Can Iran be Trusted (Yes, but…)

Like any other country, Iran can be trusted: to pursue its own interests, but no further. So the euphoria regarding the recent multi-nation agreement on Iran’s nuclear program should be stepped down. Many of the provisions seem to rely on Iran’s voluntary willingness to do things that are NOT in its own interest. That is not a good basis for an agreement.

Let us start with Iran’s interests. They definitely want improved relations with the West that will remove both sanctions and the threat of military action. They also insist on their right (valid under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. All that is fine.

However, Iran is also interested in having the capability of matching Israel and acquiring the status of a ‘nuclear power.’ That is what Israel and the West finds unacceptable.

Is there a way to square the circle? Yes, if the agreement does not go too far. What Israel wants is a complete dismantling of all of Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium. That will prevent it from getting a nuclear capability; but it is also something that Iran will never accept, period. But as an intermediate measure, one can ask that Iran never enrich beyond the 3-5% level needed to peacefully generate nuclear power. Iran will counter that it needs at least a small amount of 20% enriched uranium to produce medical isotopes and has a right to this level of enrichment. The problem is that it is fairly easy and quick to go from 20% to the 99% enrichment needed for nuclear weapons if Iran maintains a large stock of working centrifuges.

So here is where the game begins. Iran wants to keep at least the capacity to move toward nuclear weapons capacity if it ever decides its national security requires it. Israel and the West want to deny Iran that capacity. There is no real way to meet both objectives.

So the only viable approach is one based on inspections. What Iran can be required to do is (1) eliminate nearly all of its 20% enriched uranium and leave what remains under tight international inspection so that it can be tracked and immediately detected if it moves any of this stockpile for further enrichment; (2) put most of its centrifuges in mothballs under international inspection so that the world would know immediately if any additional enrichment were undertaken; (3) leave Iran the capacity to enrich uranium to 3% in small batches only. (4) If Iran completes its planned heavy-water reactor that would also produce plutonium, that too must be under international inspection to make sure no plutonium is removed from the reactor except for disposal under international supervision.

IF, yes IF, Iran complied with all of these restrictions, then it would be impossible for Iran to produce nuclear weapons without expelling inspectors and putting the world on notice that it planned to pursue a nuclear weapons capacity. At that point, a military response could be planned if deemed necessary.

In return for complying with these restrictions, Iran would have its economic sanctions lifted. Iran would still retain the ability to enrich uranium, as is its right, and would still have the ability to go back to the status quo ante by expelling the inspectors, further enriching its uranium stockpiles, and facing in return sanctions and military threats.

So should Iran accept this deal and comply? Yes they should, because it puts off the threat of military attack, promises to lift the crippling sanctions, and in return Iran only gives up the ability to pursue high enrichment and weapons capacity until it decides it might be necessary to take the risks of returning to doing so.

Should the West accept this deal and lift sanctions? That depends entirely on whether they think Iran will act in good faith. IF Iran will accept and comply with the inspection regime, then it is a good deal. Among other things, the cooperation builds trust. And since Iran is no longer threatened by a hostile US-supported regime in Iraq, and will soon have the US out of Afghanistan as well, Iran may feel less anxious and less in need of having a nuclear option to defend itself against US hostile actions. At the same time, if the international inspections are effective, they will let Israel rest easy as Iran will not be capable of moving toward a nuclear weapons capacity without the advance notice of expelling the inspectors. So tensions may be reduced on both sides.

The real problem is whether Iran will really comply. After all, it does no good whatsoever if Iran admits inspectors, mothballs most of its known centrifuges, but then operates a secret facility where it continues to enrich uranium and stores high-enriched uranium for rapid deployment in a future nuclear weapon. So everything depends on whether the inspection regime is really complete, thorough, and voluntarily complied with by Iran.

In that sense, the initial agreement reached makes sense, in that the West is only agreeing to lift a few sanctions for six months, to test Iran’s willingness to comply. That way, if the West feels Iran is not being open, we go back to the status quo ante. But if the West thinks Iran is complying, the inspections and sanctions lifting can both be increased, step-by-step until all sanctions are lifted and a pervasive and rigorous inspection regime is in place.

Still, if Iran is determined to hide and cheat, it would be hard to stop them, as Iran is a big country with mountains and diverse hiding places. Inspectors would have to be free to go anywhere, anytime, with any equipment, using satellite monitoring to track any suspicious movements of trucks or equipment and being free to descend on any site with complete access. How willing Iran is to submit to this kind of somewhat humiliating inspection should determine how far the West goes in lifting sanctions.

So far, the signs are not good. Iran is already insisting on a somewhat different reading of the agreement than is the US, which sees it as having stronger wording on Iran’s complete cessation of enrichment.

