The most recent round of nuclear talks between the P5+1 were, by any meaningful measure, a failure. Even as she sought to put the best face possible on the non-outcome in Almaty, Kazakhstan last month, European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton had to acknowledge that western members of the P5+1 and Iran “remain far apart on substance.”
Western officials blame the failure either on the Islamic Republic’s upcoming presidential election or on that old fallback, Iranian “intransigence.” In reality, talks failed because America and its western partners remain unwilling to recognise Iran’s right to enrich uranium under international safeguards.
U.S. strategic culture
As a sovereign state, Iran is entitled to enrich, if it chooses; as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it is entitled to do so under safeguards. The NPT explicitly recognises signatories’ “inalienable right” to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. That this inalienable right includes the right to enrich is clear from the NPT itself, its negotiating history, and decades of state practice, with at least a dozen non-weapons state parties having developed safeguarded fuel-cycle infrastructures potentially able to support weapons programmes.
If Washington recognised Iran’s right to enrich, a nuclear deal with Tehran could be reached in a matter of weeks. As long as Washington refuses to acknowledge Tehran’s nuclear rights, no substantial agreement will be possible.
Yet the Obama administration is no closer than its processor to accepting safeguarded enrichment in Iran. This is partly due to pressure from various allies — Israel, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France — and their American supporters, who expect Washington somehow to defy legal principle along with political reality and compel Tehran to surrender its indigenous fuel-cycle capabilities.
But the real reason for U.S. obstinacy is that recognising Iran’s nuclear rights would mean accepting the Islamic Republic as a legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests. No American administration since the Iranian Revolution — not even that of Barack Hussein Obama — has been willing to do this.
Washington’s unwillingness is grounded in some unattractive, but fundamental, aspects of American strategic culture: difficulty in coming to terms with independent power centres (whether globally or in vital regions like the Middle East); hostility to non-liberal states, unless they subordinate their foreign policies to U.S. preferences (as Egypt did under Sadat and Mubarak); and an unreflective but deeply rooted sense that U.S.-backed norms, legal rules, and transnational decision-making processes are meant to constrain others, not America itself.
Because these attitudes are so fundamental, it is unlikely that Obama will invest the political capital required to bring America’s Iran policy in line with strategic reality before his presidency ends. And so the controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities will grind on.
The world has experienced such diplomatic stasis before. In 2003-2005, Britain, France, and Germany worked (ostensibly) to prepare a nuclear settlement with Tehran; Iran suspended enrichment for nearly two years to encourage diplomatic progress. The initiative failed because the George W. Bush administration refused to join the talks unless Tehran was willing to abandon pursuit of indigenous fuel-cycle capabilities.
In 2009-2010, efforts to negotiate the exchange of most of Iran’s then-stockpile of enriched uranium for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor collapsed for similar reasons. In the May 2010 Tehran Declaration brokered by Brazil and Turkey, Iran accepted all of Washington’s terms for a fuel swap, yet the Obama administration rejected the Declaration because it openly recognised Iran’s right to enrich. Three years later, the administration is once again undermining chances for diplomatic success with its inflexibility regarding Iran’s nuclear rights.
The world has also seen what happens when America and its European partners demonstrate such bad faith in nuclear diplomacy with Tehran — Iran expands its nuclear infrastructure and capabilities. When Iran broke its nearly two-year suspension of enrichment in 2005, it could run less than a thousand centrifuges; today, it has installed 12,000 centrifuges, more than 9,000 of which process uranium gas to produce enriched uranium. In February 2010, Iran began enriching uranium to the near-20 per cent level needed to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) after the U.S. and its partners refused to sell the fuel; Iran consistently offered to suspend near-20 per cent enrichment if it could obtain an adequate fuel supply for the TRR. After the Obama administration torpedoed the Tehran Declaration, Iran accelerated its production of near-20 per cent uranium and began indigenously manufacturing fuel plates for the TRR.
With America and its European partners once again blowing an opening to accept Tehran’s nuclear rights and close a nuclear deal, we are likely to see another surge of expansion in Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Certainly, Iran will continue enriching, at the three to four per cent level needed for power reactors and at the near-20 per cent level needed for the TRR, and installing more efficient second-generation centrifuges. Iran also appears to be on track to commission a heavy water reactor at Arak next year.
Although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) consistently certifies that no nuclear materials have been diverted from Iran’s safeguarded nuclear facilities, all of these steps will be cited by Israel, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, and other constituencies in the U.S. hankering for military action as evidence that time for diplomacy with Tehran has run out. Additionally, it is possible that the Islamic Republic will find legitimate reasons to begin enriching above the 20 per cent level. While such higher-level enrichment would be done under IAEA safeguards, this would also be interpreted in the U.S. and Israel as provocative Iranian “escalation.”
Pressure on Obama
Obama would prefer to avoid another U.S.-initiated war in the Middle East. But his unwillingness to revive America’s deteriorating regional position through serious nuclear diplomacy with Tehran will increase pressure on him to order U.S. military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities before the end of his presidency.
Rather than openly abandon the delusion of U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, Obama will try to placate more hawkish elements by escalating America’s ongoing “dirty war” against the Islamic Republic — including economic warfare against civilians, threatening secondary sanctions against third countries in violation of U.S. WTO commitments, cyber-attacks, and support for groups doing things inside Iran that Washington elsewhere condemns as “terrorism,” stoking sectarian tensions, and fuelling further violence in Syria to prevent Tehran from “winning” there. But that, too, will only further destabilise the Middle East and bring American and Iran ever closer to the brink of overt confrontation.
(Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett are authors of Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, New York: Metropolitan, 2013 . They teach international relations, he at Penn State, she at American University.)
By once again blowing the chance to close a nuclear deal with Iran, the U.S. and its western partners have set themselves up for escalating the conflict with the Islamic republic