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Opinion: Iran is working its way into a nuclear tangle | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wait for the start of talks in Vienna May 14, 2014. (REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger)

If all goes according to plan, the Islamic Republic of Iran is expected to announce another interim accord regarding its nuclear program. Though marketed with much noise, the first “agreement” unveiled in Geneva was not signed and thus could not be regarded as binding. It was downgraded to “a joint action plan,” rather than an international treaty; in other words, it was no more than a list of promises.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has pinned the hopes of his term on the success of negotiations with the so-called P5+1 group led by the United States. He seems to believe that an accord on the nuclear issue would cut the Gordian knot of Iran’s relations with the outside world. And that, in a sense, is the first error in his strategy.

Iran’s sour relations with the major powers, including Russia—which has recently acted as a tactical ally of the Khomeinist regime—is not caused by concern about Iran’s real or imagined intention to build a bomb. The major powers regarded the Khomeinist regime with suspicion from the start. Before the mullahs seized power, leaders of all the major powers made a point of visiting Iran. Among the visitors in the 1970s were two US presidents, two presidents of the Soviet Union, three German chancellors, a French president, two British prime ministers and a Chinese president. With the mullahs in charge, those visits dried up long before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed that Tehran had a clandestine nuclear program with possible military dimensions.

Thus, even if the nuclear issue is fudged up, which it cannot be, there is no guarantee that the big powers will alter their hostile stance. In fact, a case could be made for an alternative strategy under which Iran addresses other concerns of the major powers before bringing the nuclear issue to the table.
If those powers regard Iran as trustworthy on other issues, there is no reason why they should suspect its intentions regarding the nuclear dossier. After all, Iran had an ambitious nuclear program before the mullahs, and nobody protested. In fact, the P5+1 countries competed to get a share in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Rouhani’s second error is to consider the nuclear negotiations as a means of silencing opposition: “We consider these [talks] as a step towards disarming our opponents,” he said last Sunday. Students of politics would know that it is a mistake to do something in the hope of serving an unrelated purpose.

The third error in Rouhani’s strategy is that he is in a hurry to achieve something. He may end up making an already tangled web even more complicated. He keeps repeating that Iran will not “retreat one step in the field of nuclear research.” However, the dispute is not about research. Anybody could do research, even on the Internet. What is important is what one does with research: development. You have to test the hypotheses formed by research. And that means doing different things than what you were doing before. In other words, you need a broad-based nuclear industry to do meaningful research.

The agreement that Rouhani’s team has been instructed to negotiate would mean the decline and eventual end of the industrial base of the Iranian nuclear program. The average life of technologies in the modern world is between four and five years—thus it would be enough for Iran to have four or five years of research without industrial development for it to be scripted out of meaningful nuclear capacity, peaceful or not.

Rouhani’s next error is that he rejects the position of “the other side” and then immediately adopts it as the central core of the negotiations. He accuses the P5+1 of “falsehood” in asserting that Iran is pursuing a military project. And then he asserts that his aim is to “address those concerns.”
But how does one prove a negative? Here, Rouhani has fallen into a trap of his own making. Instead of asking “the other side” to back its concerns with evidence, he has agreed to remove those “unjustified” concerns by offering concessions in other fields. In such a scheme the P5+1 are granted the last word.

Initially, the P5+1 claimed they wanted to prevent Iran from reaching the “threshold” level of nuclear development after which making a bomb becomes possible. However, there is nothing to prevent the P5+1 claiming that Iran is moving towards “the threshold” at any given time. Whenever they like, the P5+1 could claim that Iran has not fulfilled its side of the bargain.

In the meantime, the P5+1 group gets the right to tell Iran how to spend a part of its own oil income in a scheme that resembles the “oil-for-food” project imposed on Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Under the scheme, even the companies allowed to trade with Iran as part of a program for easing sanctions is determined by the P5+1, rather than the Islamic Republic.

Initially, Iran had a technical–legal dispute with the IAEA. The ineptitude of leaders in Tehran transformed that dispute into a diplomatic one involving the UN. The Security Council has passed six resolutions demanding that Iran take a number of precisely define actions. It would have been more in Iran’s interest to meet the IAEA’s demand or, having not done so, to comply with the resolutions. Instead, Iran is now caught in a procedure unprecedented in international diplomacy. The European Union, at the request of the UN Secretary-General, is to negotiate the implementation of Security Council resolutions with Iran.

To complicate matters further, Russia and China, two veto-holding members of the Security Council, have been added to the dramatis personae. However, the negotiations are not about the resolutions. They have been put on a different trajectory, aimed at putting a chunk of Iran’s industrial and security strategies under foreign tutelage.

At present, any of the 192 member states of the United Nations have the right to build a nuclear industry with a “threshold” capacity. Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory, it should not cross that threshold. However, the current negotiations are not about “crossing the threshold but approaching it. Thus Iran would be the first country in the world, and the first signatory of the NPT, to have less freedom in the field of research, development and industry than all others.