Iran’s nuclear program: Weapon of war or tool for negotiation?

Nuclear program of Iran During last month’s General Assembly meetings and again this month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposed a deal whereby Iran would receive uranium enriched at 20 percent  in exchange for halting its own uranium production at this level. This latest offer raises some fundamental questions about the strategic dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. Does Iran want to build nuclear weapons, as some are claiming, with negotiations being only a smokescreen for it to incrementally achieve this goal? Or is there something else behind the Islamic Republic’s controversial nuclear program?

Iran and nuclear weapons 

The idea that Iran is in pursuit of nuclear weapons is a commonly held perception today, particularly in the US, Europe, and the Middle East. Since the death of the Islamic Republic’s founder, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran has restarted its nuclear program, contracting Russia to complete the Bushehr nuclear power plant (begun under the previous regime in 1975) and building a network of research facilities to master the fuel enrichment cycle and other key elements of nuclear power. It has also made advances in rocket technology, building a wide array of missiles with the help of North Korea and other allies. With more time and investment, Iran could theoretically build nuclear weapons. But what does Iran stand to gain from this? In the context of its ambitions in the Middle East at least, it appears that the disadvantages could outweigh the advantages by a wide margin.

At first glance, building a nuclear weapon appears to put Iran on an equal footing with its main regional rival, Israel, and to raise its stature throughout the Middle East. Yet a closer look reveals this initial assessment to be illusory. First, while Iran would only need a handful of nuclear weapons to destroy Israel, matching Israel’s arsenal and developing a credible second-strike capability seems to be beyond Iran at this point. Estimates put Israel’s nuclear weapons in the low hundreds, and sources indicate that the Jewish state also has nuclear-armed submarines as a second-strike capability if its land-based stockpile is destroyed. Given that it has taken Iran more than 45 years to complete its first nuclear reactor and enrich uranium at 20 percent, it is not unrealistic to think it will take it many more years to reach Israel’s nuclear stature.

Second, in the time it would take Iran to match Israel, its regional rivals, especially Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, would likely jump-start their own nuclear programs to re-adjust the balance-of-power, sparking a regional arms-race in which Iran would not necessarily come out on top. Given Iran’s relative isolation, its rivals (with Western technological aid) could probably make advances much more rapidly. Either way, an arms race would erode Iran’s initial gains and force it to focus on a wider range of nuclear threats than just Israel. If smaller regional states were to acquire nuclear weapons, it would also erode Iran’s conventional military edge over these smaller states.

Finally, the creation of nuclear weapons would likely worsen Iran’s isolation vis-à-vis the international political and economic system, as happened with North Korea after its nuclear weapon tests in 2006 and again in 2009. While countries like China and Russia have been able to provide cover for Iran in the UN Security Council and elsewhere, their support may become less tenable the moment Iran tests a bomb. Any existing international good will toward Iran, particularly from the European Union and others who have tried to maintain good relations with Iran despite US pressure, would also likely evaporate.

From a strategic point of view at least, actually building nuclear weapons does not seem to make much sense for Iran at this point. But mastering the nuclear fuel cycle and assembling the capability to quickly build a nuclear weapon, what some have called the “Japanese option”, could make sense, especially in the context of Iran’s rivalry with the US in the Middle East.

The Japanese option as a negotiation tool 

The “Japanese option” refers to a strategy in which a state acquires the ability to build nuclear weapons, but does not actually do so. It thus gains some of the advantages of nuclear weapons, without many of the negative consequences. If, as we have shown above, it is not actually in Iran’s interests to acquire nuclear weapons at this point, perhaps acquiring the credible threat of them could be. This goes to the heart of the raison d’etre of Iran’s nuclear program.

Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has rejected the US dominated regional sub-system in the Middle East. It even rejected the Cold War paradigm when it existed, instead exporting its own model of Shiite political Islam in the Middle East. In this regard Iran was not unlike the Soviet Union and its communist ideology in 1917, albeit on a much smaller scale. In seeking to change the status-quo in the Middle East, Iran came into conflict with the US, and experienced both victories and defeats. Iran is now a powerful and independent player in the region, with significant influence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and elsewhere. Yet it has paid a heavy price for this influence, having endured the longest conventional war in the 20th century (in which it suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties), crushing sanctions and international isolation.

For all of its troubles, Iran has not received the recognition it believes it deserves as a preeminent regional power, but continues to be viewed as a pariah by the US. While the US has negotiated and worked with Iran on a narrow set of issues (such as Afghanistan and Iraq) on an ad-hoc basis, Iran is not treated as an indispensable actor in the Middle East by the US, but almost as an afterthought. US policy toward Iran has been characterized by such terms as “containment”, “sanctions” and “regime-change”. This is while the US (especially since the beginning of the War on Terror) has become central to Iranian foreign policy. US troops are on nearly every Iranian land and maritime border, and America’s global economic power is felt every day in Tehran.

In this context, Iran wants détente with the US, a “grand-bargain” in which it can negotiate from a position of strength, force the US to make serious concessions and lock-in its status as a major regional power. How does Iran go about doing this? Enter Iran’s Japanese option. The specter of a nuclear-armed Iran and wide-scale proliferation of nuclear weapons in the strategically sensitive region of the Middle East forces the US to take notice and seriously engage Iran. The nuclear program thus becomes a platform for a grand-bargain, in which Iran exchanges the credible threat of building nuclear weapons for concessions elsewhere.

Détente at last? 

Iran may now be in a position in which it feels like it can negotiate from a position of strength. It has undercut all serious internal threats for the time being, including the 2009-2010 Green Movement, the Baluchi insurgent group Jundullah and the Kurdish insurgent group PJAK. US sanctions are no longer the concern they once were thanks to strong ties to China and Russia and a series of economic reforms, and the threat of an Israeli strike has been diminished with the activation of the Bushehr nuclear power plant (an attack now could cause an environmental disaster in the Persian Gulf). Iran has consolidated its gains in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, and the historic events of the Arab Spring mean that Iran in many ways is at the zenith of its power vis-à-vis the US, with only Syria as a big question mark. With the rise of Turkey and other regional powers on the horizon, Iran is unlikely to gain much more traction with the foreign policy model it has pursued for the last 32 years.

Iran’s latest offer, Russia’s step-by-step plan and last year’s Brazil-Turkey backed agreement only add to the sense that Iran may view now as being the time to initiate a détente process via negotiations over its nuclear program. The US has also shown some readiness for this, for example with Admiral Mike Mullen’s recent call for a “hot-line” with Iranian naval forces in the Persian Gulf to prevent an unintended war. But a détente is by no means inevitable, especially in the short-term. With US President Barak Obama facing re-election, his administration’s ability to conduct serious negotiations in the next year may be limited by the intense pressures of the electoral cycle. On the Iranian side a variety of factors, such as a deteriorating domestic economic situation or the fall of the Bashar al-Assad regime, could also change Iran’s strategic calculus. For now, the ball is in America’s court.