It has been announced that there will be both P5+1 and “Vienna Group” discussions with Iran during November 15-18. Any policymaker working on Iranian nuclear issues, as well as all of us who study them, would benefit enormously from reading the following original article, “Needed: An Iran Policy Adjusted to the Threat”, by Peter Jenkins.
The article develops, in an exceptionally thoughtful way, an argument that we have made for some time—namely that, at this point, there is no plausible diplomatic outcome whereby the Islamic Republic would agree to “surrender” its uranium enrichment program in exchange for some package of economic, technological, and/or strategic “goodies”. It also takes, as a point of departure, an assessment that there is no evidence indicating Iran is seeking to fabricate nuclear weapons, and considerable evidence that/reasons why Tehran will not go down that road.
From these premises, Peter—who has published on www.RaceForIran.com before, see here—explores what it would mean, in strategic terms, for the United States and its regional and international partners to accept the principle and reality of internationally-safeguarded enrichment in Iran as part of a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue. More specifically, what would it mean if the Islamic Republic came increasingly to be perceived as a “threshold nuclear state”?
Peter’s analysis of this question is sober, persuasive, and deserves careful reading and consideration. Among other points, Jenkins notes that the most significant prospective strategic challenges linked to Iran’s emergence as a threshold nuclear state are not military but political in nature, and would be felt not primarily by the United States directly, but rather by America’s Israeli and Arab allies. We very much agree with his suggestion that this is a situation which calls out for alliance management by the United States, rather than hyping the Iranian nuclear threat and pursuing policies that increase the risk of an eventual and unnecessary military confrontation with the Islamic Republic.
Peter Jenkins is a former member of the British diplomatic service who served as the United Kingdom’s Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency from 2001 to 2006. He is currently a partner in ADRg Ambassadors, a dispute resolution company, and an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
www.RaceForIran.com recently reproduced five reasons why Gareth Evans, QC, former foreign minister of Australia, has come to the conclusion, see here, that Iran’s Islamic leaders do not intend to acquire nuclear weapons, in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). To those five reasons, all of which are persuasive, could be added the following:
–Brazil and Turkey decided earlier this year to work for a peaceful resolution of Iran’s nuclear quarrel with the West. It is most unlikely that President Lula and Prime Minister Erdogan would have undertaken such a task if they had had doubts about Iran’s commitment to its NPT obligations. Their involvement can be seen as a sign that these two states—responsible, experienced members of the international community—do not believe that Iran is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons.
–Iran’s leaders have confided to another state—a state that matters to them—that their aim is to acquire a “threshold” or “break-out” capability. It can be inferred that they intend to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons in the absence of the kind of supreme threat envisaged in article X of the NPT.
–Neither the IAEA nor Western agencies have come across any sign of nuclear weapons intent since 2004. With respect to the agencies, this statement needs qualifying. It is possible they have come across something and not revealed it. The odds are against it, though, since some would have seen it as in their interest to leak any evidence of nuclear weapons intent that the agencies had acquired.
If Iran intends to be content with a threshold capability and to respect its NPT obligations, should its nuclear activities still be seen by other states as threatening their security? In what sense are these activities still a threat to others? Is there a case for revisiting the threat assessment that has underpinned the whole Western approach to “Iran Nuclear” over the last decade?
It is not obvious that a threshold-capable Iran does or would pose a military threat to its neighbours or other states. There are already a number of threshold-capable states in the world; their threshold status is not seen as a security threat by their neighbours or the international community. Conventional wisdom has it that it is the possession of weapons by an adversary that constitutes a threat, not the capacity to produce weapons, since production can take time and it may prove possible for the potential target to disrupt production in the early course of hostilities.
In Iran’s case, even the possession of nuclear weapons would not be an unqualified military threat since their use by Iran would risk cataclysmic retaliation from one of the nuclear-weapon states or from a nuclear-armed state. The Iranian government possesses a relatively sophisticated, bureaucratic decision-making capability, quite capable of understanding the relevant calculus. Incendiary statements by individual Iranians can be misleading.
It seems to follow that, contrary to prevailing belief in the West, the primary threat is not military but political in nature. Some of Iran’s Arab neighbours are loath to see Iran acquire the prestige and status that are conventionally accorded to nuclear weapon states, and, to a lesser extent, to threshold states. Both Arab neighbours and Israel fear that a threshold capability will enhance Iranian self-confidence and encourage Iran to intervene still more in regional politics.
