Vol. 13, No. 9 1 May 2013
- Iran already has the necessary technological capability to produce at least one nuclear bomb. Iran is actually a short way from the red line, and crossing it is a matter of deciding. Under current geostrategic conditions, it does not appear that Iran intends to give up its nuclear activity; instead, it is waiting for the right moment to “break out.”
- Iran is positioning itself as a leading regional actor and emphasizes its lack of dependence on external actors in energy, military, economic, and other areas. As Iran assesses that, given the regional changes, the traditional tools (terror, subversion, export of the revolution) will no longer suffice to promote its goals of regional hegemony and guaranteeing its survival, Iran is drawing closer to a decision on going nuclear.
- It draws encouragement from the stance of Russia, which, as a member of the Security Council and hence of the 5+1 group, helps Iran by thwarting any unified Western position on either the nuclear or Syrian issues.
- For Iran, the passage of time means there will no longer be a need for negotiations. Iran will continue its foot-dragging tactics, hinting to the West that it has to wait until the election results, and the formation of a new government, before continuing the nuclear talks (even though the government has no real say on the nuclear issue).
- The West, for its part, will apparently go along and wait for another “last opportunity,” and the futile dance that has gone on for a decade will continue without any Western successes and with Iranian technological accomplishments that bring it ever closer to its goal.
Iran Getting Closer to Military Nuclear Capability
In April, Iran celebrated its National Nuclear Day just after the failed second round of nuclear talks with the 5+1 group in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The talks’ failure again revealed the dead-end reached by the present Iranian-Western nuclear negotiations channel. It also once again demonstrated that there are actually two parallel processes in motion.
On one side is Iran’s foot-dragging in the talks – the first round in Kazakhstan was held after almost a year’s intermission – and their repeated failure; on the other is Iran’s ongoing progress in developing its technological capabilities in the nuclear domain. This progress is bringing Iran close to a point where it will be able to achieve its goal of a military nuclear capability. It will do so when it chooses, subject to the full range of its strategic political considerations, which are a main component of the decision-making process in Tehran – especially in light of the changes in the geostrategic environment and its assessments of threats and opportunities.
All Options on the Table
The West is mainly pressuring Iran through sanctions on its oil industry, exacting a high price in the form of considerably reduced exports and revenue. Tehran, for its part, is pressuring the West through persistent technological progress in the critical aspects of its nuclear program – regarding both uranium enrichment (involving mining, conversion, enrichment, and apparently also the military components of its nuclear program) and plutonium (involving heavy-water enrichment at its IR-40 reactor in Arak). In this way Iran displays a symmetrical response to the West’s “all options on the table” declarations.
Iran is thereby signaling that if the West refuses to honor its key demand for recognition of its “legitimate right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” it will enact this right itself, deploying the issue of 20-percent enrichment as an example.
Rights and Sanctions
After the first round of nuclear talks in Kazakhstan, Iran expressed optimism about the talks’ future. However, after a further meeting in Turkey and the second round in Kazakhstan, it put the onus for failure on the West, while repeatedly stressing the need to recognize its right to nuclear energy and to remove the sanctions. The chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Majlis, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, asserted that in the “nuclear game, Iran has achieved all its goals including enrichment and nuclear knowledge, while the West has not achieved its goal – stopping Iran’s enrichment, so Iran is the winner of the nuclear game and the Western states will be forced one day to accept the nuclear reality in Iran.”2 He also reiterated that “Achievement of nuclear rights is Iran’s strategic and permanent policy, and its guidelines as specified by Khamenei, and the path of its progress will not come to a halt or be altered due to the change of government” (after the presidential election in Iran on June 14). He reiterated, “The leaders of the negotiating countries, especially the Americans, should know that Iran’s nuclear dossier and elections are two separate issues.” Boroujerdi advised the U.S. and other world powers negotiating with Tehran not to wait for the results of the June presidential election, and said that would be a “mistaken calculation.”3
Abbas Araqchi, Deputy Foreign Minister and a member of the negotiating team, revealed, “The Iranian delegation in the talks was ready to continue negotiations until a final agreement was reached, but it was the opposite side (the 5+1 group) that apparently lacked the necessary readiness and permission from their capitals.” He added that the 5+1 paused the negotiations, anticipating a possible change in Tehran’s nuclear stance following the upcoming June presidential elections, and stressed that Tehran’s position is irrevocable and is not influenced by domestic politics. Araqchi concluded by saying that Iran was ready to move on two paths to strike a deal with the 5+1. The first involves continued talks in the form of step-by-step, confidence-building measures, which is the 5+1’s choice but is long and time-consuming. The other path is a shortcut, in which the world powers recognize Iran’s “legitimate rights, especially uranium enrichment, avoiding hostile moves, and lifting sanctions to reach results rapidly.” He further added that Iran was ready to move on either path, although it prefers the second option. He expressed the hope that the 5+1 would grasp a correct understanding of Iran’s proposals and return to the talks with a positive approach.4
Just as in previous failed rounds Iran threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Boroujerdi said that if the West did not show a commitment to such issues as cutting back on nuclear weapons and did not recognize Iran’s nuclear rights, the Majlis would again consider the option of scrapping the NPT.
