By Juan Cole
Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. (AP Photo/Presidency Office, Rouzbeh Jadidoleslam)
The implementation of the Iran accord Monday signaled a modest but still important sea change in that country’s relationship with the world. As with all good diplomacy, the deal is a win-win for Iran and the United Nations Security Council’s permanent members. The breakthrough is seen as a setback for Saudi Arabia and Israel, and also for the Israel lobbies on Capitol Hill, which fear it announces an end to attempts to contain Iran as a revolutionary force in the region. But in most world capitals, the agreement is being celebrated as a vindication of pragmatism and transparency, and European companies are lining up to get back into the Iranian market. Two pragmatists are at the center of the negotiations: Hasan Rouhani and Barack Obama.
Iran negotiated the deal with the UNSC permanent members plus Germany (called the P5 + 1). It provides for frequent and transparent inspections of the Natanz and Fordo enrichment facilities. In addition, Iran has ceased enriching uranium to 19.25 percent for its medical reactor, which produces isotopes for treating cancer. It can, however, continue to enrich to 5 percent for its nuclear reactors, which produce electricity. The measures are confidence-building steps, intended to reassure the West that Iran has no intention of producing a nuclear weapon.
Nuclear weapons first came to the Middle East when Israel began conspiring with supporters in France and Britain in the 1950s to import the technology. Despite attempts by President John F. Kennedy to forestall this development, by the late 1960s Israel had the bomb. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan even allegedly wanted to use it in the 1973 war against Egypt. Israel now has a secret stockpile of several hundred warheads, perhaps as many as France or Britain. At the same time, Indian scientists began working on nuclear technology, with an eye on China, which achieved nuclear weapons in 1964. The Indian bomb in turn determined Pakistan to construct its own, with Islamabad detonating its first device in 1998. The Israeli and Pakistani nuclear weapons programs encouraged Iraq to seek a bomb, though its program was never very successful and was dismantled by United Nations inspectors after the Gulf War of 1990-91. The lesson in the Middle East seemed clear. Actually having an atomic bomb equals deterrence from being attacked. Trying to get a bomb and taking too long opens your country to foreign aggression.
By the late 1990s, Iran was in a very dangerous neighborhood. Iraq had used chemical weapons, with U.S. backing, against Iranian troops at the front during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988; the U.S. categorizes these as “weapons of mass destruction.” Iranian intelligence knew that Saddam Hussein wanted a nuclear weapon, and U.S. and Israeli politicians maintained that there was still an active weapons program in Baghdad (this allegation was untrue). Israel, Pakistan, India, Russia and China—all neighbors or near neighbors—had the bomb.
The ayatollahs in charge of Iran for the most part have had a horror of nuclear weapons. Ruhollah Khomeini, who became Iran’s religious ruler in 1979, called nuclear weapons “un-Islamic” and initially forbade even reactors for electricity generation. His successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly condemned atomic bombs in a written fatwa and many oral statements that have the force of law. (Fatwas, or considered opinions on Islamic law, are often given in oral form by prominent Muslim jurists, just as “responsa” or legal opinions are given orally by rabbis in Judaism.) Khamenei says that making, stockpiling and using nuclear weapons are all forbidden in Islamic law, because they cannot be used without killing hundreds of thousands of innocent noncombatants.
Some Iranian hawks and engineers appear to have decided that even though they would never get permission to construct a weapon from the supreme theocrat (who is named by the Iranian constitution as commander in chief of the armed forces and of the security agencies), a nuclear program would still be useful. They appear to have believed that Iran would benefit from what has been called “the Japan option” or “nuclear latency” or “a breakout capacity.” This is the condition of being able to construct a nuclear weapon without actually doing so. Producing a nuclear weapon could make a country a pariah, as happened to North Korea, unless it had the firm backing of a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, which could veto sanctions (thus the U.S. holds Israel harmless, and Russia protected India after its 1974 test). Iran was too much of a maverick to hope for such a superpower patron. But just getting close enough to being able to make a bomb to deter an invasion or attempts at regime change was unlikely to provoke the same degree of isolation.
In addition, Iran was in danger of using so much of its own petroleum at home as to lose the income from exporting it. Unlike in the U.S., electricity in Iran is often generated by petroleum. As Iran industrializes, urbanizes and people begin driving more, all of Iran’s oil could end up being consumed domestically (as had already happened to Indonesia, formerly an exporter). Constructing nuclear plants to generate electricity, the route France, Japan and South Korea took, would ensure Iran’s energy independence and thus its political independence.
The nuclear program thus had two benefits, of fending off an invasion and of keeping Iran flush with oil profits. Given that Israel had promptly bombed Iraq’s French-built Osirak nuclear power plant in 1981 before it could go live, the Iranians involved in early enrichment activities before 2003 kept their program secret, which was technically a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran (unlike Israel, India or Pakistan) had signed. Regime opponents allied with Israel, probably the Mojahedin-e Khalq (The People’s Jihadis or MEK), infiltrated the nuclear program and blew the whistle on it late in 2002. Then-President Mohammad Khatami promptly acknowledged that Iran had some gas centrifuges for enriching uranium and had been experimenting with them toward making reactor fuel (uranium enriched to 5 percent or so). He also welcomed U.N. inspectors, who have been regularly scrutinizing the complex at Natanz ever since.
The apparent hopes of Iran’s pro-nuclear officials that they could get away with enrichment as long as they did not actually move toward a weapons program were misplaced. The Israeli leadership and its allies in the U.S. were determined to use the political support they had in Congress and in Western European governments to impose the harshest possible sanctions on Iran in hopes of getting it to drop the enrichment program (as Brazil, Argentina and South Africa had mothballed theirs). They were determined that Israel remain the only nuclear power in the Near East, and thus hegemonic in the region. Behind the scenes, and from a different angle, Saudi Arabia also pressured the Bush administration to stop the Iranian nuclear program, afraid that its success would make Tehran the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, which Riyadh calls the Arab Gulf. One State Department cable released by WikiLeaks even maintained that the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., urged a military strike on Natanz.
