Originally published in Veterans Today.
Kourosh Ziabari: The past decade has been witness to unending and unremitting clash between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear program. The West has constantly accused Iran of trying to build nuclear bombs while Tehran has persistently denied the allegation. What do you think about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program? Why has it become so controversial and contentious? We already know that there are four nations in the world, who are not signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but nobody in the international community pressures them to halt their nuclear program and nobody investigates their nuclear arsenals. Why Iran is being singled out?
Abolghasem Bayyenat: Iran’s nuclear program is driven by two major factors. The most important factor is genuine domestic need for electric power generation. Iran’s fossil fuel reserves have been fast depleting over the past few decades in light of the growing domestic consumption caused by population growth, ongoing industrialization and economic development in Iran. The prospect of full depletion of fossil fuel reserves motivated Iranian leaders to seek alternative sources of energy. Nuclear power presented itself as the most reliable alternative source of energy for Iran, given its sustainability and tested performance in developed countries.
The second important factor is that developing nuclear power and harnessing nuclear energy represents an advanced scientific realm and progress in that front serves as a source of national pride for Iran. A limited number of nations in the world have been able to master the full nuclear fuel cycle. Development of an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle capacity along with progress in other advanced scientific realms such as space program and stem cell research can thus positively influence Iran’s national self-image and elevate its international prestige.
The reasons why Iran’s nuclear program has become controversial are twofold: First, Iran’s decision to materialize its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to develop peaceful applications of nuclear technology and nuclear fuel cycle in particular; what can make this controversial in the eyes of Western powers is the dual use of nuclear technology. Possessing full nuclear fuel cycle technology enables states to produce the material needed for ultimate use in nuclear weapons. Building nuclear bombs of course requires much more than just possessing sufficient stock of highly-enriched uranium or plutonium, but mastering this technology enables such states to make the essential ingredients for a bomb and thus become closer to building nuclear warheads.
One may rightly argue that the safeguards mechanisms of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) makes it everything but feasible for the member states of the NPT to proceed to producing weapons-grade material for nuclear bombs. The main rejoinder to this argument is that states arguably always have the option to withdraw from the NPT under certain circumstances and terminate IAEA inspections on their nuclear facilities, if they are willing to face the consequences of such an action. In a nutshell, possessing nuclear fuel cycle technology or seeking nuclear threshold status can pose risks for nuclear proliferation in the world, even though the NPT grants this right to its member states.
While a necessary condition, this factor however is not a sufficient cause for Iran’s nuclear issue becoming controversial. After all there are a number of other nuclear threshold countries in the world, not to mention nuclear-armed states, whose nuclear programs have not drawn any international controversy. What makes Iran’s nuclear program controversial is Iran’s political identity as a state or who Iran is or what it stands for. The combination of seeking nuclear threshold status and Iran’s political identity has turned Iran’s nuclear program into a controversial issue. Speaking in the language of social sciences methodology, there is an interactive effect between these two variables in the sense that each of these two variables is significant only in combination with the other variable or its effect is intensified in interaction with the other. Iran’s political ideology as practiced in its foreign policy, especially in regard to the Middle East region and the United States, largely represents Iran’s political identity.
The reason why Iran is being singled out while there are other countries in the region and beyond which are not parties to the NPT and have weaponized their nuclear programs with impunity is the same as above. On the surface, it is all a legal issue in that those countries which are not signatories to the NPT are not bound by its rules, including the IAEA safeguards mechanisms, and have thus been able to nuclearize with impunity. However, if this were so, those countries which withdraw from the NPT and are thus no longer bound by its regulations should enjoy the same privileges as those outside the NPT, as notifications of withdrawal from the NPT automatically come into force after three months without any need for approval by other contracting parties. There are conflicting interpretations of paragraph 1 of Article X of the NPT though. Yet the reality is that this is not the case and states may face harsh punitive measures by hegemonic powers even if they are not subject to the NPT regulations, as the experience of the withdrawal of North Korea from the NPT demonstrates.
