Iranian Perspectives and a Nuclear Free Zone

The uranium enrichment debate consists of arguments and counter-arguments by the international community, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran itself about the plausibility of Iran’s peaceful nuclear program. Not only does Tehran cite its commitment to international treaty obligations, but further attributes its rejection of nuclear arms programs on the basis of both religious convictions and the futility, historically, of atomic weapons. The West however, remains unconvinced. Mere hours after his victory, members of an optimistic and somewhat relieved international community were calling on Hassan Rouhani to set The Islamic Republic on a different path for the future, and promising direct engagement with Tehran.

Rouhani is widely regarded as a reformist and there is certainly potential for collaboration with the West on the current nuclear crisis. His victory also holds promise for a more conciliatory foreign policy strategy more generally. He is undoubtedly less dogmatic than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and it would appear that Iranians too are ready for real change. But while his openness to engagement and nuclear concessions suggest that we may remain hopeful of reconciliation sooner rather than later, the new president will nevertheless be looking at the world through Iranian eyes and from the perspective of Iranian interests, and it is for this reason that we must not forget the ideological and political factors which have led to the current nuclear crisis. Dealing with Iran’s uranium enrichment activities still requires a much higher level of historical consciousness and an awareness of Iranian regional ambitions. While Tehran maintains that its program is peaceful, it is argued here that without engaging Israel in terms of arms control, Iran’s revisionism and proliferation pressures in the region are unlikely to dissipate.

Unequal treatment of Iran by the international community

Iranians continue to claim that “they are being selectively and unfairly isolated” when it comes to their nuclear program.1 Resolution 1737, imposing sanctions on their country for failing to halt enrichment activities, was passed unanimously by the Security Council in 2006 and has since developed into the most severe sanctions the world has ever seen. At the time, then Iranian ambassador to the UN Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was recently appointed as foreign minister by Rounhani, made the following statement:

…it is not at all surprising that a nation is being punished for exercising its inalienable rights, primarily at the behest of a dangerous regime with aggression and war crimes as its signature brand of behaviour, which is apparently being rewarded today for having clandestinely developed and unlawfully possessed nuclear weapons….2

The dangerous regime to which he referred is Israel, a non-signatory of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and a state which the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) estimate may be in possession of more than 200 nuclear weapons.3To be sure, it is “the reality of the Holocaust (from a historical perspective) and the concept of the Holocaust (regarding Israel’s future) which dominate the national security thinking of the Israeli state”4 and as such, anything less than Israeli military superiority in the region would constitute an existential threat to the regime in Tel Aviv. Certainly, in the context of Israeli-Iranian relations particularly, one can understand Israel’s sense of perceived vulnerability when confronted with a state allegedly in the process of acquiring a nuclear weapon while preachingthe “Zionist Entity’s” destruction. While the Rouhani government can be seen to be distancing itself from the oftentimesinflammatory approach adopted by its predecessors, the incendiary anti-Zionist and anti-Western rhetoric which was revived by Ahmadinejad after his election in 2005 has left Israel feeling threatened. Tehran’s support of Israel’s adversaries Hezbollah and Hamas serves to further illustrate their implacable hostility. And so with each day that passes the pressure mounts and Israel continues to encourage the United Statestoward a more focused military operation targeting nuclear facilities and aiming for regime change. Following Rouhani’s election Benjamin Netanyahu warned a hopeful international community not to give in to “wishful thinking or temptation and loosen the pressure on Iranians to halt their enrichment activities”5.

“Confidence can only be built through non-discriminatory application of the law”

The NPT, which entered into force in 1970, was never signed by Israel and as such, they cannot be seen to be violating it. But this means little to the Iranians who continue to view Israel as an occupying power which has waged several wars of aggression since its establishment in 1945 and whose proliferation of nuclear weapons has never been subject to inspection. The Israeli state is viewed as a colonial power subject to fewer rules and regulations and in a pointed comment appealing to the claims of injustice and double standards favouring Israel, Zarif (2006) went on to assert that “confidence can only be built through respect for and non-discriminatory application of the law”6. These sentiments were echoed by President Rouhani when, during his victory speech, he said that "The nations who tout democracy and open dialogue should speak to the Iranian people with respect and recognise the rights of the Islamic republic."7 The meta-narratives which permeate Iranian historical consciousness are beyond the scope of this article; suffice to say that the nuclear program has become the key national issue in Iran today involving discourses of independence, justice and national exceptionalism.

