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What will it take for negotiating parties to reach a lasting deal over Iran’s nuclear programme–and what does it mean for the non-proliferation regime?


As predicted, the six-month deadline for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme passed without a final agreement this weekend, yet negotiators claim significant progress was made and have extended the deadline into November. What are the chances of an agreement over the coming four months given the apparently insurmountable distance between the negotiating positions–and are parties simply engaged in wishful thinking?

Much of the commentary on these talks has focused on the technical gulf that separates the parties. While it has already made significant concessions by freezing the expansion of its operations, halting its production of uranium enrichment to 20% and down-blending its stocks or fabricating fuel plates from them for its research reactor, Iran wants to keep its centrifuges (it has around 10,000 operating and another over 9,000 in reserve) and maintain its enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow (the latter deeply buried in a mountain, a fact deeply provocative to the United States and Israel who seem to believe that they have a right to hold Iranian nuclear facilities at risk of attack). This issue over enrichment capacity, alongside the sticky issue of the time period Iran would be in special measures, is at the crux of the negotiations because it is directly associated with the chosen measure of break-out time: the time it would take for Iran to enrich sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon after throwing out inspectors.

The narrative widely held in much of the world is that while Iran may not have made a concrete decision to develop nuclear weapons, their actions point to a clear desire to pursue this end at some future stage. Thus, Iran is seen to be undermining the non-proliferation treaty and flouting its obligations, in spirit if not the letter, and that this threatens future stability and non-proliferation norms.

This assumption is deeply held because otherwise Iran’s nuclear programme appears to make little rational sense. Why invest so heavily in developing its enrichment capability when its only power reactor, based in Bushehr, has been supplied by Russia and can only be fuelled for the indefinite future by uranium fuel rods from Russia? The current supply contract lasts until 2021, but Iran does not possess the intellectual property rights nor the technology to manufacture its own fuel rods. Any other reactors requiring fuel are well over a decade away from operation, and will probably have similar limitations on the fuel they accept.

Iran’s response, that it has experienced politically-motivated restrictions in the past around its access to uranium fuel is factually correct, but does not actually answer the practical challenge that the Russians­–for now–have a contractual and technical stranglehold over their supply, with or without a fully-functioning domestic enriched uranium supply. And unless the Iranians convert the heavy water Arak reactor, currently under construction, into a light water reactor, they will not need enriched uranium for that either.

However, just because the uranium enrichment programme does not make economic sense, does not in itself prove that Iran is developing it for military purposes. Many of those countries most critical of Iran have themselves pursued dimensions of civil nuclear power programmes that make little economic sense, sometimes because of a military dimension, but often not. Just look at the extreme white elephant of the UK’s THORP (thermal oxide reprocessing plant), one of the country’s largest engineering projects ever attempted, and now largely defunct.

There are several drivers behind Iran’s nuclear power programme: national prestige linked to the perception of this technology being cutting-edge, a symbol of modernity; the narrative of challenging technological apartheid; the need for energy diversity in an age of climate change and limited reserves. It is not difficult to explain the psycho-nationalistic factors behind the country’s enthusiasm for the nuclear programme that have little or nothing to do with possible military options.

Nevertheless, in the west the perception of Iran as an Islamic revolutionary regime with an agenda to export its ideology suggests its leadership would pursue tools to challenge the international status quo. The prevention of nuclear proliferation is a powerfully persuasive agenda in its own right, but to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of those who would seek to assertively challenge the current world order must surely sit at the top of the international agenda.

But perhaps the most powerful explanation is that developing a nuclear capability is the path that many western states, particularly those indoctrinated in the value of nuclear deterrence, would themselves take if faced with the same strategic circumstances as Iran. BASIC’s Trident Commission earlier this month, for example, recommended Britain renew its nuclear deterrent, not because of any imminent threat, but because there still remains possible (unlikely, though not negligible) scenarios in which a British nuclear deterrent could play a decisive role. It is inconceivable that this logic does not have influence upon Iranian leaders too, when they face far more salient and urgent security challenges to their national integrity.

In this way, western empathy with the Iranian position may actually lead to a position more hostile to Iran’s nuclear programme. Because we can identify with their strategic motives to acquire nuclear capabilities, we have to try even harder to prevent the Iranians from nuclear weapons. The trouble is, a strategy based upon prevention and denial can succeed for only so long. It will ultimately and inevitably fail. This is because dual-capable technology is continually developing and spreading, while the bar to acquire nuclear weapons is continually dropping. All this while power, money and influence diffuses through the international system. And while Iran is taking some time to develop efficient working centrifuges, they can only improve, and their capacity to enrich efficiently will also advance.

The current metrics so often referred to–Iran’s technical ability to break out and the imperative to lengthen this time through negotiations–is like King Canute turning back the waves. We may witness in these negotiations some form of agreement in the next few months that involve some dissatisfying restraint on the part of the Iranians (which is better than no deal) in return for some level of sanctions relief (though far from a full removal–that’s not in the president’s gift even if he were minded to offer it).

We can and must develop ever more sophisticated inspection and verification technologies and procedures that can coincide with stronger non-proliferation measures to assure the international community that nuclear programmes are strictly civil in nature, and whose material and technology cannot be diverted. Ultimately, however, the only longer-term barrier to nuclear proliferation is a system that is non-discriminatory and cooperative, cemented in international agreement in the interests of global security. And this means far more serious moves towards a world free of nuclear weapons.

The problem with this approach is that, taken to its logical conclusion, it demands even deeper changes in posture by the ‘world powers’ than it does by the Iranians. It requires them to exercise self-restraint in the use of their power, just as domestically the kings of old came to realize the hard way that their exercise of arbitrary justice had such a devastating impact upon their domestic legitimacy. And it requires those world powers to take their responsibilities towards global security and stability as members of the UN security council far more seriously, and to temper their pursuit of national security and influence at the expense of others.

Forget the straw man that says that if the British were to scrap their nuclear weapons it would have little or no effect on the predisposition of countries like Iran to forgo their nuclear programme. It is clear that the modernization programmes within the nuclear weapon states are sending a clear signal to the majority of NPT member states, like Iran, that have already expressed their support of the non-proliferation regime that their confidence is unwarranted. And states that feel betrayed or made a fool of–particularly when it comes to something as critical as national security­–do not take such lessons lying down forever.


This article was originally published as a regular column by Paul on Open Security, a section of OpenDemocracy.net.


PHOTO: Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with Secretary of State John Kerry (R) at talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program in Vienna, July 13, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Bourg