The West vs. Iran : What Room Left for Reason? (Europe’s World, January, 2009)

Iran’s nuclear programme has provoked passions on both sides but little rational policymaking, says François Nicoullaud, France’s former ambassador to Tehran. He sets out a practical approach for lowering the political temperature on both sides

When President Barack Obama opens the files on Iran’s nuclear programme, he will find negotiations have been stalled for more than three years. He may also notice that for the past six years the voices of reason have largely been drowned out, with passions and delusions playing a considerable role on both sides. Countries sitting on their own nuclear arsenal seem to think they can order Iran about; it’s a case of “do as I say, not as I do.” Another favourite delusion in the West is to believe that Tehran will eventually surrender if the pressure is steadily increased. Anyone familiar with Iran and its regime will know that this is actually the best way to provoke a defiant response. The West is also under the illusion that Iran would again be willing to suspend uranium enrichment, even though it received nothing in return for its previous 18-month suspension. Tehran is not in the business of making submissive gestures for no reward.

But Iran, too, harbours its own set of illusions. These include the notion that it can count on support from non-Western countries, or at least from some sort of Islamic caucus. Yet at each stage in the crisis, Iran has been let down by all or most of its “friends” during head counts on various resolutions at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the UN Security Council. Tehran has also long believed that it would at some point be able to split France, and perhaps Germany away from the U.S. camp – as if these two nations would risk infuriating the Americans for the sake of an Iranian leader such as Ahmadinejad. Above all, Iran deludes itself that it can stand alone, against the whole world and at the same time develop an advanced nuclear programme which would put it in the position to “play with the big boys.” Yet by going it alone, with or without a nuclear bomb, Tehran will inevitably become marginalised and turn itself into some kind of pariah. Put another way, continued isolationism would force Iran to reinvent nuclear technologies already invented by others, no doubt with poor results.

Passions are aroused on both sides. The West feels repugnance over the moral ugliness of the Iranian regime – its cynical transgressions of human rights and hypocritical mixing of religion and politics. This is evident in the daily behaviour of Western negotiators, and our public opinion abhors the constant insults directed at Israel, the Jews and western society in general.

There is a profound conviction in the West that an Iranian regime such as this must want nuclear weapons, and that therefore the Iranians are acting accordingly. This mindset ignores the fact that Iran has been forecast to develop the Bomb for the last 20 years. People remain convinced that next year, or maybe the one after, the prediction will finally come true. Thus, insidiously, the burden of proof is overturned. German Chancellor Angela Merkel summarised the West’s position when she told the UN in 2007: “The world does not need to prove to Iran that Iran is building an atomic bomb. Iran must persuade the world that it does not want the Bomb.” This was the approach formerly used with Saddam Hussein.

Emotions are running high in Iran too, which is happy to return to its familiar role as the eternal victim in the plots of the "Great Powers". The Iranian leadership garbs itself in the mantle of Mohammad Mossadeq, the Iranian prime minister who in 1951 defied Britain and the U.S. and seized back control of his country's oil. They dream of standing at the forefront of a united Islamic community and at the forefront of the vast mass of disinherited peoples around the world. Once such high ambitions have been proclaimed, and popular ire inflamed, it is very hard for Tehran to climb down again.

In these passionate realms, reason is hard to find. From time to time, Mohammed El Baradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has attempted to reintroduce it and reminded everyone that it is useless to focus on intentions, but that one must instead concentrate on capabilities. This standpoint raises practical questions about what Iran’s current capability to build an atomic bomb is, and how long it would take to produce one at the current estimated rate of progress. Would it be possible to detect in advance clandestine nuclear activity aimed at such a goal, and if so, what would Iran have to pledge in the matter of inspections and checks, and how might such pledges be obtained? Only after these topics have been exhausted and proven incapable of producing satisfactory answers would it be legitimate to use sanctions or force.

Taking these practical points further, we know Iran has made considerable progress with the centrifuge technology essential for producing the highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons. It is likely that Iranian teams have at one time or another been working on the mechanics of a nuclear explosive device, at least at the blueprint stage, and the country is also openly developing a ballistic missile programme which would bring many regional capitals within the reach of a nuclear attack. Israeli cities are, of course, the obvious targets.

That said, Iran must still bring all of these programmes together, and that cannot happen undetected. Iran may be capable of producing sufficient nuclear material to make one or two bombs within the next couple of years, but such activities would inevitably be brought into the open because Iran would have either to enrich the uranium under the eyes of IAEA inspectors, or expel them before proceeding with the enrichment stage. Either way it would give the game away. And at this stage it would still need more time, at least a year and probably longer to assemble one or two crude bombs of the type used at Hiroshima. The hardest part of all would then still lie ahead, that is miniaturisation needed to fit a nuclear device into a missile head. Iran's testing to see if the whole thing works would also be easily detected, so all in all, to build a credible nuclear arsenal Iran would need around a decade and possibly longer. During all this time, it would have set itself up as a target.

We are, thank God, still a long way from this point. Nor can anyone say for sure that such a programme has even been formerly adopted by the regime, although no doubt the outlines are sketched in the mind’s eye of many of Iran’s current leaders. Other Iranian leaders are also, no doubt, carefully weighing the political and other costs of such a venture – the risks of preventive strikes from outside, Iran's increased isolation in its own region and a high-stakes regional arms race.

The dice have not, as yet, been cast. But our options are becoming more and more limited, and will continue to narrow if the West maintains its present course. It is a great pity that formal negotiations with Iran have been stalled since 2005 amid western demands that Iran suspend all of its enrichment-related activities. Three years have been wasted and we have seen no signs of suspension or of a willingness to negotiate.

Would negotiations stand any chance with Ahmadinejad as president of Iran’s Islamic Republic? The answer is clearly “no” if our objective remains that of forcing Iran to renounce all activity on centrifugation. But we in the West should face the fact that this objective was just as unattainable in the days of President Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad’s reformist predecessor. The acquisition of this technology was already being paraded as a national cause back then. And there is no greater likelihood now that the West will succeed in this aim even if Ahmadinejad is replaced by a more moderate leader after the presidential elections this summer.

If we alter course, however, then there might still be a chance of making progress. For instance, if we were able to surround Iran’s nuclear activities with enough voluntarily accepted checks and controls, then the West could be confident of detecting any diversion towards military purposes in ample time. Iran could develop its programme whilst remaining a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; the IAEA would be able to carry out its role as watchdog, and perhaps confidence in Iranian intentions would slowly be restored if the country developed a coherent civil nuclear programme while respecting its international pledges.

Is this a realistic scenario? Perhaps not, but we won’t know unless we try. And how realistic are the alternatives: increasing sanctions, military strikes, perhaps war? Or will we in the West find we must surrender to the seemingly inevitable? Neither is a reassuring option. Alas, with the rational choices available to us such a narrow and difficult path, it looks much easier to take the wide highway opened by our own passions and illusions. Yet only rational behaviour by the West has any chance of eliciting a rational response from Iran.

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