The IRAN nuclear program is embedded in a complex network of strategic possibilities. It’s a fine example of how the complexity of the 21st century enables national claims that are difficult to tame. It’s also instructive to see how its strategic location and dominance of hydrocarbon sea lanes give Iran imperative autonomy. Since the negotiations on the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) will resume on November 29th in Vienna, a look at the considerable implications is appropriate.
The Iranian program began with the Shah’s vision of Iran, made possible by the US program Atoms for Peace in March 1967. The US provided a 5 MW research reactor, Iran signed the NPT and was ratified as a member. The Shah developed a plan for 23 nuclear power plants by 2000 in Iran.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeni signaled the abrupt exit of the United States (referred to as The Great Satan). The US responded with increasing resistance to the Iranian program. However, several industrial nations took advantage of the vacuum because of its commercial promise and kept the program alive. It was 1984 (during the Iran-Iraq war) when a West German intelligence report revealed that the Iranians were also tracking the manufacture of a nuclear weapon using uranium from Pakistan.
This ushered in an era of heightened IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) control along with UN and US restrictions and sanctions. The IAEA’s formal recognitions began in 2003 when it was reported that Iran had failed to report its enrichment and reprocessing operations. In 2005 the UN Security Council imposed sanctions and called for the enrichment to be suspended.
Iran has always claimed its inalienable right to a peaceful nuclear program after the Islamic Revolution. The ambition of his nuclear weapons, however, stems from the Shah’s ruminations about the balance of power and his painful experiences with the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) when he feared a nuclear attack and used his to end the war.
Iran has developed a geographically distributed location profile for its facilities. While the IAEA allowed regular inspections, suspicions remained regarding its nuclear weapons development program. This created a paradigm of sanctions and restrictions on Iran and polarized the international community. Benefiting from Russia and especially China, the Iranian program continued to race despite the restrictions.
The US and other UN Permanent Members recognized that Iran’s economic weakening had only limited impact on its nuclear progress. As a result, a joint comprehensive action plan was signed between the permanent UN members and Germany (JCPOA P5 + 1) and Iran in July 2015. The lifting of the sanctions should be reciprocated by reducing Iranian stocks and not moving towards an arms program.
However, Iran continued to develop and test MRBMs (medium-range ballistic missiles) as well as other conspicuous weapons programs. Calling the JCPOA an inadequate mechanism and deeply suspicious of Iran’s intentions, then-US President Trump withdrew from it in May 2018.
The current Vienna initiative stems from President Biden’s commitment to advance the JCPOA and follows indirect talks with Iran and the US.
AQ Khan, with its Pakistan-based proliferation network, is believed to have helped Iran in the hopes that its bomb would neutralize Israel. The geostrategic realities present the prospect that Saudi Arabia will look for a nuclear weapon if Iran develops one.
Pakistan and Iran are now bitterly opposed to each other in Afghanistan and on issues relating to the Shiite minority. Pakistan is an ardent supporter of the US sanctions against Iran. China ignored the sanctions and bought hydrocarbons from Iran while supporting its nuclear program. India has close ties with Iran, continues to import its oil, and is converging with Iran on Afghanistan. Iran also offers India valuable access to the Central Asian republics.
In the nuclear field, India is surrounded by two unpredictable and stubborn nuclear neighbors. In truth, despite all the strategic equations and scenarios in the nuclear field between two or more potential adversaries, unintended consequences are critical. A nuclear Iran in contrast to Israel and Saudi Arabia (among others), which opens up prospects for a nuclear Saudi Arabia, all in the immediate vicinity of India, extends the strategic framework far beyond what the international community is equipped for. Understandably, the Indian stance was for Iran to abide by IAEA rules and safety.
A far more significant observation is how Iran has placed its nuclear ambitions at the center of its sovereign exceptionalism. The Iranian nuclear facilities and program have been under attack, from the 2010 Stuxnet attack, which reportedly destroyed many centrifuges, to the recently reported sabotage at the Natanz facility in April 2021. There were a number of assassinations by nuclear scientists, most recently Mohsen Fachrizadeh in 2020.
The Iranian economy has been severely attacked by sanctions and restrictions. Oil and petroleum products, which make up 80 percent of Iranian exports, fell from 2.1 million barrels a day before 2012 to 300,000 barrels a day. None of this deterred the modernization and production of the entire system.
With deliberate determination, Iran has upgraded and modernized its facilities and improved inventory levels and fortification. It was busily pursuing a missile development plan. After the US pulled out of the JCPOA, Iran said it was no longer bound by restrictions and would move forward to the best of its ability. President Ebrahim Raisi will no doubt take a tough line in the subsequent Vienna negotiations, while Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said they are in no hurry.
The Chinese and Russian support undoubtedly brings great consolation to Iran. Iran’s broader sphere of influence, reinforced after the Iraq war and the survival of the Assad regime in Syria, is exhilarating. The performance of entities supported by Iran, such as Hezbollah and the Houthis, has been gratifying. The adherence to Iran’s nuclear autonomy as a symbol of national enforcement is also evident.
We must accept that violence and intimidation, coupled with economic pain, do not prevail on nations that have strategic assets and have chosen a path that is fraught with deeply emotional issues. The current international order of competing centers of power with few convergences offers willing partners for conscientious dissidents. The negotiations in Vienna are of vital importance for the world and the region. Despite the loud starting positions, there is hope that flexible negotiations will lead to rapprochement.