Sanctions, the TRR, and the Future of Nuclear Diplomacy: An Iranian Perspective

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said earlier this week that the Islamic Republic is prepared to stop enriching uranium to the nearly-20 percent level required to fabricate fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), if others agree to provide new, finished fuel for the TRR, in line with the Joint Declaration that Iran negotiated with Brazil and Turkey in May.  Speaking at a press conference in Berlin with his German counterpart, Davutoğlu said that “another important message given by [Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr] Mottaki during his visit to Turkey [this past weekend, to meet with Davutoğlu and Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim] was that if the Tehran deal is signed and Iran is provided with the necessary fuel for its research activities, then they will not continue enriching uranium to 20 percent.”

Predictably enough, Western media outlets report that “U.S. and European diplomats said they believe the rash of new economic sanctions imposed on Tehran over the past two months has rattled the Iranian leadership,” prompting Iran’s renewed interest in talks and willingness to consider ceasing enrichment at the near-20 percent level.  In coming days, we will be elaborating our own view on the connections between sanctions, the Iran-Turkey-Brazil Joint Declaration, and prospects for the next round of nuclear talks with Iran, which are likely to take place in September, after the end of Ramadan.  For now, suffice it to say that, in our view, the assessment attributed to “U.S. and European diplomats” reflects another (seemingly willful) misreading of the Iranian position, for two reasons:

  • First, the Iranians have always — since they first proposed to the International Atomic Energy Agency last June to buy new fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) — linked their pursuit of enrichment to the near-20 percent level to the international community’s failure to come through, in a credible and timely way, to cooperation with Tehran to refuel the TRR.  There is nothing new in Mottaki’s position, also expressed recently in a television interview by Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, which can hardly be attributed to sanctions.
  • Second, the Iranian position, as described by Davutoğlu, stipulates international acceptance of the Joint Declaration — which includes an explicit acknowledgement of the Islamic Republic’s right to enrich uranium on its own territory.  In our conversations with them, Iranian officials have consistently indicated that acceptance of (safeguarded) enrichment in Iran would open up possibilities for cooperative solutions to a range of contentious issues in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear diplomacy with the world’s major powers.  The United States and its European partners have yet to come to terms with this in a serious way.

On these points, we want to share the perspective of Kayhan Barzegar, an outstanding scholar and foreign policy analyst who is currently on the faculty at Iran’s Islamic Azad University and is also a senior research fellow at the Center for Strategic Research and the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies (both in Tehran) and an associate of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.  We have highlighted some of Kayhan’s work on, on Iran-Russia relations, Iran’s foreign policy strategy, and the TRR issue’s significance in the wider context of multilateral diplomacy regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

Last week, the Belfer Center published an English translation of an Op Ed by Kayhan, “Sanctions to Spur Negotiations:  Mostly a Bad Strategy,” which had been published in Persian by ISNA and reprinted in Tabnak.  We present here some important passages from the Op Ed:

From recent events, it is clear that United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 1929 was adopted in order to force Iran to sit down at the negotiating table and accept the West’s conditions pertaining to Iran’s nuclear policy.  From the West’s perspective, Iran will only change its nuclear position when it is confronted by meaningful international pressure.  Such a view shows the West’s — and especially the United States’ — lack of understanding of the role and importance of Iran’s nuclear program in its domestic and international politics.  Contrary to what this misguided policy believes, more international pressure will compound Iran’s assertiveness and unwillingness to relent vis-à-visits nuclear policy.

Kayhan notes that there are three perspectives regarding the West’s aims in adopting the latest round of sanctions against Iran.  One holds that the main goal of the new sanctions “is to prepare global public opinion for conflict with Iran.”  Against this, Kayhan argues that, because the Security Council is extremely unlikely to authorize military action against Iran and because of continuing U.S. commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama Administration will probably not judge itself to be in a suitable position to initiate war with Iran.  He goes on to note that

There exists of course the issue of an Israeli military operation against Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Observers inside Iran believe that because of the existing domestic crises such as the inability to adequately deal with Hamas and the sentiments of global public opinion with respect to its disproportionate response to the Gaza flotilla crisis, Israel is not in the position to conduct a military operation against Iran.  As in the past Israel prefers to pressure the United States behind the scenes and plead with the latter to conduct a military operation against Iran.