This article has not dealt directly with the question of whether the government in Tehran is carrying out a military nuclear program or not. Rather, it is believed that identifying the reasons why Iran has continued to defend its enrichment program so vehemently will go some way to explaining why negotiations up until this point have failed to reach a mutually beneficial agreement. There are also lessons to be learned for the avoidance of such crises in the future. President Rouhani announced earlier this month that the nuclear negotiations, ordinarily the responsibility of the Supreme National Security Council, will be remitted to the foreign ministry. Former UN ambassador and newly appointed foreign minister Zarif will likely take the reins.

Potential solutions to the proliferation crisis

There are two ways in which the conflict may be resolved. Since World War II and the acquisition of nuclear weapons by some twelve countries, no nuclear state has turned to its nuclear weapons arsenal to launch an attack of aggression. With this in mind, and recognising Iran’s regional ambitions, the international community could be advised to let the current crisis dissipate and allow Iran to continue its nuclear program, peaceful or otherwise. After all, no other region of the world plays host to a lone, unchecked nuclear state and a power which Kenneth Waltz says “begs to be balanced.”8

If this seems unlikely, there is an alternative. We, the international community, can commit ourselves once and for all to establishing a truly nuclear free zone in the Middle East, a resolution first presented to the United Nations by Iran and Egypt in 1974. The NPT’s grand bargain under which recognised nuclear states are committed to working toward dismantling their own nuclear weapons stockpiles must be adhered to and successful negotiations can only continue from a moral stance when all proliferators are treated equally. This includes Washington and Tel Aviv. To think that proliferation pressures in the Middle East will disappear without engaging Israel in terms of arms control is, agrees Sverre Lodgaard (2006), an illusion.9 Let us consider too the possibility that Iranians themselves feel existentially threatened and there may bea sense of mutual vulnerability in the region. Since no strategy, whether it be bombing nuclear facilities or imposing further sanctions, can fully ensure the P5+1 that knowledge acquired will not be used to develop a weapon in the future, issues of mistrust must be overcome. Only when the Iranian regime feels it is secure and its sovereignty is recognised and respected, will it be open to true reconciliation.

Despite the election of reformist Hassan Rouhani then, the international community’s special treatment of Iran has, unsurprisingly, served to fuel revisionist ideology among government officials in Tehran. And although it would appear the Iranian electorate is ready for reconciliation with the West, a degree of revisionism exists too among the wider Iranian public whose often personal historical experiences have meant that the slogan “nuclear energy is our indisputable right” has struck a chord.

1 Reed, Justin. ‘Engaging Proliferation: Isolation and National Exceptionalism as Drivers of Nuclear Decisions’ p. 126, www.csis.org/images/stories/poni/110921_Reed.pdf
2 Zarif, Mohammad Javad. (2006) ‘UNSC Debate on Resolution 1737 (2006)’ as cited in Ronan (2010) p. 16-17
3 Aftergood, Steven and Hans M. Kristensen. (2007) ‘Israel Nuke Guide’ Federation of American Scientists, http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/israel/nuke/
4 Ritter, Scott. (2007) Target Iran. The Truth about the White House’s Plans for Regime Change.London: Politico’s, p. 2
5 Benjamin Netanyahu cited in Jeffrey Heller, ‘Netanyahu urges no let-up in world pressure on Iran after vote’, 16.06.2013, Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/16/us-israel-iran-netanyahu-idUSBRE95F03720130616
6 Zarif, Mohammad Javad. UNSC Debate on Resolution 1737 (2006) cited in Ronan (2010) p. 16
7 President Hassan Rouhani cited in ‘Iranians celebrate Hassan Rouhani's election as president’, BBC, 15.06.2013,http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22924038
8 Waltz, Kenneth N. ‘Why Iran should get the bomb’ in Foreign Affairs Vol. 91, No.4 July-August 2012 pp. 2-5
9 Lodgaard, Sverrein Simpson et al. Iran’s Nuclear Program: Realities and Repercussions. Abu Dhabi: The Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (2006)