In sum, the reason why Iran is being singled out while some aggressive nuclear-armed states in the region enjoy impunity is primarily political rather than legal. Iran’s political identity, as shaped by its official ideology and the history of its relationship with the United States and European powers, has put its foreign policy at odds with the interests of imperial powers in the region. The international controversy over Iran’s nuclear issue can thus be understood in this context.
KZ: Over the past years, the United Nations Security Council, under the pressure of the United States and its European allies, imposed four rounds of crippling economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. These sanctions targeted Iran’s oil and gas sector, aviation industry, health and medicine sector, consular affairs and in a nutshell, every aspect of the daily life of the Iranian citizens who had been trying to rise from the ashes of the devastating war with Iraq in 1980s. What do you think about these sanctions and their impact on the life of the Iranian citizens? Don’t these sanctions resemble some kind of human rights violation? Iranian people are deprived of having access to the most essential commodities of their daily life as a result of these sanctions. What’s your take on that?
AB: The sanctions against Iran have publicly been represented by Western powers as selective and targeted measures with the aim of only pressuring the Iranian government to reconsider its position on its nuclear issue. This public image has been promoted to avoid a public opinion backlash against Western governments. The experience of the U.S. sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s, which contributed to a humanitarian catastrophe in that country whereby hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children reportedly perished as a result of malnutrition and shortage of medicines and other medical supplies exacerbated by the U.S. sanctions, had created public aversion to the use of sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy. Despite Western governments’ rejection of any analogy between their current sanctions against Iran and those imposed on Iraq in the 1990s, the reality is that Western governments have set their feet on the same path especially by introducing unilateral sanctions against Iran.
Many of the measures adopted against Iran, such as those targeting Iran’s energy sector, civil aviation and maritime transportation, among others, are indiscriminate by nature and have impacts much wider than that publicly advertised by Western governments. They are designed to inflict collective punishment on the whole country with the ostensible aim of pressuring the Iranian government. As such, they are contrary to international law and international moral principles as established and advocated by Western governments themselves.
To have a better sense of the impact of the Western sanctions on the general population of Iran, we can take a look at the sanctions imposed against Iran’s energy sector as an example. The stated goal of these measures is to deprive Iran from its principal source of revenue over time by prohibiting foreign investments in its oil and natural gas sectors and disrupting Iran’s international financial transactions in these products. Western governments justify these measures by arguing that revenues emanating from oil exports and the sale of other energy products help Iran finance its nuclear program. However, the reality is that while a fraction of Iran’s foreign exchange revenues may also be channeled to finance Iran’s nuclear program, Western governments tend to ignore the fact that these same revenues also account for the bulk of Iran’s public budget which helps finance public health services, public education, subsidized food for the poor and many other social services programs.
Around 80 percent of Iran’s foreign exchange revenues come from the export of energy products and any long-term disruption of such revenues can seriously hamper the Iranian government’s capacity to provide public services to its people. Western governments may rejoice at this prospect but they would be disappointed to find out that this will have minimal impact on the resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue. The Iranian government will be able to continue financing its nuclear program as it does not constitute a substantial item on the government budget and the public anger at the disruption of social services will also be directed at the West rather than the Iranian government. Other Western sanctions against Iran such as those targeting civil aviation and maritime transportation sectors also have the effect of inflicting a collective punishment upon the general population of Iran without making any meaningful contribution to the resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue.
KZ: With their sophisticated intelligence apparatus, the United States and its European allies should have come to the conclusion that Iran does not have the intention of building nuclear bombs nor does it have the capability to build one. Iran has repeatedly stated that it will publicly announce once it decides to build an atomic bomb because it is afraid of nobody. Is the pressure on Iran over its nuclear program part of an agenda to derail Iran’s status as a regional superpower and isolate it internationally, or is it really a matter of ignorance and unawareness on the side of the West?
AB: As I explained in my answer to your first question, gaining nuclear threshold status is not equivalent to having the capacity to manufacture a nuclear bomb but it enables the states possessing such capacity to produce the essential ingredients for ultimate use in a bomb, should they choose to terminate their membership in the NPT. A number of American and also European political and intelligence officials have publicly acknowledged that Iran does not have the political will to manufacture nuclear weapons but they insist that they cannot predict Iran’s future intentions.