Another perspective on the new sanctions, according to Kayhan, holds that they have been adopted “to contain Iran’s successful efforts in establishing regional and global” coalitions:

Because Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities are in accord with the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) rules and regulations and have international legitimacy, Iran can participate in new coalitions with rising powers and the critics of the dominant Western trends in the NPT in order to enhance its nuclear policy.  In this respect, the Tehran Nuclear Declaration (May 17, 2010) and Brazil and Turkey’s acceptance of Iran’s right to continue enriching uranium on its soil, supported subsequently by other countries, afford Iran the upper hand in future negotiations.  It is thus necessary from the West’s perspective to contain Iran’s power.  The new sanctions were rapidly adopted, drawing a fault-line in the sand and allowing the opponents and proponents to take their positions and be identified.  And because the West has many economic and political levers of pressure and influence, many countries were forced to accept the West’s new policy vis-à-vis Iran.  (emphasis added)

Interestingly, Kayhan expounded this particular argument in greater detail last month, shortly after the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929, in a piece published in Iran Diplomacy.  As he wrote then,

The Tehran Agreement was a massive step taken by Iran towards trust-building with the international community especially the United States.  While the above-mentioned initiatives taken by Tehran were an opportunity to create a new wave in the international political atmosphere, they also turned into a challenge and moved the once friendly Russia and China closer to other Western powers.  They realized that continued support for Iran at this level will undermine their long-held political clout and traditional authority at the United Nations Security Council.

Meanwhile, Iran’s new nuclear policy harbored the potential to challenge President Obama’s efforts to forge a global consensus against Iran.  This, amongst other reasons, led the United States to quickly pass another sanction resolution so as to gain the upper hand vis-à-visIran.  This may explain why immediately after the adoption of the Resolution, Washington announced that diplomacy remains on the table and the EU has asked Iran for a new round of negotiation. . . .

Russia and China’s recent position has shown to what extent these countries are ready to support Iran, as well as connect their global strategic issues with their short-term lucrative economic relations to Iran.  It has also shown that upon entering global strategic issues such as global nuclear disarmament, nuclear monopoly, etc., the Islamic Republic of Iran will face serious challenges, even from rival great powers like Russia and China.  By contrast, Turkey and Brazil admirably stood firm on their position and cast a negative vote against the 1929 resolution.  This could be a turning point for Iran in reassessing the role and place of new rising powers in its regional and international strategic affairs.

Finally, Kayhan argues that a third perspective on the new sanctions holds that they are necessary for Western powers to be able to negotiate “from a position of strength and thus ought to be considered diplomacy by other means.”  As he elaborates, this perspective reflects a belief that

coercive and meaningful sanctions will change Iran’s nuclear policy.  They are also essential for preventing a possible war, especially on the Israeli side.  Being more effective, the current multilateral sanctions should be advanced further by the unilateral sanctions of states.  Accordingly, President Obama signed the gasoline sanctions adopted by the U.S. Congress and a few other Western and European countries did or are currently doing the same.

Challenging the latter perspective, one should argue that no political faction or wing in Iran claims that new sanctions will not impact Iran’s economy and as even noted by Dr. Ali-Akbar Salehi, the Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, sanctions will slow the pace of Iran’s nuclear activities.  But the fact of the matter is that sanctions will not change Iran’s nuclear position.  Because beyond the issue of energy and technological advancement, this program is an identity-value issue and relates to Iran’s regional and global roles and status.

Meanwhile, since sanctions and economic constraints will directly impact ordinary Iranians, they will intensify the current sense of distrust towards the West and especially the United States in all political trends and people, subsequently resulting in national mobilization and unity, thereby strengthening the hand of the Iranian government to resist the sanctions.  This is the complete opposite of the result desired by the West.  Here even unilateral sanctions by the United States and European countries will have a more destructive effect on the two sides’ relations.

Kayhan concludes that, while the “sanctions for negotiations” policy may, on the surface, seem to be a diplomatic success for the United States and its allies,

in practice it will have paradoxical consequences for containing Iran or changing its nuclear policy.  Undoubtedly, the new sanctions will deepen the existing distrust between Iran and the West and have the potential of leading both sides to a dead-end and lose-lose game over nuclear negotiations and related issues.  The West must find a sustainable solution based on a win-win strategy and relative satisfaction of both sides.

The West will have another opportunity to find a “sustainable solution based on a win-win strategy and relative satisfaction of both sides” when nuclear talks reconvene in September or so.  But realizing this opportunity will require, among other things, that the United States and its European partners be prepared to accept the reality of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil as an indispensable element in a sustainable, win-win solution.

More on this important topic later.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 29 July 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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