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Easy does it
Iran's nuclear program, policy and the predicament

September 27, 3003
The Iranian

It is unfortunate to see an externally driven process is affecting Iran's internal politics in a way that, once again, the Iranian people neither have the power to give their input nor affect its ultimate outcome. As a none specialist on nuclear issues, I fear a combination of current efforts by the neo-cons in Washington and irresponsible statements by the hardliners in Iran will have a negative impact on the reformists and democratic forces in Iran.

It is evident that neither the Shah nor the Islamic Republic consulted the public on this matter of great national importance. Therefore their decisions lack the essential elements of popular legitimacy and support. However, the fact that Iran needs to acquire nuclear technology for peaceful applications within scope of the country's national rights, and the fact that the country has spent a significant portion of its resources to build and rebuild the Bushehr nuclear plant for the past 30 years, make it impossible to immediately halt the ongoing peaceful programs. What would therefore be a plausible solution to existing predicament?

First, let's look at the opposing debates by the far right groups in both countries. On one side, there are the neo-cons, spearheaded by the American Enterprise Institute and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who are the proponents of "regime change" through coercion and destabilizing measures from outside.

The neo-cons have significantly contributed to the formulation of President Bush's current Middle East policy. Their philosophy differs from the moderates at the State Department and think tanks such as the Middle East Institute who favor engaging Iran with the hope of gradual change from within. An example of their approach is well reflected in Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, before the U.S.-Israeli Joint Parliamentary Committee on 17 September 2003. There, he argued:

Much progress has been made in exposing Iran's nuclear program and in forging an international will to respond vigorously. Now the time has come to move to the next stage, that is, to develop a consensus on possible Security Council actions if the IAEA Board condemns Iranian noncompliance. Developing such a consensus will be of great importance -- for the Bush administration, for the Security Council, for the global nonproliferation regime, and for preserving peace in the Middle East. Given the high stakes, the effort should soon move into high gear.? (Patrick Clawson: Evaluating the Options Regarding the Iranian Nuclear Threat)

He proceeds by arguing that the UN Security Council's options are not reassuring, since consensus may not emerge. This may lead to insufficient measures to force Iran to abandon its nuclear program. Clawson introduces four summary options that with intensive US support may pass by the Security Council and thereby halt Iran's nuclear program in its inception. Those four options are:

1. Banning the export of nuclear and military technology to Iran.

2. Freezing new economic agreements with Iran.(i.e., between the European Union and Iran)

3. Imposing broader economic sanctions on Iran.

4. Declaring unacceptable any Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons.

He concludes that:

All the policy options for responding to Iran's nuclear progress are seriously flawed: they may not be particularly effective and they may come at a high price. It is easy to criticize any one of the policies, but the worst policy would be to do nothing, which would lead to further WMD proliferation. The Middle East will become a very dangerous state if many states acquire nuclear weapons.

It is unfortunate that by instigating such provocative recommendations, Clawson and his colleagues undermine the efforts by the reformers and moderates elements of Iran's executive branch to get the current IAEA's Additional Protocols signed. In doing so, they actually enhance the possibility of Iran's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NTP).

Some argue that Iran's departure from the NPT is indeed what the neo-cons are ultimately striving for. At the same time, if as a tactical objective, the neo-cons think that by pursuing the WMD excuse they can destabilize the regime, they are badly mistaken. The issue has not only brought the reformists and the conservatives together along nationalistic sentiments, it has also aroused public anger that is well reflected in various editorials and newspapers with different political orientations.

Indeed, the magnitude of Iranians national sentiments with regards to their right to nuclear technology is so strong that even the late Shah's son Reza Pahlavi has been hesitant to publicly endorse the idea of striking Iran's nuclear sites by foreigners.

In contrast to neo-cons' narrow points of view, there are other authoritative experts, such as Shahram Chubin at the Geneva Center of Security Policy, who have suggested a less confrontational policy towards Iran's nuclear program. In his article in the Swiss daily Le Temps (June 19) Chubin argues:

Iran's programme is not as advanced as North Korea's nor as secretive as that of Saddam's Iraq. Given the lack of good alternative policy instruments (sanctions will delay but not stop the programme; threats will unite the country; regime change is not a guarantee; attacks are neither feasible nor cost-free; etc. etc.) a policy supporting a change in policy based on an indigenous decision, has much to recommend it.

The counterpart of the hawks and neo-cons in the US, are the hardliners in Iran. They, irrespective of the interest of the Iranian people, engage in confrontational rhetoric against the US and Israel which may expose the nuclear facilities to possible strikes by these countries. That is, in addition to possible loss of lives and property, such adventurous rhetoric may jeoperdise current and future scientific and technological advances for peaceful.