Possessing nuclear threshold status or even developing nuclear arms is not a sufficient cause for international controversy over a state’s nuclear program. As I mentioned earlier, Iran’s political identity interacts with its nuclear threshold capacity to turn its nuclear program into a matter of concern for the West. When it comes to the motives of Western countries in their confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program, we should note that the West is not a monolithic and united front. Both the United States and major European powers have an interest in preventing Iran from maintaining nuclear threshold status. But the role of political identity of Iran is more determining in its relations with the United States than with most European powers as the latter maintained largely normal commercial and political relations with Iran before its nuclear program came into the spotlight.
In contrast, Iran’s problems with the United States will not come to an end with the resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue and the relations of the two countries will continue to be strained due to the long-standing crisis in their relationship. As in the past, other contentious issues will emerge in the relations of the two countries thus serving as a pretext for sustaining the deep-seated hostility between the two countries. Given the largely conflicting political identity of the two governments which in most contexts has defined conflicting foreign policy interests for the two countries , the United States views its relations with Iran as a zero-sum game and will thus struggle to contain Iran’s growing power and influence in the region, even if this would mean swimming against the tide and creating unnecessary costs for its foreign policy in the region.
KZ: Israel is said to be the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. With a declared policy of deliberate ambiguity, it has prevented the international community from investigating its arsenals, and the global organizations such as the UNSC in turn have shown little interest in focusing on Israel’s dossier. Why can Israel enjoy immunity from international law and be exempted from being held accountable before the public opinion?
AB: As you indicated, it is an open secret that Israel possesses a formidable nuclear weapons arsenal. There are multiple reasons why Israel has escaped international scrutiny over its nuclear program. The apparent reason is legal. Israel has refused to become a member of the NPT and is thus not bound by its rules. This has in part provided a shelter for Israel from international criticism over its nuclear program. As you have also brought up, Israel’s policy of strategic ambiguity with regard to its nuclear weapons program has also contributed to this immunity from international scrutiny. Unlike India and Pakistan, Israel has not openly tested any nuclear device for various reasons and this has also helped its nuclear weapons program go largely unnoticed.
But above all, the unconditional and unwavering U.S. support for Israel at the UN Security Council and other international forums has effectively blocked international calls for investigation into Israel’s nuclear program. There is no hope for introducing any resolution in the UNSC on this matter as the United States stands too ready to veto any resolution which happens to be slightly critical of Israel. The fact that Israel is not a member of the NPT has also facilitated the task of the United States in preventing the issue of Israel’s nuclear arsenals from appearing on the agenda of relevant international organizations by supplying it with a convenient legal justification.
Despite this prospect, any call for international probe into Israel’s nuclear program should primarily come from Israel’s neighboring countries as, more than any other country in the world they are endangered by Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal. However, autocratic Arab rulers have historically placed the survival of their regimes above their national interests and popular preferences. Given the lack of democratic accountability in the Arab world, conservative authoritarian Arab regimes have refrained from seriously pushing for international scrutiny into Israel’s nuclear weapons program and calling for nuclear disarmament in the Middle East region, as demanded by their publics. These regimes have instead defined their interests in close harmony with Israeli and U.S. interests in the region by calling for international pressure on Iran’s IAEA-monitored nuclear program.
KZ: During the recent years, Israel has been incessantly threatening Iran against a nuclear strike and a preemptive war. The United States also has repeated the same slogans with a different frequency. Don’t these threats exemplify violation of the UN Charter and Geneva Convention? Do you take seriously these threats? Overall, do you think that either of these two stalwart allies will finally attack Iran?
AB: As you have also suggested, issuing unprovoked military threats against a sovereign state constitutes a breach of various instruments of international law governing peace and security. These threats should be taken seriously and condemned by the international community as they set a dangerous precedent in international relations. Yet they do not represent a genuine military threat against Iran and remain largely as a propaganda tactic. Israeli leaders understand both the risks and futility of any such military adventures against Iran. There are several factors which discourage the execution of such military threats against Iran. First, there is the feasibility problem in the sense that there are serious challenges for Israel in executing such a military threat against Iran. The long distance between the two countries poses various obstacles for carrying out such a military adventure, including flying over unfriendly countries, refueling problem for attacking aircrafts, Iran’s effective air defense and so on.
