Saturday, September 10, 2005

Iran-U.S. Nuclear Wrangle...

Iran-U.S. Nuclear Wrangle: The Crisis of Credibility

Ali-Asghar Kazemi*


Ever since Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea were labeled “axis of evil,” observers analogized the case with that of the “evil empire” which was coined by the late U.S. president (Ronald Reagan) to describe the Soviet Unions, which finally crumbled to its knees and collapsed, without a single bullet being fired. The U.S. strategy of double containment, with the objective of inhibiting Iran and Iraq to become a threat to their neighbors and the greater Middle East, did not impede Iraq to attack Kuwait, nor did U.S. embargo and economic sanctions against Iran proved to be effective. Yet, these measures only deepened the atmosphere of mistrust, misperception and animosity between the two states, especially after American military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Of the three states included in the “axis of evil”, Iraq has already fallen and North Korea is currently subject of a tense diplomatic negotiations. The case of Iran seems to be more complicated, yet after several rounds of talks and negotiations between Iran and EU3 (France, Germany and UK), supported by the United States,[1]the process is gradually reaching its decisive turn, if not a complete stalemate.

What are the prospects of Iran’s nuclear case to be settled without much trouble and systemic harm to international and regional peace and order? The main argument of this paper is that the problematic, which has so far created such an atmosphere of mistrust and intolerance, is deep-rooted in relations between the two states and may not be settled merely by resolving the nuclear issue. Thus, Iranian religious leaders believe that there is no rationale in giving concessions on this matter, since it will increase the appetite of the United States, whose ultimate objective is the total disintegration of the Islamic regime. They claim that even with the complete and perpetual cessation of enrichment process, the American will soon put forward further demands on other thorny issues such as terrorism, human rights, and democratization… This perception is likely to push Iranian decision makers to opt for more rigid and intransigent stance vis-à-vis the United States. This in turn, could escalate the crisis situation whose management would be more difficult and unpredictable.

Background of Iran’s Nuclear Aspiration

The fact that the nuclear dream in Iran goes well back to the Shah regime is no secret to anybody. The Shah of Iran too had grandiose projects in his mind when he suggested that by the end of twentieth century his country would reach at the doorway of what he naively labeled “The Great Civilization.” Of course, he never meant to emerge as a nuclear power, since in those days, i.e. the cold war period, Iran like other countries outside the iron curtain and the sphere of communism, were supposed to be under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The project had a dual objective; first and perhaps the foremost, it was considered as a “national prestige,” and second, it was conceived for peaceful use of nuclear technology in the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which was contracted to Germany, of course with the explicit consent of the United States and other interested states. In those days nobody objected to Shah’s nuclear ambition and no one questioned the economic or political rationale behind such project.

The advent of the 1979 revolution in Iran quite naturally paved the way for a number of vital changes, not only in this country but also in the region and the wider world. Many projects and contracts, especially in the field of defense and infrastructure developments were initially canceled on various grounds. Bushehr nuclear plant was one of those, which along other defense contracts were annulled with huge losses due to legal proceedings and court orders on compensation of damages for breach of contracts. Soon after the Iran-Iraq war started, the needs for acquiring weapons and new defense technologies led Iranian decision-makers to revive some of the project initiated during the Shah. But, afterward the West was not quite ready to do business with a revolutionary religious state that contemplated to export its fundamentalist values and dared to hold American diplomats as hostages for 444 days, contrary to all international rules and standards. That was the beginning of a long confrontation between Iran and the United States.

The Roots of Mistrust between Iran and the United States

More than a quarter of a century has elapsed since Iran’s revolution driven out this country from the Western camp to what can be characterized as swinging between East and West, Islamism and nationalism, radicalism and leniency. While many European states did not mind to deal with the Islamic regime in time of peace and war, the United States has never digested the existence of a religious ideology to run the affairs of a strategically important oil-rich country in the 21st century Middle East.

