The Maze of Iran’s Nuclear Program Continues to Amaze


May 30, 2010

Though frustrating at times, with its twists and turns and surprises, the labyrinth that is Iran’s nuclear program continues to amaze.

On May 17, after tense negotiations with Turkey and Brazil, Iran unexpectedly agreed to deposit more than half of its nuclear fuel in Turkey, pledging to turn over 1,200kg of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) in return for receiving 120kg of 20% highly-enriched uranium (HEU) to produce medical isotopes. The idea is a blessing because it eases international concerns and buys time for further negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

One would expect that the Tehran agreement would let the UNSC – above all, the Americans – to breathe a sigh of relief over the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian deal. The agreement was, after all, originally conceived by the United States in October 2009. Earlier this year, President Obama had asked his Turkish and Brazilian counterparts to use their good offices with Iran. Before May 17, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had stated expressly that the joint Turkish-Brazilian was Iran’s “last chance” and that, unless Iran complied with the international community’s offer, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) would impose new sanctions on Iran.

Yet, instead of welcoming the accord (that would’ve been a pleasant surprise, too), Mrs. Clinton announced that the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany had approved the draft language for a new sanctions resolution against at the UNSC against Iran.

It would’ve been less surprising had Tehran pulled out of the May 17 accord in response to Mrs. Clinton’s announcement. But that’s not what happened. On May 22, the Iranians declared that they will honor their commitments and will soon inform the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding the uranium swap. Two days later, the UN’s nuclear watchdog confirmed receiving Iran’s official notice. 

Did the American threat work? Are the Iranians coming around and becoming more lenient? Would the United States and the international community, to use President Obama’s inaugural speech, extend a hand if Iran unclenches its fist?

The possibilities are not promising. In fact, Iran is becoming more vitriolic toward countries with which it has had good relations. Just two days ago, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lashed out against Russia for kowtowing to the United States and agreeing to the sanctions resolution at the UNSC. The Russian government responded in kind. Truth be told, if things continue this way, it won’t be long before the Security Council imposes new sanctions on Iran, erasing any possibility of a diplomatic solution.

So, how does the world get out of the maze that is Iran’s nuclear program?

A realistic solution to the problem must come from an honest assessment of who’s responsible. With respect to Iran’s nuclear program, both the international community – especially the United States and Israel – and the Iranian government are to blame.

Since the international community found out about the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in 2002, the Iranian government has consistently defended its nuclear program and denied that it was working on “The Bomb.” Iran has pointed out that, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it had a right to a peaceful nuclear program. And, in order to demonstrate its goodwill, Iran suspended uranium enrichment from 2004 to 2006. Failing to reach an agreement, Tehran resumed uranium enrichment in 2006 but defended its nuclear program as peaceful.

Significant gaps exist in Iran’s explanations, nonetheless. For one thing, Iran’s nuclear program could have military uses. In fact, when a new enrichment facility – too small to be of commercial use – was discovered at a military base near Qom recently, even Iran-friendly members of the UNSC (Russia and China in particular) began to turn against the Islamic Republic. (That revelation partially explains how Mrs. Clinton has garnered support for new sanctions.)

Furthermore, coupled with Iran’s burgeoning ballistic missile arsenal, the nuclear program raises many eyebrows. Add to that Ahmadinejad’s unhelpful discourse regarding the Holocaust and Israel’s right to exist, Iran provides the United States and Israel with a lot of rhetorical ammunition. Most of Iran’s troubles are self-inflicted.

Yet the international community’s behavior toward Iran is equally unacceptable. While putting pressure on Iran about its nuclear program, the UNSC does nothing about Israel, Pakistan, and India. These countries have never signed the NPT, have nuclear weapons, and are very close to Iran. As an NPT signatory, Iran certainly must do more to address legitimate concerns regarding its nuclear program. But virtually no nuclear-weapon state under the NPT is interested in abolishing or even reducing its nuclear arsenal (the United States and Russia being the exception) – an integral provision of the NPT. On the contrary, both NPT signatories such as France and non-signatories such as Israel-Pakistan-India do their best to stonewall scrutiny of their nuclear weapons. From the Iranian point of view, these double standards justify an inflexible bargaining posture.

In short, in order to change Iranian behavior, the international community has to change its own behavior as well.

A final word on the nature of the Iranian regime and its possible desire to obtain nuclear weapons: The aftermath of the presidential elections of last summer demonstrated that the Islamic Republic has a significant legitimacy problem vis-à-vis the people of Iran. Some claim that dealing with the current regime – which ignores the democratic wishes of its own people – renders legitimacy to an illegitimate government. And that is a grave moral sin.

But that argument puts the cart before the horse: Making positive gestures to Iran and bringing diplomacy to the forefront would actually weaken the Iranian government’s grip on domestic dissent and force it to become more receptive. The higher echelons of the Iranian government have always successfully curbed domestic opponents with the pretext of foreign trouble. (The Iraqi invasion of 1980, for example, had saved the Islamic Revolution.) As elsewhere, “rally around the flag” is a potent anti-opposition tool in Iran.

If international actors persistently keep their hands open for a handshake, it would be very hard for Tehran to justify its clenched fist. An Iranian state that is under less threat wouldn’t be able to explain its poor domestic performance to its citizens.

An historical analogy is in order: In the 1970s, world leaders such as Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Willy Brandt had faced significant criticism for their overtures to the Communist bloc. But those Communist governments signed the Helsinki Act of 1975, which guaranteed borders as well as basic human rights and liberties in Europe, they began to face significant internal opposition. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, dysfunctional governments in Eastern Europe could no longer use non-existing “foreign enemies” as an excuse to justify their terrible domestic policies to their people. And we know how that story ended.

So, instead of producing another set of sanctions with dubious prospects for success, the international community would do a better job by bringing Iran to the bargaining table. Direct negotiations would be an amazing way to get out of this maze. It would actually defuse the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program and strengthen Iranian reformists; not undermine them.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğ

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One thought on “The Maze of Iran’s Nuclear Program Continues to Amaze

  1. Your final sentence is awesome.
    “So, instead of producing another set of sanctions with dubious prospects for success, the international community would do a better job by bringing Iran to the bargaining table. Direct negotiations would be an amazing way to get out of this maze.”

    Iran can overcome any sort of sanctions.It’s wiser to negociate,and have serious bargaining
    with Iran,would be more beneficial for all sides…

    Thanks,and congrats Barın.It’s valuable,and informatic post…

    Best Wishes,


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