An Enriched Iran?

Bibi w. bomb
Source: Keith Bedford/Reuters

The international hysteria regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been a pervasive topic in foreign affairs since Iran went public with its program in 2002. Major players in the global community, such as the US and EU, have been hurling sanctions, embargos, and condemnations at Iran in an attempt to stymie the development of its nuclear program. The Iranian government adamantly claims its nuclear facilities are for peaceful purposes, not for the creation of nuclear weapons. However, the tone circulating around Iran’s nuclear program has abruptly changed over the past several weeks.

After a summit in Geneva in early October between Iran and the P5+1, the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, many of the international leaders at the conference boasted of progress in the negotiations, including Iran. Muhammad Javed Zarif, the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated they could mark the “beginning of a new phase in our relations”. An involved US official stated that the conference has seen unprecedented, “detailed, straightforward, and candid conversations” with the Iranian government. Six party talks were planned to reconvene November 7th and 8th of this year.

However, the dialogue in early November proved to be less fruitful than initially foreshadowed. The P5+1 and Iran spent the duration of the conference formulating a joint draft agreement regarding the status of Iran’s nuclear program but there seemed to be difficulty in achieve a clear political consensus between the parties. Who is to blame for the snag in negotiations is ambiguous. Some diplomats, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, attribute the difficulties to Iran’s insistence on having its “right” to enriched uranium recognized internationally; Iran and Russia tend to point the finger at the delegation from France, who was unyielding in their resolve to have tight regulations placed on the heavy-water reactor in Arak.
Despite the current complications, diplomats from the US and Iran are unshaken in their optimistic outlook on these dialogues, claiming that they are close to a breakthrough in negotiations. Parties on both sides of the table continue to praise the unprecedented levels of openness that has been demonstrated by the Iranian and American governments and what this could mean for future international relations. The conference is set to reconvene again on November 20th.

One factor that may account for this political twist is the recent change in the Iranian administration. Newly appointed president Hassan Rowhani campaigned on the platform of increased moderation at home and the reconstruction of relations with the rest of the world in order to decrease sanctions, which have been debilitating to the Iranian people. Since 2006, the United Nations has issued six separate resolutions, wielding sanctions against Iran for not complying with IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) protocols and perpetuating its enrichment of uranium despite demands to halt production from international bodies. This, in addition to punitive actions taken by the US and the EU, focused on undermining Iran’s energy sector and debilitated Iran’s primarily oil-based economy. These sanctions have resulted in a major devaluation of Iran’s currency, the rial, alongside 40% inflation and soaring food and fuel prices.

Although Iran has been able to dig their heels in against all of the sanctions in the past, the trouble at home may be putting pressure on the government to compromise. If Rowhani holds true to his platform, Iran may soon be emerging from its cocoon of international isolationism as a different regime, ready and willing to negotiate. But the final say as to what is to be done with Iran’s nuclear program comes from Ruhollah Khamenei, Iran’s less moderate Supreme Leader and the highest-ranking political and religious authority in Iran. Despite his conservative reputation, Supreme Leader Khamenei shocked the international community by backing Rowhani’s position in the nuclear negotiations, causing Iranian conservatives to follow suit.

While the majority of the Western world is sweating bullets over the prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, even as Iran seems ready to compromise, some scholars believe that a nuclear Iran would actually stabilize the Middle East. Kenneth Waltz, the father of neorealist political theory, argues that Iran achieving nuclear weaponry would actually be the optimal outcome to the situation. Waltz asserts that the international community erroneously views Iran as an irrational actor that would engage in policies contrary to its best interest and self-preservation. Based on the concept of nuclear deterrence, having another power in the Middle East in addition to Israel, would ease much of the political tensions caused by this unitary pole of power. Although many claim that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would be destabilizing and result in a nuclear arms race, Waltz uses Israel’s development of nuclear technology as a counterexample, as it did neither, despite the fact that it developed nuclear weapons during a time of war with its neighbors. Ultimately, Waltz claims that Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons would mitigate any chance of conflict, due to the fact that “there has never been a full-scale war between two nuclear-armed states”.

There appears to be an internal battle between Iran’s desire to perpetuate its nuclear ambitions and its need to assuage the economic burdens at home. The change in administrations may have been the catalyst the Iranian government needed in order to engage in negotiations more openly with the international community and to be more aggressive in finding a compromise in order to alleviate the economic crisis at home. However, regardless of the direction of these nuclear negotiations, it is unlikely that the world will be faced with apocalyptic consequences in the event that dialogues turn south and Iran decides to develop its facilities anyway. Much of the mania revolving around Iran obtaining nuclear weapons is founded on fear perpetuated by the media. Although Iran obtaining nuclear capabilities would not exactly be in the best interest of major international players, especially considering America’s vested interest in its ally Israel, there is no compelling reason to think that such a circumstance would destabilize global politics.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2013 print edition, which can be found here.