Several attempts to disperse the clouds of animosity and misperception between the two states, on various occasions and under different Iranian and U.S. presidents, proved to be ineffective and futile. The last of these was under the Iranian reformist President Khatami, whose “dialogue of civilization” brought him eye-to-eye with U.S. president Bill Clinton, during a United Nations General Assembly session in New York, without the expected melting ice result.[2] In his earlier statement addressing to Americans in an interview with CNN, Khatami had alluded to the “tall walls of distrust” between the two states, which needed to be crossed in order to eliminate the seemingly inherent mutual hostility that created an atmosphere of doubt, suspicion and intolerance.

Thus, it should not surprise anybody that the squabble over the nuclear issue is just a tiny portion of a wider and deeper range of problems overshadowing Iran-U.S. long-term relations. Whether we like it or not, the already gloomy situation between Iran and the United States, which for several years has been put in the shade by the unfortunate hostage taking affaire at the very beginning of the revolution in Iran, has jumped to its critical stage after the American military interventions in Iran’s two neighboring countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, following the September 11th events. In fact, the main source of Iranian leaders’ anxiety is seen as the U.S. threat to their very existence.

As we said earlier, Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, have been characterized as the “axis of evil” by U.S. president, essentially for their quest of becoming a nuclear actor in international scene. Iraq’s Baath regime and Saddam Hussein were overthrown essentially for possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), although such things were never found. North Korea is under severe international pressure to abandon its nuclear project. As to Iran, it was quite clear from the beginning that the United States would not allow a regime flagrantly hostile to Israel and challenging the established rules of the game in international political arena and power structure, to ascend to the rank of a nuclear actor. This hypothesis is especially true after the end of the cold war, the unfortunate events of September 11, and the emergence of terrorism as a non-state phenomenon, threatening peace and order of the whole world.

Unfortunately, Iranian religious leaders have done nothing much substantive to alleviate the perplexity of this hostile environment in order to persuade the IAEA and the international community that they are not really in pursuit of acquiring nuclear weapons. Even some of them deliberately hinted others to believe that they indeed have the capacity, potential and technical know-how to build a deterrent nuclear capability. They even referred in several occasions to Israel as an illegitimate entity possessing hundreds of nuclear warheads, with the backing of the United States. Along the same line, they have raised serious doubts about the double-standards rules and regulations with respect to nuclear proliferation.

One such declaration came at an unusual circumstance in a "sermon" delivered at Tehran University on 14 December 2002, by the former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani who said, "If one day...the world of Islam is mutually equipped with the kind of weapons which Israel presently possesses, the world's arrogant [colonialist] strategy will then come to a dead end, because the use of an atomic bomb on Israel won't leave anything; however, in the world of Islam [use of a bomb] will just cause harm, and this scenario is not far-fetched."[3] Quite naturally, Israel, as the main target of this attack, benefited most from this statement and did not hesitate to launch a widespread campaign against the Islamic regime, while getting prepared for tactical preemptive strikes on Iranian nuclear sites.[4]
One further element of suspicion raised by the Americans on the question of Iran’s nuclear oriented secret plans, despite its obligation as a member of the NPT, is the fact that this country had never reported anything to the IAEA nuclear watchdog about its activities until Iranian dissidents revealed it the year before. It was only after such revelation that Iran acknowledged it has been developing for 18 years, a uranium centrifuge enrichment plan, and, for 12 years, a laser enrichment program.[5] Iranian officials argue in their defense, that they have in fact conducted some nuclear activities secretly because they were under economic embargo and subject to preemptive strikes from hostile countries like Israel and the United States. In response to the IAEA's intrusive queries over tiny quantities of suspect materials, they have consistently insisted that their activities is merely oriented toward self-sufficiency with the production of fuel for a 1000-megawatt power reactor being built with Russian assistance at Bushehr.[6]
In another new development with respect to Iran’s secret dealings that relates to its nuclear ambitions, it was revealed more recently (April 1,2005) by the new elected pro-Western Ukrainian president (Victor Yushenko), that Iran had acquired ten long-range missiles (X55), with an effective range of about 3500 km, with the capacity of carrying nuclear warhead.[7]Indeed, such revelations about the Islamic regime’s undertaking may not help the current negotiations with EU3 in a positive way and will further escalate the existing distrust about Iran’s credibility.