In a recent Tehran Friday Prayer sermon for example, Ayatollah Jannati said Iran should defy demands for tougher nuclear inspections and avoid signing an extra protocol to the treaty, demanded by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Such inspections, he said, would be an "extra humiliation". He even suggested that Iran should pull out of the NPT. "North Korea withdrew. Many countries have never entered it," he said.

Surprisingly, beside the hardline leaders, there are open-minded officials inside and outside the country who appear to be echoing the hardliner logic in favor of gaining nuclear technology as a deterrent against Israel, or a bargaining chip against US expansionist policies. In his recent article in Lebanon's Daily Star, Asgharkhani, a renowned authority on Iran's nuclear program, argued:

If you ask me as to whether or not Iran possesses the weapons, I would say no. If you ask me as to whether or not Iran will live up to its NPT commitments, I would say yes. If you ask me if Iran needs to nuclearize itself, I would say this is a must for Iran's strategy of survival. A nuclear Iran must not be seen as a threat to its neighboring countries or to Israel. The weapons would serve as a minimum deterrence for self-defense in a world of uncertainty. It is necessary not only as a substitute for fossil energy but also for Iran's social cohesion and prestige.

This line of argument seems to undermine the fact that the policies of internal suppression and international isolation advocated by the hardliners have brought Iran to a point where the country may have to forfeit, or significantly slow down, her legitimate national aspirations to acquire nuclear technology.

Fortunately, the National Participation Front, the main wing of the reformist movement, has wisely recommended that Iran should sign the Additional Protocols. The NPF has also harshly condemned those international forces that do not like to see advancement of any form of nuclear technology in Iran.

It seems that the more moderate members in the Foreign Ministry have also sensed the gravity of the situation. Kamal Karrazi has said that Iran is ready to cooperate fully and closely with IAEA, but, the ambiguous demands by the United States and the rest of the international community should be removed. In a meeting with Iranian-Americans in New York, Kharrazi reiterated his assertion by saying that Iran is willing to sign the Additional Protocols. But, he added, "the problem is that it is not clear whether or not the US will be satisfied with the current language of the IAEA's Additional Protocols."

Karrazi's assertion, however, has been contradicted by the fact that other Iranian officials have said Iran would scale back its cooperation with the IAEA in response to the October deadline to "prove" it is not building a nuclear bomb. The decision, announced by Iran's representative to the IAEA, suggests that Tehran will cooperate only in areas covered by agreements with the agency.

Obviously, one has to be cautious about comments made by diplomats and politicians, particularly in Iran where it is widely believed that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his inner circle make the final decisions on key matters.

As Chubin eloquently argues:

A debate within Iran on the wisdom/desirability of nuclear energy would wrench the issue out of the grasp of hardliners, who have kept the programme shrouded in secrecy. It would de-mythologize the benefits of nuclear technology and make it harder for the [hardline] elements of the government to use it as a cover for acquiring nuclear weapons. It would create the basis for a sensible agreement that could meet both Iran's reasonable needs and the concerns of the international community.

In addition Iran has the type of political structure and political consciousness likely to be receptive to this. Iranians are deeply skeptical about the unelected parts of their government and prone to question and debate decisions rather than accept them blindly. It would make the programme more democratically accountable. It would shine light on policies that have been adopted in secrecy and by cabals.

Domestic debate on the merits of the nuclear energy programme outlined above could be a prelude to a reversal of policy. Such a policy reversal would be more durable than the other approaches noted. Finally, in the worst case, if a democratic debate did not produce a policy reversal, a more democratically accountable regime with nuclear potential would be more reassuring, and possibly even more tolerable, for the international community.

I believe the National Participation Front's request to sign the Additional Protocols should not only be adhered to by the Iranian government but also be considered as the starting point of a long and informative national debate on the country's long term nuclear policy. That is, Iran should come forward with full transparency to demonstrate to the rest of the world that her intensions are peaceful and legal.

In reply to skeptics who fear that spent fuel rods from the Bushehr light-water reactor can be used to produce highly enriched plutonium, the Russians have agreed to purchase the spent fuel rods from Iran. Iran may also have to consider bringing to a halt activities at the Natanz and Kalaye sites where there are allegations of activities to enrich weapon-grade plutonium. Obviously, if there are other hidden agendas, concealed from the Iranian people and the international community, then the historical blame and responsibility for the future consequences will directly go to those who made the ultimate decisions at this time.


Mehrdad Valibeigi is a professorial lecturer of economics at the American University in Washington, DC.

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By Mehrdad Valibeigi



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