Iran does not accept that it must respect the provisions of the NPT, while America and the West may ignore Article 65 and Article 4.6 Boroujerdi continued: “In such a case, there is no longer any reason for Iran to be a member of the NPT, and the Majlis can review this matter….We cannot be indifferent to the pressure the Iranian nation is facing; of course, this is a strategic decision that the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) must adopt, but the Majlis will use all of its abilities to defend the rights of the nation.”7
Iran and the West
The Iranian press plays an important role in covering the nuclear talks and preparing public opinion for a possible confrontation with the West over the nuclear program. Generally, there is a certain consistency between the words of the leadership and the nuclear negotiators, on the one hand, and editorials in the Iranian press, on the other.
After the talks failed, an editorial in the newspaper Jomhouri Eslami – headlined “Wherein Lies the Problem of the Nuclear Talks?” – shed light on Iran’s stance, its rationale for its conduct, and its propaganda line during the talks: “The main question is wherein lies the obstacle in the talks between Iran and the West that have not succeeded to remove [this obstacle] after ten rounds? To find a convincing answer to these questions, it is important to pay attention to two issues: the sanctions and the interpretation of the right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”
The editorial continued, stating that the sides’ positions on these issues precluded reaching minimal agreement in past talks, and it does not appear likely that future talks can succeed unless the impediments are removed. The Western states and the 5+1 countries are, for their own reasons, imposing economic sanctions on Iran whose purpose is to change the behavior and positions of the government and the people. Khamenei in his recent speech in Mashhad referred to this objective, which involves pressuring the regime by creating a rift between it and the people. Presumably, those imposing the sanctions think they must keep doing so until they achieve the goals they have set. That is, so long as the West does not see the Iranian people capitulate, it will continue on its path. Thus, during the two rounds of talks in Almaty, the Western side stressed the need to continue the talks but did not agree to cancel or diminish the sanctions; the Iranian team, for its part, did not accept the West’s demands.
A further issue is the two sides’ differing interpretations of the right to nuclear energy. The Iranian side maintains that Iran’s NPT membership, and the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can supervise its nuclear facilities, means its nuclear activity is for peaceful purposes. Hence, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council has again underlined that the problem is not the percentage of enrichment but rather the acceptance of Iran’s basic right to atomic energy.
The 5+1 states view this right from a fundamentally different perspective. They do not see NPT membership and IAEA supervision as sufficient to prove the peaceful intentions of Iran’s nuclear activity, and they pose additional demands that cause disagreement and the talks’ inability to be fruitful. On this issue the Western states must abandon their strict interpretation of NPT membership and accept the regular practice, the editorial said.
Jomhouri Eslami summed up:
Arriving at a common interpretation of the right to nuclear activity and amending the method of using sanctions against Iran constitute the main key to ending the stalemate in the nuclear talks. But this is an optimistic viewpoint. Another viewpoint is that the West, and particularly the United States, are engaging in dual, ambiguous behavior in their nuclear policy, and the clear example of this is that they enable the Zionist regime to maintain hundreds of atomic warheads in the heart of the sensitive region of the Middle East while denying Iran even its legal right to nuclear activity for peaceful purposes! In light of this dual policy, it is impossible to give credence to the West.8
Hasin Shriatmadari, editor of Kayhan, which expresses the view of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, wrote on his website and in an editorial in the newspaper that the latest round of talks proves that “the West does not really want to reach a solution and is not sincere in its intentions toward Iran.” According to Shriatmadari, the failure does not stem from any lack of talent of the Iranian negotiating teams, but rather from the different goals each side wants to achieve. Iran, he suggests, is striving to prove that its nuclear program is meant for peaceful purposes, while the West is not really seeking to solve the nuclear issue but instead wants to leave it open so that it can continue its struggle against Iran and leave the sanctions in place. Shriatmadari adds that this situation – in effect, a closing of the nuclear file – actually constitutes an acknowledgment of Iran’s victory and steadfast position over the years. In conclusion, Shriatmadari proposes increasing the media presence at the talks so as to highlight the real intentions of the West.9
A Growing Awareness
The West, and especially the United States, is aware of Iran’s gradual progress toward a military nuclear capability despite the sanctions and the price they are exacting. American spokespersons have emphasized this capability in hearings before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Particularly notable is the testimony of National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper, who on March 1210 and again on April 18 addressed the status of Iran’s nuclear program and its regional aspirations:
Iran continues to develop technical expertise in uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, weaponization and ballistic missiles, from which it could draw if it decides to build missile-deliverable weapons, nuclear weapons. Clearly, Tehran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to produce them, so the central issue is its political will to do so. Such a decision, we believe, will be made by the Supreme Leader, and at this point we don’t know if he’ll eventually decide to build nuclear weapons. In Iran, leaders are exploiting the unrest in the Arab world to spread influence and to undermine the United States and our allies. But Tehran also faces a worsening financial outlook in the fall of the Assad regime and Syria would be a huge strategic loss for Iran….Russia will continue to resist putting more international pressure on Syria or Iran.11
National Nuclear Day
Those words are consistent with Iran’s accelerating nuclear activity on the ground, in blatant defiance of the West. It is indicative that Iran’s National Nuclear Day (April 9) came right after the second round of nuclear talks in Almaty (April 6-7). It is unlikely that the relevant actors in the West even noticed the proximity of these dates and the propaganda trap that Iran had laid for them.