These Arab and Israeli perceptions have security implications for the West. It is logical for Western analysts to fear that rivalry with Iran may resolve some of Iran’s Arab neighbours to acquire matching nuclear capabilities—which could lead eventually to a proliferation of nuclear weapons in South West Asia, jeopardising the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and raising issues for Western energy security. Another risk is that Israel may seek to disrupt Iran’s enrichment and plutonium production programmes by attacking Iran; Iranian reactions could entail prolonged interruption of Gulf oil supplies and terrorist attacks on Western targets.
But for the West these risks are indirect. They can be averted by changing Arab and Israeli perceptions.
This is the problem into which the original Iranian nuclear proliferation threat has mutated. The question is: can Arabs and Israelis, and their Western friends, be brought to look upon Iran’s nuclear capabilities as a development to which responses other than halting enrichment in Iran are available?
Logic suggests that the possession of a nuclear threshold capability ought to be seen as bringing only a modest enhancement of Iran’s status in South West Asia. A threshold capability may be of defensive value to Iran, but it will not strengthen Iran’s ability to impose its will on its neighbours. It certainly will not transform Iran into a regional “hegemon” as some like to claim. North Korea, which has gone at least one step further than Iran, and has cobbled together primitive nuclear devices, has not become a regional hegemon; far from it.
And Iran’s nuclear programme is only one element in a broadly based movement towards recovery of the regional status that Iran has enjoyed for much of the past 2600 years. Iran is treading a similar path to other Asian civilisations that have emerged or are emerging from periods of eclipse. Japan, China, India and Turkey come to mind. There is a historical inevitability about this movement. Neighbours must find ways of adjusting to it that are consistent with international law, as Turkey appears to have understood. Halting uranium enrichment in Iran will not stem the tide.
Easier to accept is the assertion that acquiring a threshold capability will influence Iranian self-confidence. It is indeed likely to do so. Iran’s leaders will see themselves as having taken a step towards restoring Iran to the ranks of Asia’s more powerful civilisations. They will also feel more secure, having made enforced regime change in Iran, or invasion of Iranian territory, more risky for Iran’s adversaries.
What, though, can be the implications of enhanced self-confidence?
Is the Islamic regime likely to embark on the conquest of neighbouring territory? No, they lack the conventional military strength to do so, and have given no sign of entertaining revanchist fantasies about recovering past possessions (though as recently as 1800 Persia occupied large parts of the Caucasus, Central Asia and Afghanistan). In any case, the Arab states of the Gulf, collectively and, in at least one case, individually, are far stronger conventionally than Iran and would have no difficulty in obtaining reinforcements from the West, if one day a conventional Iranian threat to any of their territories or to Iraq were to materialise.
Is enhanced self-confidence likely to encourage the Islamic regime to maintain support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and to continue supplying arms and explosives to US enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan? Yes, very likely. But these are threats that are familiar to Israelis, Egyptians, Arabs and the Western powers. They can be countered by conventional means. Coercing Iran to abandon enrichment or crippling Iran’s nuclear capabilities for a few years through a military strike would not eliminate these threats. Indeed, though a strike might temporarily deprive Iranian leaders of grounds for enhanced self-confidence, it would supply other motives for the Islamic regime to pursue this kind of low intensity conflict through proxies.
Conversely, Iranian proxy attacks on US forces in Afghanistan might well cease if the US were to come to terms with Iran’s possession of a threshold capability. Iran played a constructive role there until it began to fear that the US was going to use some of Iran’s nuclear activities as a pretext for aggression.
Is enhanced self-confidence likely to encourage the Islamic regime to continue meddling in Lebanese and Iraqi politics and in the Middle East Peace Process? Again, yes. But these interventions are also susceptible to conventional responses. Depriving Iran of a nuclear threshold capability would make no difference.
In short, halting enrichment in Iran by persuasion, coercion or the use of force could lower the risk of a threshold-capable Iran becoming an even more troublesome neighbour (for those who are unwilling to follow Turkey’s example and to pursue rapprochement and détente). But it may not have that effect, and other more practical solutions to the non-nuclear problems posed by Iran are at hand.
To conclude: Events have moved on since IAEA inspectors were first shown the fledgling enrichment plant at Natanz in February 2003, and told of plans for a plutonium-producing research reactor at Arak. The balance of probability has shifted. The assumptions on which Western policy was first based now look unlikely.
It made sense in 2003 to give priority to denying Iran nuclear weapons. Now that most of the evidence points to Iran having opted for self-denial, a new policy is needed, a policy that gives priority to allaying Israeli and Arab fears that a threshold capability will enhance Iran’s regional status and self-confidence.