Second, any such military attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities will largely be ineffective and futile. Most nuclear facilities of Iran are protected with passive defense arrangements, since they are buried deep in mountains or under ground and are also scattered all over the country. Under the best circumstances, any hypothetical attack by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities will only exert minimal damage on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and thus delaying its nuclear progress for only a short time. Iran has achieved self-sufficiency in most elements of its nuclear program and will be able to rebuild its nuclear facilities within a reasonable amount of time drawing on its indigenous capacities.
Third, the fallouts from such a military adventure will be unbearable for Israel. Iran will definitely retaliate against Israel with full force in the event of such an attack on its nuclear facilities. Iran’s regional allies will also play their own part in carrying out such a retaliation against Israel. This in turn will raise the prospect of an all-out regional war and Israeli is all but willing to endure such costs. Cool-headed Israeli politicians grasp the extent of calamities that such a military adventure against Iran would unleash for Israel and have thus strongly warned in public against considering such an option.
Other fallouts from such a military adventure may include Iran’s withdrawal form the NPT and terminating the IAEA inspections on its nuclear facilities. This would not necessarily mean that Iran will revise its attitude towards nuclear weapons and would rush to build atomic bombs, even though it might be forced to go down that path in the aftermath of such an attack, but would largely signify Iran’s frustration with international organizations to guarantee the security of its peaceful nuclear activities. Taking these consequences into account, I think as long as rationality guides national security decision-making in Israel, such military threats will never materialize against Iran.
The United States is even more averse to considering a military attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities than Israel. The United States is already bugged down in two wars in the neighborhood of Iran and is well aware of its vulnerabilities in these countries, should Iran decide to seriously challenge it in those arenas. To this, one should add a host of domestic problems facing the U.S. government and a public weary of military adventures abroad. For similar reasons, U.S. policy-makers are also convinced of the futility and ineffectiveness of a military option against Iran.
Despite these realities, Israeli politicians tend to repeat their military threats against Iran in part to pressure the United States and other Western powers to intensify their pressure on Iran and in part to divert international attention form their own nuclear weapons arsenal and their continued occupation of the Palestinian lands and their other atrocities against Palestinians.
KZ: Some critics of the foreign policy of President Ahmadinejad administration believe that he isolated Iran in the international stage with his radical policies toward the West. They also say that he failed to direct Iran’s nuclear program in the right path and thus lost many opportunities including a cordial and amiable relation with the United States and Europe. Do you agree with them?
AB: I personally do not think some of President Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric in foreign policy are helpful but I do not attribute the current standoff between Iran and Western powers to that. I have already explained in my answers to your previous questions what I consider to be the root causes of the crisis in Iran-Western relations.
The existing crisis in Iran-Western relations obviously predates the election of President Ahmadinejad. Iran was branded as part of ‘the Axis of Evil’ and further demonized by former U.S. President George Bush at a time when actually a reformist president was in power in Iran, who had promoted dialogue between Islam and the Western civilization and had advocated détente in Iran’s foreign policy with the West. Under former Iranian President Khatami, Iran had also extended practical cooperation to the United States in its fight against terrorism after the September 11, 2001, but only to be rewarded with more hostility by the United States.
Having said this, there is no doubt that Iran became subject to more pressure by Western powers since Ahmadinejad came to office. Ahmadinejad’s risk-taking behavior in relation to Iran’s nuclear policy has provoked further hostile reactions by Western powers against Iran. But no gain in foreign policy comes without its due costs. Iran has also gained significant technological achievements in its nuclear program and has considerably developed its domestic capacity in various areas of nuclear activities.