National Nuclear Day offered a convenient stage for Iran’s leaders and the heads of its nuclear program to highlight Iran’s achievements in the nuclear field and its independence in continuing the program without regard for Western concerns. Senior figures made much of this independence and the ability to make headway in the program, while lauding the technological advancements and propaganda value associated with the program. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – who apparently, as he reaches the end of his tenure, has been relieved of dealing with the nuclear issue – declared in a Nuclear Day speech that
the peoples of the world must be aware of the great potential that lies in nuclear energy in all areas of life and not allow the world’s wealth to be limited to any particular group of states [i.e., the West]….There are those who are interested in exclusive possession of this energy, the same ones who have produced a nuclear bomb themselves and acted against humanity, who seize ownership of the technologies, and also seek to prevent the Iranian people from gaining access to nuclear technology.
He emphasized that the Iranian people had stood firm and nevertheless attained such technology: “Can anyone deny us this? You [Western countries] made every effort to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but Iran did go nuclear, and now you are trying to take it away from Iran.”12
As part of the Nuclear Day events, Iran inaugurated some nuclear projects related to the uranium-enrichment process: uranium extraction from natural resources at the Saghand Uranium Complex in Ardakan, and an additional facility for uranium conversion, the Yellowcake Production Complex.13 The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Fereydun Abbasi, affirmed that “Iran is looking for uranium resources to provide the fuel needs for its operating [nuclear] reactors or those set to be built in the future.”14
In a special interview for Nuclear Day, Abbasi noted Iran’s principal achievements in various fields. He stressed the installation of new generations of centrifuges,15 the ongoing uranium enrichment at levels of 3.5 percent and 20 percent that are required for operating Iran’s reactors, and the continuing R&D on even more advanced generations of centrifuges. These could enable Iran to enrich uranium at the nuclear-weapon level in a shorter time span. Abbasi likewise pointed to the ongoing preparations to activate the 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor that will also enable Iran to progress in its military nuclear program along the plutonium track.16
In interviews he gave subsequently, Abassi reemphasized that at present Iran indeed does not have plans to enrich uranium to a level above 20 percent. But if such a need arose in the future, “for example, for ships and submarines, if our researchers need to have a stronger underwater presence, we will have to make small engines that should be fueled by 45% to 56% enriched uranium….In that case, we might need this [highly enriched] fuel.”17 In a closed meeting, Abassi also updated the Majlis on the latest nuclear developments.18
The Revolutionary Guards: Destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa
On April 18, which was Iranian Army Day, spokesmen of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the army belittled Western threats that “all options are on the table,” saying this was propaganda for domestic purposes aimed at the media and public opinion in the United States and Israel. The spokesmen also warned against “stupid acts” by Israel (i.e., attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities) and again emphasized their readiness to carry out the Supreme Leader’s orders and annihilate Tel Aviv and Haifa should Iran be attacked.19 IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari again warned that the security of the world’s energy reserves is in the IRGC’s hands and that “the enemies of the Islamic Revolution cannot ensure these sources” since the IRGC controls the main lanes for energy supplies in the Persian Gulf.20
The Nuclear Issue in Iran’s Elections
The nuclear issue is playing a leading role in Iran’s presidential race and is a focus of contenders’ claims and counterclaims. For example, one contender, Hasan Rowhani, a senior member of the Expediency Council (head of its Center for Strategic Research) and a former nuclear negotiator, observed critically that at the time he served as head of the negotiating team, Iran’s situation was much better and “the citizens can feel this difference and make the necessary comparison.” Rowhani pointed out that in those days Iran was not close to war, the Iranian nuclear file issue was nowhere near the Security Council, and no resolutions against Iran had been adopted.21
Another possible presidential contender, Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister who today serves as Khamenei’s adviser on international affairs, asserted that, in the past, “Iran had tried to suspend uranium-enrichment activities during both the reformist government and the present government at the Supreme Leader’s behest. However, the West did not act honestly toward Iran or respond to its demands.” In that period, he added, Iran had agreed to a suspension to prove to the world and the West, as well as the Iranian public, that retreating in the face of enemies, and of the West, is not effective. Therefore, according to the Leader’s decree, it was decided to continue Iran’s activity in the nuclear sphere within the framework of the NPT.22
At the same time, the failure of the latest round of talks, and the fact that a military clash with the West is becoming a real possibility, seems to be intensifying the domestic debates about continuing to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis. These debates, however, are not affecting Iran’s technological progress in the nuclear field, its growing defiance of the West, or the projection of its power toward its neighbors in the Gulf (particularly Bahrain).
