The Iranian Nuclear Issue

I have been tracking the Iranian nuclear issue for about ten years. Important in its own right, this issue also has significant implications for the international agenda on nuclear weapons disarmament.

Let it be noted at the outset that the expression in question – “Iranian Nuclear Issue” – is a freighted one; it suggests the problem rested squarely with Iran, that the other countries involved (the P5 + 1 or more accurately the E3+3) were responding to a problem of Iranian making.

Things were never so simple, as the issue was as much or perhaps even more a European and especially a US problem with Iran, namely a set of perceptions about the intentions of the Iranian leadership regarding its nuclear enrichment program.

Iran nuclear deal: agreement in Vienna, July 2015. From left to right: Foreign ministers/secretaries of state Wang Yi (China), Laurent Fabius (France), Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Germany), Federica Mogherini (EU), Mohammad Javad Zarif (Iran), Philip Hammond (UK), John Kerry (USA). Foto: Dragan Tatic for Bundesministerium für Europa.

I’m uncertain whether I would go so far as to call this a “manufactured problem”, but if one were to go back to Western newspapers, for instance the Wall Street Journal, during selected periods over the last ten years, one will be struck by the near hysteria which dominated the reporting. Day after day Iran was in the headlines, and a Western reading public could easily come away with the impression that Iran was poised to join the rank of countries possessing nuclear weapons, and even worse that it intended to put these weapons to use. We now know this was far from the truth. I think that Iran has every right to rebuke the unfounded accusations that were flung about at that time, often to justify the unjustifiable doctrine of preventive war.

This has recently been commented on by Iran’s UN ambassador in a speech to the Security Council.

Of course we have to recognize a similar negative dynamic was at work in Iran, where gratuitous comments by some in high leadership positions fed into the narrative that Iran had hostile intentions. This had particularly damaging effects during the Ahmadinejad presidency.

In light of the atmosphere that prevailed up until about 3-4 years ago, the successful nuclear deal (“the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”) represents a signal achievement. It was almost unimaginable ten or even five years ago.

At bottom, the achievement represents a new climate of trust between Iran and Western countries. Indeed, the nuclear agreement became possible because some trust had emerged despite nearly four decades of mutual animosity, recriminations, and missed opportunities.

In describing the deal in terms of “trust” I recognize that there are competing narratives. It has been claimed that the nuclear deal is simply the fruit of power politics. By the imposition of stringent sanctions, Iran was pressured to “return to the negotiating table” and ultimately to make compromises it would never have made otherwise. The parties reached an agreement despite the abiding distrust that persisted between them. An improved climate of trust had little or no bearing on the agreement that was eventually reached.

I believe this is a flawed account, for two reasons.

  • First of all a case can be made that Iran had never left the negotiating table; that in fact the most noticeable aspect was the new presence of US negotiators after years of absence.
  • Second, and more centrally, the deal became possible only when Iran’s negotiating counterparts, particularly the US, were finally able to issue convincing assurances of their intentions – and vice versa.

Mistrust consists at bottom in doubting someone else’s intentions. This becomes a lens through which the other’s actions are viewed and evaluated. Quite strikingly, the very same sort of actions will be assessed differently depending on the presence or absence of trust.

All negotiations involve bargaining. And in normal situations we are not bothered by the standard horse-trading (as it is called) whereby each side starts off by asking for more than it hopes to get. We recognize that this is just part of the dynamic toward reaching a compromise somewhere in the middle. But if distrust prevails, such horse-trading is taken to confirm the malicious intent of the other; hence for Iran, US/European demands for little or no enrichment were taken to be a sign that the real aim of the negotiations was not to curtail a nuclear program, but rather something beyond it, namely to restrict Iran’s influence in the region, and beyond that, ultimately to effect regime change. On the other side, demands made by Iran in favor of its inherent right to develop an independent nuclear energy program were taken to be a mere ploy – “they have so much oil and gas they don’t need nuclear energy” – to buy sufficient time to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.

The optic changed, however, when a modicum of trust began to emerge. In this connection, some symbolic gestures were important. President Obama’s Nowruz speech of 2009, where for the first time a US head of state publically referred to Iran as the “Islamic Republic of Iran”, was potentially a game changer. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remained skeptical, but the US administration’s more respectful public language nonetheless set a tone that had positive diplomatic implications over time. Much in a similar vein could be said about President Rouhani’s speech at the UN in September 2013, his well calibrated outreach to Americans during his stay in the city, and of course his brief but courageous telephone call with President Obama while on route to the airport. And throughout much of this period, Ayatollah Khamenei issued clear statements that nuclear weapons were condemnable. On both pragmatic and religious grounds, he asserted that Iran had no intent in acquiring such weapons, neither for use nor even for purposes of deterrence.* This also contributed toward improving the climate of confidence.

What lessons can we learn from all this?

One key point, I think, is that in international affairs as in everyday life we should not minimize the importance of demonstrating respect, and avoid maximizing the fruitfulness of threats. Indeed, I believe there is solid evidence that each time the US Congress called for increased sanctions, or president Obama repeated the mantra “all options are on the table”, the Iranian leadership retreated from its posture of engagement. Setting aside the question of their inherent morality or immorality, I think it is safe to say that threats were here shown to be counter-productive; their issuance played into an Iranian narrative that demands for concessions on the nuclear issue were part of a “salami strategy” to obtain ever greater concessions.

Fortunately, in the end the trust narrative won out over the salami strategy narrative – but when it comes specifically to US-Iranian relations a reversion to the earlier climate of distrust remains possible. Belief in the fruitfulness of threats is still prevalent in many quarters. But the empirical evidence justifying threats is thin at best.

More generally, there could be real benefit in academic research that shows the inherent weakness of the threats-based paradigm in international relations; similarly and on the other side of the coin, much more could be done to show the pragmatic advantages of an approach built up around the model of cultural dialogue and the time-honored ideal of amity between nations. Increased recognition that an international order built up around threats – euphemistically labeled “deterrence” – is both unstable and unjust should incentivize us to work for the implementation of a new paradigm.

* The text of Khamenei’s 2010 declaration to the First International Conference on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation may be found in the anthology I have co-edited with Henrik Syse:  Religion, War, and Ethics: A Sourcebook of Textual Traditions.

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