In response to ever-increasing sanctions, the quirky government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (president 2005-2013) upped the ante by enriching to 19.25 percent. This level was required for the small medical reactor given to Iran by the U.S. in 1969, which produced isotopes for treating cancer. But Ahmadinejad produced larger stockpiles of the 19.25 percent LEU (low enriched uranium, i.e., below 20 percent) than were required by the medical reactor, apparently as a bargaining chip. Those fearful of Iran’s weapons capacity were dismayed, since they reasoned that using gas centrifuges to get 19.25 percent enriched uranium to the 95 percent ideal for a bomb was easier than getting the 5 percent enriched stock to the same level. This reasoning may not be correct (nuclear enrichment is a complex subject that few politicians or journalists have really mastered), but the expressed anxiety level in Tel Aviv and Washington certainly increased.
Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and idiosyncratic pronouncements made him easy to vilify on the world stage. Journalists frequently used a mistranslation of his quote from Khomeini that “the occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time,” incorrectly rendering it as “Israel must be wiped off the face of the map.” The latter makes it sound as though Ahmadinejad were on the cusp of rolling tanks against Tel Aviv, whereas he was predicting that the Zionist regime would go the way of the Soviet Union and collapse internally. Thereafter, Ahmadinejad’s repeated assurances that Iran has a no-first-strike policy, rejects aggressive warfare and does not want to kill any Jews (it has several thousand of its own, who have a representative in parliament) fell on deaf ears in the West.
By 2011, the U.S. Congress and the Department of the Treasury had imposed what amounted to a financial blockade on Iran. The U.S. strong-armed other countries not to buy Iranian petroleum, cutting exports by a million barrels a day. It severed Iranian banks from the international banking system, making it difficult for Iran to get paid for its oil by countries like India or South Korea. The financial sanctions caused the Iranian rial to collapse against the hard currencies, inflicting real pain on the Iranian middle classes. European concerns, such as the French automaker Renault, had to pull out of their Iran partnerships, suffering large losses. Blockades are acts of war and often lead to war, and the U.S.-led financial blockade on Iran was a standing provocation that, if maintained, could easily eventually lead to hostilities (which would suit hawks on both sides).
Many Iranian politicians were contemptuous of Ahmadinejad’s buffoonish pronouncements and populist exuberance, and blamed him for the sanctions regime. He was limited to two terms, however, and this past summer he was succeeded by Rouhani, a cleric who had conducted nuclear negotiations with Europe in the early 2000s. Rouhani had been a hard-liner but moved somewhat to the left over the years, seeking slightly more personal freedoms and wanting to break out of Iran’s pariah status.
Rouhani and his team are convinced that their original plan for nuclear latency and nuclear power can succeed and sanctions can be lifted, if only Europe and the Obama administration can be assured that Iran really does not want a nuclear warhead and is not an aggressive power in the region. They are confident, in short, that Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and lack of transparency were the problems, not the program. Rouhani thus moved aggressively on coming to power to reach out to Obama and the UNSC. In the end, the negotiations succeeded not because Iran was crushed by sanctions and suddenly was willing to change policy. Rather, unlike the prickly Ahmadinejad, Rouhani understood that the sanctions regime was unpopular in Europe and could be undermined by simply being completely transparent about Iran’s real intentions, which were never to construct a weapon.
Israel and the senators funded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which groups thousands of Israel lobbies, will be satisfied with nothing less than a complete jettisoning of Iran’s enrichment program. Short of an invasion and occupation of Iran, however, that goal is impossible to achieve, since no Iranian government would survive if it gave up that much. Even the saber rattling of the far-right-wing Likud government and its American counterparts, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., proves the point for Iranian politicians committed to nuclear latency, since no similar calls are voiced to invade North Korea, which already has atomic bombs.
Even the tepid success of the negotiations so far has probably doomed the severe international sanctions regime. A hundred French companies are lined up to get into Iran, a country of 76 million with a gross domestic product similar to Poland’s. An attempt to undermine the negotiations by slapping more sanctions on Iran in the U.S. Senate may well have faltered, and the breakthrough Monday may anyway reduce its salience. The Arab Gulf consensus is also collapsing, with Dubai welcoming the end of sanctions on Iran, which will mean billions for its finance companies.
In the end, the negotiations were about how much lead time Iran will have to construct a weapon if its leaders abruptly decide the nation is existentially threatened. Remember that from the time George W. Bush announced at the U.N. in September 2002 that he was gunning for Iraq until the actual invasion was almost nine months. Iran can afford to have a relatively long lead time and still have the deterrence that comes with the Japan option. Rouhani knows this and is willing to see the lead time increased. By ceasing its enrichment to 19.25 percent and casting its stockpiles of uranium enriched to that level in a form that cannot be further enriched, Rouhani has sufficiently reassured the P5 + 1, including the Obama administration, such that they are willing slightly to reduce sanctions. The economic gains for Rouhani are minor, but the boosts in prestige and political momentum are huge. By his pragmatism, Rouhani is demonstrating to the hard-liners that he can achieve what they cannot—nuclear-generated electricity for the Iranian grid, a credible breakout capacity and an end to rigid international isolation. President Obama’s own pragmatic streak is also on display in these negotiations, and his goal of avoiding yet another Middle Eastern war is a step closer this week.
AP/Presidency Office, Rouzbeh Jadidoleslam