Iran Nears the Moment of Decision
Iran already has the necessary technological capability to produce at least one nuclear bomb. Even if the reports are accurate that it has stopped uranium enrichment of 20 percent and not exceeded 250 kilograms of enriched uranium, which by Israeli assessments is the critical mass beyond which Iran could produce a bomb, thanks to its technological capabilities, Iran could in a short time enrich (possibly even clandestinely) the necessary amounts of uranium for a bomb. Iran is actually a short way from the red line, and crossing it is a matter of deciding.
Under current geostrategic conditions, it does not appear that Iran intends to give up its nuclear activity; instead, it is waiting for the right moment to “break out.” Iran has already made clear to the West that crossing the threshold is no longer a technological problem, just an issue of weighing considerations and reaching a decision. Iran is positioning itself as a leading regional actor and emphasizes its lack of dependence on external actors in energy, military, economic, and other areas.
Moreover, in the new Middle Eastern reality that is taking shape, Iran has a message for Arab states that are undergoing change: to follow the model of its own steadfast resilience against Western pressure since the outbreak of the revolution. It draws encouragement from the stance of Russia, which, as a member of the Security Council and hence of the 5+1 group, helps Iran by thwarting any unified Western position on either the nuclear or Syrian issues.
In the window of time that remains until Iran’s presidential elections, it does not appear that a breakthrough will occur in the negotiations. For Iran, the passage of time means there will no longer be a need for such negotiations. Iran will continue its foot-dragging tactics, hinting to the West that it has to wait until the election results, and the formation of a new government, before continuing the nuclear talks (even though the government has no real say on the nuclear issue). The West, for its part, will apparently go along and wait for another “last opportunity,” and the futile dance that has gone on for a decade will continue without any Western successes and with Iranian technological accomplishments that bring it ever closer to its goal.
In the environment taking shape in the overall Middle East after the upheavals of the “Arab Spring,” Iran is trying to position itself as the main power broker that can affect the course of events and reduce American influence and involvement in the region via Washington’s allies among the Gulf states, particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Those two, especially Iran’s bitter Sunni rival Saudi Arabia, are gradually, with Western assistance, weakening Iran’s position in Syria, with all that entails for Iran’s continued ability to influence the Syrian-Lebanese arena and, from it, to project force toward Israel. Moreover, the strengthening of Islamist Sunni actors in the area adds more fuel to the Sunni-Shiite conflict, with Iran’s creation Hizbullah already deeply involved in the crisis on Syrian soil and suffering losses. In addition, Iran regards the growing Western military aid, particularly the missile-defense umbrellas for the Gulf States and Israel, and possibly also Turkey, as a mounting threat.
Iran perceives both external and domestic threats affecting the regime’s survivability, while also seeing a range of opportunities opened by the “Arab Spring” or “Islamic awakening,” as Iran calls it. Thus, Iran keeps developing its military nuclear program, bringing it close to the point where it would be able to assemble a nuclear bomb in a very short time – despite Western pressure and sanctions.
Both American and Iranian interests in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, in general, are undergoing processes of change that put them on a collision course. One side’s perceived threat is the other side’s perceived opportunity. In Iran’s view, leaving the nuclear file open is part of the U.S. strategy to contain Iran’s influence in the region, and Washington has no real interest in reaching a settlement. As that outlook gains strength in Iran, along with the assessment that, given the present circumstances and regional changes, the traditional tools (terror, subversion, export of the revolution) will no longer suffice to promote its goals of regional hegemony and guaranteeing its survival, Iran is drawing closer to a decision on going nuclear.
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