Prospects for Nuclear Negotiations between Iran and EU3?

When Iran signed the Additional Protocol to the Treaty of Non Proliferation, with the official mitigation of three important EU foreign ministers (UK, France and Germany), nobody had a clear picture of the future development of the matter. At the time of the conclusion of the agreement with EU members, both sides appeared happy from the outcome and both claimed victory. Each side appraised its stance and in its mind, stuck firm to its position.

Even then, Iran claimed that it would never forego its inalienable right to acquire nuclear technology for “peaceful purpose.” In the final Statement by the Iranian Government and visiting EU Foreign Ministers of 21 October 2003 in Tehran, to promote mutual confidence with a view to removing barriers for cooperation in the nuclear field, Iran agreed that “it has decided voluntarily to suspend all Uranium enrichment and processing activities as defined by the IAEA.”[8]

Interestingly, the two key words that need a little explanation here are:
First, the voluntary character of the agreement, that hints at rejection of any pressure or forceful demand from the other party to accede to an unfair commitment,
Second, The temporary nature of the enrichment and processing activities, which is reflected in the term “suspension.” This in a way epitomizes the intention of Iranian authorities that they may at any time in future and under any pretext resume the suspended activities.[9]

As we can see, the same two reservations in Iranian declaration are still maintained throughout the negotiation process at different levels between Iran and the EU3. In fact, after several round of talks and diplomatic negotiations between the two sides since the conclusion of Tehran accord of October 2003, it is now becoming more and more clear that there is little chance that they may reach a formula that could satisfy not only the two parties, but also the United States.

While the negotiations were underway, the United States, which has backed the EU initiative for using diplomacy, ventured to offer some seemingly attractive economic incentives to Iran for its uranium enrichment suspension, But, soon Iranian leaders rejected the U.S. offers as not worthy of consideration. Iran claims that indefinite suspension is against the EU commitments. Commenting on U.S. proposal according to which, it would back Iran’s membership in WTO, provided it permanently ceases its enrichment activities, the offer was bluntly described as “ridiculous, irrelevant and contemptuous.”[10]

The unfortunate fact is that Iran has already invested more than $5 billion in its nuclear activities during the past two decades and it appears hard to imagine that it could easily forego its supposedly legitimate claims and afford such huge loss to its national interests. Thus, it seems that the concerned parties will be facing some sort of stalemate in their current negotiations and the EU3 endeavor will end without a concrete outcome.

Of course, there are some optimists who believe that the West should remain patient in the current negotiations, until the time the new president is elected in Iran. To them, the prospective right-wing pragmatist president would eventually pave the way for an overall settlement of outstanding issues with the United States. Pessimists however, do not expect much change to occur from the upcoming presidential election in Iran and believe that sooner or later the case will have to be submitted to the UN Security Council. Since so far, all the diplomatic remedies have been exhausted and there is now a consensus between the EU and the United States for bringing the matter to the UN Security Council.

Although there are many legal and procedural problems involved with such a proposition, nonetheless, we can speculate briefly on various aspects and dimensions that the case might encounter on its way to the Security Council and circumstances in which a resolution might be passed against Iran.

UN Security Council and Iran’s Nuclear Case: Legal, Procedural and Practical impediments

As we stated earlier, for a number of reasons, thus far Iranian leadership has been very uncompromising on the matter of “perpetual cessation” or “indefinite suspension” of uranium enrichment operation, and might only temporarily suspend this activity on a “voluntary basis,” as a measure of confidence building. Therefore, it appears that a consensus is being reached to bring the case to the UN Security Council. However, there are a number of obstacles, which could hinder such action against Iran.

First and foremost of these impediments relates to legal matters regarding the submission of a case before the Security Council. As we know one of the functions of the Council is “to determine whether the continuance of a dispute or situation is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security.” Furthermore, for acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, in order to pass an effective resolution under articles 41(economic sanctions) or 42 (military intervention), the Council shall determine the existence of a threat to peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression.

