"Iran and Nuclear Diplomacy after the Ultimatum"
Op-Ed, Nezavisimaya Gazeta
September 11, 2006
Author: Steven E. Miller, Director, International Security Program; Editor-in-Chief, International Security; Co-Principal Investigator, Project on Managing the Atom
This op-ed was originally published in Russian. An English translation follows.
If Iran were prepared to abandon its nuclear ambitions, it would long ago have traded away the troubling elements of its nuclear program as a concession in negotiations with the Europeans or succumbed to the various international pressures and threats to which Tehran has been subjected. Instead, Iran's’s position has been constant and its determination to proceed with its full nuclear plans has been unwavering through several years of mounting crisis over its nuclear activities.
It seems very unlikely that any sanctions on which the major powers can agree will be sufficient to change this reality. Neither the perceptions nor the interests of the key actors in the UN Security Council are identical. Indeed, it required months of painstaking diplomacy to forge a vague and minimal consensus among the P-5 about the Iranian nuclear crisis. With Iran’s refusal to cease its enrichment program as demanded by the UN Security Council Resolution, that vague and minimal consensus is being put to the test. It is far from clear that the P-5 will be able to reach agreement on serious sanctions. Some minor or token steps may be possible — travel limitations on Iranian leaders, for example — but sanctions with real bite are likely to be impossible because the varying political and economic interests of the P-5 will preclude agreement.
Furthermore, Iran is not lacking in cards to play in this game. Its enormous reserves of oil and natural gas make it a significant factor in the global fossil fuel market and provide Tehran with its own economic leverage. Iran has an extensive trading relationship with the European Union, a burgeoning energy relationship with China, and a longstanding commercial nuclear relationship with Russia. Billions and tens of billions of dollars are at stake. Beijing, Moscow, and Paris will understand that they cannot significantly hurt Iran without also hurting themselves. All claim to prefer that Iran not obtain nuclear weapons, but it is doubtful whether they will be prepared to take painful, self sacrificial, collective steps when they do not fully share Washington’s wholly malevolent perception of Iran. Under these circumstances, Tehran may calculate that there will not be sufficient solidarity among the key members of the UNSC to mount effective coercive pressure against Iran. Set against the probable weakness of the threatened sanctions is the fact that in Iran’s domestic politics, abandonment of the challenged aspects of the nuclear program would be seen as an intolerable and unforgivable capitulation to Washington’s pressure and manipulations. It is hard to see how this dynamic leads to the termination of major elements of Iran’s nuclear program.
What might alter Iran’s nuclear path? Coercion has so far failed. Perhaps more effective might be a package of inducements that included acceptance of and help for Iran’s ambitious civilian nuclear power program, the relaxation of existing economic sanctions against Iran, and establishment of a dialogue with Tehran on regional security. But such moves are not only incompatible with current American policy but they are inconceivable given the Bush Administration’s perceptions of the Iranian regime. Hence in the current crisis the world may have little choice but to hope that Tehran is speaking the truth when it insists, as it has repeatedly done, that its nuclear program is purely civilian and that it harbors no aspiration to obtain nuclear weapons.
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