Even if Iran was forthcoming on the nuclear issue as during President Khatami’s tenure, U.S. antagonistic policies towards Iran would persist in new forms. Given that even Khatami’s reformist government was not willing to extend the temporary suspension of Iran’s nuclear activities, which was adopted as a temporary confidence-building measure, I believe more ore less the same level of Western confrontation with Iran would have been inevitable even if a reformist government was still in power in Iran
KZ: What do you think of the prospect of Iran’s nuclear standoff? Will the upcoming U.S. Presidential elections have a serious impact on the course of events related to Iran’s nuclear program? Some critics of Iran’s foreign policy believe that Iran was lucky that Barack Obama won the 2008 elections because every other candidate would certainly attack Iran if won the elections. What’s your viewpoint?
AB: It does not appear that the United States is genuinely interested in having Iran’s nuclear issue resolved in any reasonable manner as its current strategy is solely geared to inflicting utmost pain on Iran. Western powers’ insistence on unrealistic preconditions for negotiations and not showing due flexibility to recognize Iran’s core legitimate interests has allowed no room for optimism for the resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue any time soon. The hard-line position of the United States has already drawn the sharp criticism of top American foreign policy experts and veteran Western diplomats who command close knowledge of the issue.
I don’t see how the upcoming U.S. presidential elections would contribute meaningfully to the resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue. Past experience has shown that changing political circumstances may only effect tactical changes in U.S. policy towards Iran and as long as the root causes of the current stand-off are not addressed no permanent solution to the issue can be perceived.
I also don’t think that Iran was lucky Obama was elected as U.S. president. Because the Obama administration has played down the option of a military attack against Iran it has been more effective than the Bush Administration to bring European countries and, to some extent, China and Russia on board to exert some pressure on Iran. As soon as the threat of a military attack against Iran gains more currency within the U.S. administration, this fragile coalition would start to crumble down.
The record of Bush administration on Iran serves as an example for how far a hawkish Republican administration would achieve on the Iran front, had it won the U.S. elections. Besides, the first priority of every American administration would have been addressing domestic problems in light of the ongoing economic recession. Opening any new war front on top of Iraq and Afghanistan, much less one on the scale of a military confrontation with Iran, would have been a recipe for early retirement for any U.S. president under present circumstances.
KZ: Iran has invested a lot in its relationship with China and Russia and considers them its strategic allies; however, both of these countries showed green light to anti-Iranian sanctions in the Security Council and facilitated the imposition of resolutions against Iran in an undeniable complicity with the United States. In the other words, Russia and China flagrantly betrayed Iran in time of need. What do you think about Iran’s relations with China and Russia? Why has Iran trusted them several times despite the fact that it was cleared to Tehran that they’re not loyal friends?
AB: I would look at the situation somewhat differently. In international relations states are loyal only to their own interests. Realism is still the dominant discourse in international relations and states view their relations with each other largely in realist terms. National interests defined broadly in terms of maximizing their own military power and economic well-being vis-à-vis other states is the guiding principle of the foreign policy of states. Seasoned Iranian foreign policy makers also understand the limits of Iran’s bargaining power with regard to China and Russia, when other states, particularly Western powers, are competing with it for their loyalty.
While both China and Russia have important stakes in their relations with Iran, they also maintain by far larger interests in their relations with the United States and other Western powers. China and the United States are economically highly interdependent and the U.S. market serves as the single most important destination for Chinese exports. Russia has similarly important economic and security interests in its relations with the West. Both countries have tried to strike a fine balance between their relations with Iran and the West in order to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs. While their actions in betraying Iran’s trust at some points may be morally and legally indefensible, it is not always possible for them to keep both parties to the conflict content and their interests may require that they sometimes lean toward one side at the expense of the other.
Both Russia and China have also significantly softened the language of the Security Council resolutions against Iran and have opposed certain harsh measures against it, a fact which shows that they still maintain important interests in their relations with Iran, which they are not willing to give up unless the West is prepared to pay the necessary price for that. This of course does not mean that Russia and China have no redlines in their foreign policies and are willing to prostitute out their loyalties to the highest bidder, but there are clear limits to the extent to which they can support their allies. The experience of Russian and Chinese inaction towards NATO strikes on Serbia and their no more than verbal opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq were enough to remind even the most optimistic Iranian policy makers that they cannot tie their hope to the support of these two countries under all circumstances.