As we know, neither the IAEA nor any state have thus far reached the conclusions that Iran is in breach of its international obligations, either under UN Charter or the NPT and its related Protocols. Since, the mere evidence of uranium enrichment activity, which is allowed within the framework of NPT provisions to all member states, shall not be construed as a breach of the peace. The Security Council in its long history of functions has never based its decisions on hearsay, gossip or mere intentions in the minds of states members without concrete evidence.

This may be one reason for which Iranians are not so much worried about their case being submitted to the Security Council, because they seem to have some other kinds of assurance, either from a legal or procedural point of view. They may be even seeking some help from outside, counting upon the support of Russia and China, as two important permanent members of this UN body, to block any eventual resolution.[11]

On practical grounds, Iranian leaders do not seem to worry much about an eventual embargo or economic sanctions, though this surely will cause lots of trouble and inconvenience to the overall nation. But, those who eventually wish that the people would revolt against the Islamic regime in case of an economic blockade should remember that ever since the revolution, this country has been subject to all kinds of sanctions both during the war and after, and no such thing has ever happened. On the contrary, Iranians have shown that they have a tendency to consolidate during the hard times.

Other implications of a resolution against Iran, relate to an eventual unilateral decision of this country to withdraw from the NPT altogether, which is the right of every member state in conformity with the provisions of the treaty. In such circumstances the IAEA will be devoid of legal standing to continue its supervision on Iran’s nuclear activities.

Bearing in mind that the most vital objective for the Islamic regime in Iran is its very survival, and to that end it seems ready to sacrifice many things, it would not be an unrealistic postulation that in case of its withdrawal from the NPT, the regime might have a free hand to contemplate developing its own deterrent nuclear force, somewhere along the line with South Korea. In such circumstances the West, including the United States and all those who fear Iran’s nuclear activities, would be in a much worsen situation.

Of course, we are just speculating on various aspects of the nuclear case as it may emerge in future. We have no solid indication which of the above scenarios may come true. But, from the face value of Iran’s rather bold diplomatic undertakings, it is safe to suggest that the Islamic regime is actually using all the leverages at hand, both economic, political and even military[12], to come clean out of this muddle.

Iran has already made very important economic and trade deals with China and Russia, as two important permanent member of the UN Security Council. It may even try to lure Europeans in giving out concessions on oil and other business of mutual interests, which could deflect American pressure. On the other hand, Europeans well know that any attempt to pass a UN Security Council resolution under chapter VII of the UN Charter, with the effect of preventing Iran’s oil export, would have a disastrous impact upon the market price, already unbearable by them. Thus, they might not be ready to go along with eventual economic sanctions against Iran.

With respect to an eventual preemptive strikes either on Iran’s nuclear facilities or oil installations on land or offshore, directly by the United States or through Israel, there is little chances that this operation be supported by EU or the international community as a whole. It should also be recognized that if Iran perceives a real threat in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere in its land territory, it has the capacity to make the whole region insecure.

Therefore, it is safe to suggest that the American decision makers shall think twice before engaging in any actions that would threaten Iran’s survival or undermine its regional interests. Since, Iran has already shown in other occasions that it is capable to frustrate such U.S. strategy or actions throughout the region. This is to say that the fate of peace and order in the Middle East seems to be very much tied up to the policy that the United States will pursue with respect to Iran.


In sum, the situation between Iran and the United States can be termed as trapped in a “crisis of credibility,” whose management requires an ardent endeavor of confidence building for which the two sides seem not prepared. Bringing the case to the Security Council with a view to get some kind of resolution on eventual sanctions against Iran may simply be counterproductive; because: first, it lacks serious legal basis, and second, it might fail on practical grounds. Therefore we should expect heightening of tensions in relations of the two states in future, unless perhaps some fundamental changes take place in either side. These changes may include a breakthrough in Iran-U.S. mutual perceptions, gradually leading to amicable settlement of all outstanding disputes, including the nuclear affairs. Upon such rapprochement, the Islamic regime may soften its position on various matters that inhibit the resolution of a number of issues in the Middle East, and which are considered as pivot points for the success of American strategy in this region, such as: the Palestinian problem, the recognition of Israeli state, the disarmament of Lebanese Hezbollah, and other matters related to international terrorism, democratization process of the Greater Middle East, etc. The whole process depends on whether the United States is prepared to give some kind of assurance to Tehran that it would not endanger the survival of the Islamic regime in Iran, and the assertion of the “axis of evil” is lifted for good.