Still, the value to Iran of ending sanctions and improving relations is so great, it is probably worth continuing to wrangle and press for progress on these agreements. The alternative is a war that no one really wants (except perhaps Israel), and which could have unforeseen consequences.

So what one really has to hope for is that Iran’s interest in removing sanctions and having better relations with other nations becomes stronger over time, eventually much stronger than its perceived need to have a nuclear weapons capacity. When that happens, it may be possible to trust Iran’s own interests to enforce its compliance with strict agreements. But until then, while Iran’s true interests remain in doubt, it is best to take small steps, expect little, but vigorously pursue the most rigorous inspections and clearest mutual understanding of what is expected, in the hope that limiting and slowing Iran’s progress toward nuclear capacity IS attainable.

The Obama administration’s problems so far have often come from promising much but delivering little. Yet when acting decisively and seeking results without promises — as in the strike against Osama bin Laden — Obama has had great success. In dealing with Iran, the right approach is certainly not to promise much. But if the West sticks to seeking results and being determined, eventually they may achieve the outcome they seek.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
This entry was posted in The Middle East Revolts, U.S. Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Can Iran be Trusted (Yes, but…)

  1. However, Iran is also interested in having the capability of matching Israel and acquiring the status of a ‘nuclear power.’ That is what Israel and the West finds unacceptable.

    I will agree with all your comment, Professor Goldstone, except this point – it seems to me that your wording of Iranian position is not entirely accurate. “Iran’s nuclear program must pursue exclusively peaceful purposes. I declare here, openly and unambiguously, that, notwithstanding the positions of others, this has been, and will always be, the objective of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nuclear weapon have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions” – this is the oficial position of Teheran, articulated in President Hassan Rohani’s address to the UNGA. And it is wholly acceptable both to Israel and the West but … they just wouldn`t believe it. “Three decades ago, President Ronald Reagan famously advised, “trust but verify.” When it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, here’s my advice: Distrust, dismantle and verify. We all want to give diplomacy with Iran a chance to succeed, but when it comes to Iran, the greater the pressure, the greater the chance” – retorted on UNGA prime minister of Israel Benjamen Netanyahu. As a matter of fact this formula is rather irrational because gives diplomacy no chance to succeeed. But I wouldn`t analise the whole ‘hostility complex” of Mr Netanyahu – “to square the circle” I will take on one of his main arguments.

    Mr Netanyahu is wrong when he says that only press of sanctions brought Teheran to a table and so when it comes to Iran, “the greater the pressure, the greater the chance” – the whole history of iranian nuclear program shows the opposite. Indeed when Khomeini came to power he immediately and without any outside pressing issued a fetwa where declared nuclear weapons as un-islamic and closed the nuclear program; it was started anew only in 2002 under ajatolla Khamenei when Iran was caught secretly building an underground centrifuge facility in Natanz. It isn`t difficult to guess why – overthrowing Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Washington in January 2002 outlawed Iran as a member of “axis of evil”. And the next US intervention in Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime has led to sharp intensification of iranian nuclear efforts under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So if in 2003 IAEA inspectors counted in Natanz only 160 centrifuges, now there are installed around 7,000 centrifuges. More than that – in all during a decade Iran has installed at its new underground facilities about 19 thousand centrifuges. And this expansion was occurring in spite of all the threats and sanctions the Administration of George W. Bush was heaping on Teheran. So it isn`t difficult to see that ajatolla Khomeini never even thought to use nuclear weapon for Israel` destruction while the emergence of ajatolla Khamenei`s nuclear program is due primarily to the fear of american agression. And so my answer to your question is yes, it seems to me than Iran can be trusted, but Washington should remember that dealing with his nuclear program you should turn around Al Capone formula – here you can get much farther with a kind word alone than with kind word and a gun.

    • I wholly agree that diplomacy is the best and most rewarding option to work through issues with Iran, difficult as it may sometimes be. I also agree that Iran has publicly stated that nuclear weapons have no place in its security doctrine, and I believe that Iran would prefer never to have to assemble and test a nuclear weapon. However, Iran’s former President has publicly called for the ending of Israel as a sovereign state, and Israel itself has never publicly admitted it has nuclear weapons or that they are part of its security doctrine. So the public statements need to be weighed as a whole. That means we have to make judgments; in my judgment many of Iran’s leaders feel vulnerable, and see the U.S. and Israel as irredeemably hostile to them. They would like to have the capacity, if they thought it necessary, to shift strategy and assemble a nuclear weapon for self-preservation, quickly and at a time of their choosing. This has to be factored in when negotiating with Iran. That said, I think Rouhani offers real hope for change, and if his supporters can carry the day in an Iranian regime that is divided in complicated ways, then I do think an agreement can hold.

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