Iranian leaders have reached consensus on the country's controversial nuclear program, deciding that the benefits of possessing atomic capabilities outweigh the possible consequences of flouting international opinion. A hardening of the European Union's anti-proliferation position apparently led Iranian leaders to conclude that a deal could not be achieved with the international community, under which Iran would have halted its nuclear research in return for security guarantees and economic assistance.
During the past two years, Iran's nuclear program has been a subject of negotiations between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Throughout the talks Iranian officials have sought to take advantage of differences in the US and EU stances on the issue. The United States, which views Iran as a member of the "Axis of Evil" embraces a hard-line position that favors coercive action to foil Iran's nuclear research efforts. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The EU, until recently, had been more accommodating, willing to explore incentives that would induce Iran to comply with international non-proliferation standards.
Following late July discussions in Paris with EU officials, however, Iranian leaders concluded that a "grand bargain" on the nuclear issue was beyond reach. Leading EU states France, Germany and Great Britain -- were reportedly not receptive to a set of concessions that Tehran said it must receive for it to halt its nuclear program. Among the concessions sought by Iran were; a comprehensive security guarantee; access to purchasing conventional weapons from EU member states; a ban on nuclear weapons in the Middle East; and unspecified economic incentives.
According to a report in Kayhan, a newspaper controlled by Iranian hardliners, EU officials during the Paris talks hardened their position on the nuclear issue, demanding a guarantee that Iran would not withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The EU also reportedly sought a commitment from Tehran to provide information on all nuclear-related import-export activities, along with a requirement that Iran cooperate on efforts to combat terrorism and reduce regional tension. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In assessing the latest Paris round of negotiations, Iranian leaders collectively decided to press ahead with the country's nuclear program regardless of the possible international ramifications, in particular United Nations Security Council censure. Accordingly, shortly after the Paris meeting, Iran announced that it would resume the production of centrifuges used for enriching uranium.
"The gap between the Europeans and Iran has been widening steadily," said Jon Wolfstahl, deputy director of the non-proliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "There is currently neither enough pressure on Iran to sop its program, nor enough incentive for it to reach agreement with the Europeans and the IAEA."
Since the start of August, Iranian leaders have sought to justify the country's right to develop its atomic capabilities. On August 15, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told an assembly Iranian diplomats that the country was "following its logical objective of making peaceful use of nuclear energy," the official IRNA news agency reported.
On August 11, President Mohammad Khatami told a news conference that international actions would not deter Iran from pursuing nuclear research. "Even though we don't want our case to go to the [UN] Security Council, if they [members of the international community] try to deprive us of our basic rights, both we and the people must be prepared to pay a price."
Iran reportedly resumed work on a nuclear program in 1984, reviving secretive efforts begun under the Shah prior to the Islamic Revolution. At the time of the program's resumption, the country was in the midst of a bitter, eight-year war with neighboring Iraq. Officials in Tehran at the time felt nuclear capabilities were needed to neutralize the use of chemical weapons by the Iraqi military. Today, many Iranian officials continue to believe that nuclear capabilities would offer the best deterrent to a variety of potential security threats.
Iran's nuclear research managed to remain underground until 2002. The IAEA quickly took up the matter after news of Iranian development efforts came to light. According to experts in Tehran, while there is consensus in the country's political hierarchy on the need to develop a nuclear capacity, opinion is still divided on how that capacity should be utilized. Some leaders favor the development of nuclear arms, while others would limit the atomic capacity to civil applications. A few leaders would be willing to use the country's full-fledged nuclear capabilities as a bargaining chip in future negotiations on global economic and political topics.
In deciding to carry on with nuclear research in the face of stiff international opposition, Tehran appears to believe that possible punishment will lack substantial bite. The Iranian policy calculus is driven by several geopolitical factors. For one, Tehran feels that the United States lacks the resources, given Washington's preoccupation with Iraqi reconstruction efforts, to directly challenge Iran with retaliatory action.
Iranian officials also do not expect the UN Security Council to impose extensive economic sanctions on Tehran. They base their belief on the fact that global oil and gas prices are already at high levels, and that the United States and EU are unwilling to see costs rise. Sanctions that would take Iranian natural resources off the international market would likely add to the existing fuel shortage, potentially sending energy prices sharply higher.
In addition, Tehran does not appear concerned about the possibility of an Israeli air strike, such as the 1981 raid that derailed Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions. Iran, according to experts in the country, has taken precautions against such preemptive action, spreading out its research facilities, placing some in urban areas and others in underground locations.
Wolfstahl, the non-proliferation expert, citing confidential sources, said the prevailing view within the Israeli government is that a military raid would stand an extremely low chance of success in deterring the Iranian nuclear program. "An air strike would only slow down Iran's program," Wolfstahl said. "In the absence of perfect intelligence, [Iranian leaders] would be likely to restart the [nuclear] program in short order."
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.