* * *


* Professor of International Law, Dean of the Graduate School of Law and Political Science,(GSLPS),
Islamic Azad University, Science and Research Campus, Tehran. IRAN. e-mail:

[1] For a detailed account of Iran-EU3 past negotiations see my papers: “Iran’ Nuclear Venture: Legal Obligation and Political Temptation” May 2004; Heading for a Clash! Iran-US New Conservatives’ Line-up Over the Nuclear Issue, September 2004, presented to the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, Conference on the Middle East Security.

[2] An earlier attempt by the late president Reagan, better known as “ Iran-Contra” affaire, ended up with a scandal in American foreign policy and was a complete failure to establish normal relations with Iran.
[3] The IAEA key findings about Iran are in reports released in March 2004 and November 2003. In November, the IAEA concluded that Iran's nuclear program consists of practically everything needed to fuel a reactor or in effect to produce materials for bombs, "including uranium mining and milling, conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, and heavy water production." See Iran's Nuclear Program Reaches Critical Juncture, IEEE Spectrum online, June, 2004
[4] It was reported by international media that Israel is ready to use F-15 Jets using bunker-busting bombs to penetrate Iran’s nuclear facilities and plants (Natanz) supposed to be underground. Apparently the Israeli forces have been simulating attacks on a mock-up of Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plants in the last few months.

[5] Ibid. The director general told the IAEA board, summarizing the agency's findings, "It is clear that Iran has failed in a number of instances over an extended period of time to meet its obligations [under the NPT]."

[6] The critical elements of Iran's nuclear program include not just the enrichment plants at Natanz but also plans to start building a 30—40–MW natural-uranium-fueled, heavy-water research reactor, with all associated equipment. According to experts, the reactor could potentially produce weapons-grade plutonium, although Iranian officials insist it will be used only to produce isotopes for medical and industrial purposes. Cf. Ibid.
[7] The matter was widely publicized by the mass media immediately after the announcement of the news by Ukrainian officials on April 1, 2005. At the same time it was announced that President Yushenko would soon meet with U.S. President George Bush in Washington.

[8] - Emphasis is mine.
[9]- In fact, the same day after the Statement was officially issued, Mr. Hassan Rohani, head of Iranian negotiators, asserted that Iran might resume its activities at any time, which seems suited to its national interests. He even emphasized that: within a week, a month or a year we may choose to exercise our rights to terminate the suspension. See my paper, Iran’s Nuclear Venture: Legal Obligation and Political Temptation, May 2004
[10] Statement to Iranian media. by Iranian Minister of Intelligence Ali Younesi, March 2005.
[11] The recent deal on liquefied gas with China, which amounts to an overall value of $100 billion, is one such undertaking which would tie Iran’s political fate to China’s growing needs for energy over the next 25 years. Russians on the other hand, are very happy about the current nuclear plant in Bushehr and the prospective other nuclear plant deals with Iran and seem not to be ready to forego this lucrative business just for the sake of giving a hand to American plan to contain Iran’s ambition to use nuclear technology, which in their view, is not harmful.
[12] During the negotiation of Iranian and EU diplomats on nuclear issue, Iran’s conservative media have expounded various statements from high-ranking officials, including the leader and other military authorities warning against any pressure or blackmail unto Iran. At the same time it was announced by Iran’s Defense Minister that Iran is now in the process of mass production of its long-range missiles (Shahab 3). The commander of the Iranian ground forces also announced that the biggest military exercise in Iran’s history would soon be carried in Iran’s western frontiers bordering Iraq.