Returning to the basics of the Iran nuclear question

While a not-so-fringe cadre of Israelis and American Republicans can’t seem to stop talking about attacking Iran (at least for some Israelis it is
still a question for debate,[i] for Republicans it’s become a campaign  promise[ii]), there are still places where more sober voices struggle to be heard.

Prime Minister Harper offered his frank assessment of the dangers of an Iranian bomb
on the CBC this week,[iii] but he squandered an important opportunity to reinforce the formal efforts in the international community to rise above the current din and stick to a
careful pursuit of an actual resolution to the Iranian nuclear question. Declaring the evidence to be “overwhelming,” he said “there is absolutely no doubt [Iranians] are lying” when they claim that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful uses.[iv]

The evidence is certainly compelling that Iran is in pursuit of fuel cycle technologies
that would help give it the capability of acquiring nuclear weapons, but, as uncomfortable as it may be, there is still a real distinction, and it has become the critical one, between a capability and actual acquisition.

Neither the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nor US intelligence agencies have
concluded that Iran has made a clear decision to acquire nuclear weapons. It is the job of diplomacy to build political and security conditions that are conducive to Iran not taking that step.

The IAEA is eschewing absolutist rhetoric and is instead pursuing the facts of the case
and, in particular, is creating opportunities for Iran to come clean and to meet its transparency obligations and thus allay fears as to its intentions. In early February a diplomatic delegation of the IAEA will spend a week in Iran,[v] and the recent statement of the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Larijani, that Iran is ready for “serious” talks, is another welcome development. Turkey has offered to host the new talks between Iran and the 5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council + Germany).[vi]

This all comes in the midst of tightening sanctions that are reportedly beginning to bite
deeply into Iranian society and its economy,[vii] primarily on the urging of the United States, but also with a Russian warning that increased sanctions could be counterproductive. They could escalate tensions, undermine “international efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue,”[viii] and give aid and comfort to those Iranians pressing for a move toward overt acquisition of the bomb – and the way to avoid the latter is to link harsh sanctions to intensified diplomacy and the search for compromise (see below).

In the meantime the rhetoric around military action escalates, even though it is
impossible to find any commentator or military analyst who can successfully explain what would be resolved by a military attack on the known sites of Iran’s nuclear program. Roger Cohen in the New York Times does offer a persuasive summary of why the military attack
option is a dangerous absurdity:

“Here’s the bottom line: an Israeli attack unites Iran in fury, locks in the Islamic Republic for a generation, cements the Syrian regime, radicalizes the Arab world at a moment of delicate transition, ignites Hezbollah on the Lebanese border, boosts Hamas, endangers
US troops in the region, sparks terrorism, propels oil skyward, triggers a possible regional war, offers a lifeline to Iran just as Europe is about to stop buying its oil, adds a Persian to the Arab vendetta against Israel, and may at best set back Iran’s ambitions a couple of years.”[ix]

The only thing to add is that any military attack would also end all questions as to
whether or not Iran will go beyond acquiring a capability to acquiring a nuclear weapon – it would immediately confirm that it was pursuing the bomb as quickly as humanly possible.

There is also a “bottom line” when it comes to the conditions for a political resolution
of the Iran nuclear question: end the focus on uranium enrichment and recognize that a long-term solution will have to be regional in scope.

The UN Security Council’s demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment is
counter-productive and will have to be abandoned (in some face-saving way) in favor of an intense focus on requiring Iran to meet enhanced transparency standards, including implementation of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol (as the UNSC has already demanded). When Turkey and Brazil brokered a tentative “fuel swap” deal with Iran back in 2010, the compromise had Iran shipping enriched uranium out of the country (preventing Iran from building up a large stockpile of low enriched uranium) for processing into fuel, while allowing Iranian enrichment to continue. That specific deal will now be harder to reach because Iran in the meantime claims to have developed a domestic fuel fabrication capacity. The focus should now include proposals for Iranian participation in regulated international fuel cycle operations.

On the regional front, this is the year for a proposed international conference on
creating a nuclear-weapon-free-zone in the Middle East – a proposal promoted by the Arab world in particular and fully accepted by the international community already in 1995 as an essential requirement for stability in the Middle East and for progress toward global nuclear disarmament. Even Israel, with its robust nuclear arsenal, accepts that this must ultimately come to pass, and it is this regional context that will be a key to developing long-term confidence in a scientifically advanced Iran eschewing the nuclear weapons option.

It is appropriate for Prime Minister Harper to warn of the dangers of an Iranian
bomb, and it is also welcome news that he is in touch with other world leaders in search of a solution, but that search will have to go well beyond sounding another alarm bell and declaring that military options must remain on the table.


[i] Chen Kane, “Israeli debate on war with Iran is unprecedented,” 28 December
2011, The Record, Waterloo Region.–israeli-debate-on-war-with-iran-is-unprecedented.

[ii] Nancy Hauser, “Bolton endorses Mitt Romney, looking at possible war with Iran,”
13 January 2012, Digital Journal.
Stephen Collinson, “Republicans attack Iran, seek to wound Obama,” 12 January
2012, AFP.

[iii] “The National,” and “One on One with Peter Mansbridge,” 16 January 2012.

[iv] Robert Matas, “Iranian regime ‘frightens me,’ Harper says,”  Globe and Mail, 16 January 2012.

[v] “Iran agrees to U.N. nuclear inspection as oil embargo gathers support,” 13
January 2012, Al Arabiya.

[vi] Iran agrees to nuclear talks and an IAEA mission, 13 January 2012, Foreign Policy.

[vii] David Asher, “Time to get serious about sanctions on Iran, especially through
Lebanese banks,” Foreign Policy (The Best Defense Blog), 17 January 2012.

[viii] Iran agrees to nuclear talks and an IAEA mission, 13 January 2012, Foreign Policy.

[ix] Roger Cohen, “Don’t Do It, Bibi,” The New York Times, 16 January 2012.

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