble and inconvenience to the overall nation. But, those who eventually wish that the people would revolt against the Islamic regime in case of an economic blockade should remember that ever since the revolution, this country has been subject to all kinds of sanctions both during the war and after, and no such thing has ever happened. On the contrary, Iranians have shown that they have a tendency to consolidate during the hard times.

Other implications of a resolution against Iran, relate to an eventual unilateral decision of this country to withdraw from the NPT altogether, which is the right of every member state in conformity with the provisions of the treaty. In such circumstances the IAEA will be devoid of legal standing to continue its supervision on Iran’s nuclear activities.
Bearing in mind that the most vital objective for the Islamic regime in Iran is its very survival, and to that end it seems ready to sacrifice many things, it would not be an unrealistic postulation that in case of its withdrawal from the NPT, the regime might feel a free hand to contemplate developing its own deterrent nuclear force, somewhere along the line with South Korea. In such circumstances the West, including the United States and all those who fear Iran’s nuclear activities, would be in a much worsen situation.
With respect to an eventual preemptive strikes either on Iran’s nuclear facilities or oil installations on land or offshore, directly by the United States or through Israel, there is little chances that these operations might produce the expected outcome. This may only produce contradictory results: either awakens Iranian nationalism by consolidating people against foreign invasion, or giving the upper hand to the Islamic regime to further expand its domestic grip. [11]

How to avoid Confrontation?

This whole gloomy landscape may leads to the conclusion that even if the West and other contenders fail to obtain some sort of UN Security Council resolution on the nuclear issue, because of Russian or Chinese vetoes, the Americans or their allies in the region, will not hesitate to use other hostile measures, including military option as a preventive self-defense, by direct strategic targeting on Iran’s nuclear sites. In such case, there seem to be little chances that the international community as a whole and even the presumed friends of Iran may object or take any action against or condemn such eventual attack.
However, we should not forget that the squabble between Iran and the United States is deep rooted and goes back to hostage case after the revolution. Therefore, it is safe to suggest that the American decision makers shall think twice before engaging in any actions that would threaten Iran’s survival or undermine its regional interests.

In an earlier paper I argued that for a number of reasons the new conservatives in Iran are not ready to engage in a real hostile confrontation, which might put the survival of the Islamic regime at risk[12]. This means that when the overall existence of the system is at stake, the chance to see a drastic change in Iran’s position are high and we may expect pragmatism to prevail.

An optimistic assessment of the present situation, and considering the new conservative cautious attitude, which I tried to describe here and elsewhere, leads to the conclusions that chances for the new government in Iran to avoid a confrontation on nuclear issue are high, provided that Iran is not totally barred from pursuing its declared peaceful use of nuclear technology in a faithful and transparent manner. The face saving aspect of an eventual solution is also an important dimension of the crisis management.
The proposed scheme by the IAEA Director General, who has suggested a cooling period of about 10 years during which Iran would freeze all nuclear enrichment, seems a rather immature plan in order to avoid confrontation between Iran and the nuclear contenders. It is not quite sure whether he has coordinated the matter with other interested parties.

Now that the nuclear case is going to be considered by the U.N Security Council, the best option is to review the case under Chapter VI of the Charter. This will give a chance to all interested parties to further seek peaceful solution to the situation and avoid a harsh decision that could destabilize the whole region and the world. In other word, the West should endeavor to engage in a fair non-zero-sum game with a positive outcome in which neither side feels defeated.



[1] The vote had been expected on Friday February 3, 2006, but was delayed by an attempt by NAM (developing countries of the Non-Aligned Movement) to soften the resolution, which was rejected by EU3 (Germany, France and the UK,) who had drafted it. Egypt made a proposal to include a reference to making the Middle East a nuclear weapon free zone. This was rejected by the US, which saw it as an attack on Israel's nuclear arsenal. But it was finally accepted the clause after it received overwhelming backing from European allies. BBC NEWS World Middle East Iran reported to Security Council.htm
[2] Russia and China agreed to support the resolution on condition it did not contain any immediate threat of sanctions against Iran. Only Venezuela, Cuba and Syria voted against it. India voted in favor of the motion in spite of the government coming under intense domestic pressure to stand by Iran. US ambassador to the IAEA Gregory Schulte said the vote sent a "very powerful signal" and the ball was now in Iran's court. He further said. "Iran, rather than threatening the world, should listen to the world and take steps to regain its confidence."

[3] Saddam Hussein is one recent example of this genre who by his foolish defiance against world public opinion and international community dragged Iraq and its people into pointless chaos and bloodshed.
[4] See my previous papers, especially : Iran-U.S. Nuclear Wrangle: The crisis of Credibility, Middle East Academic Forum
[5] The latest accusation against Iran from IAEA sources is that it possesses a document that shows how to mould highly enriched uranium into a nuclear warhead. Iran has shown this to the IAEA. The US and its allies contend that the document indicates Iran's interest in nuclear weapons but Iran counters that it was simply given the document, unasked for, by the renegade Pakistani nuclear scientist A Q Khan, from whom Iraq once secretly acquired enrichment technology. BBC NEWS World Middle East Iran stand-off moves to new level.htm

[6] There are a number of obstacles which could hinder serious actions against Iran at this stage:
First and foremost of these impediments relates to legal matters regarding the submission of a case before the Security Council. As we know one of the functions of the Council is “to determine whether the continuance of a dispute or situation is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security.” Furthermore, for acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, in order to pass an effective resolution under articles 41(economic sanctions) or 42 (military intervention), the Council shall determine the existence of a threat to peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression. At this stage, the Security Council may prefer to act under chapter VI the Charter by referring to Article 37 and a situation the continuance of which might endanger international peace and security and invite parties to the dispute to seek solution by negotiations …or other peaceful means…
[7] In an earlier paper I had argued that the overall propensity of the high official’s decision makers to conflict and confrontation is very low, especially when it comes to the matter of survival of the Islamic regime. See e.g.: Iran’s New President and the Nuclear Issue, August 2005,
[8] While Iranian officials first claimed that diplomacy has failed and Iran will no longer pursuit Russian proposal for joint venture, Iranian chief negotiator later admitted that they will continue to talk and cooperate in finding solution to the crisis.
[9] I have taken this portion from my earlier paper: Ali-Asghar Kazemi, Iran: The Price of Going Nuclear, October 2005 Middle East Academic Forum

[10] It is necessary to note that despite some sporadic state-organized rallies in support of the nuclear project, there no scientific findings as to the overall public opinion with respect to that matter in Iran.
[11] Iran has claimed in several occasions that if it perceives a real threat in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere in its land territory, it has the capacity to make the whole region insecure. In fact, Iran has already shown in other occasions, (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine) that it is capable to frustrate U.S. strategy or actions throughout the region.

[12] See: “Heading for a Clash! Iran-US New Conservatives’ Line-up Over the Nuclear Issue,” Prepared for: The Regional Security Conference UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, 9-12 September 2004

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