As global tensions over Iran’s nuclear program escalate, Tehran and the West have reached a standoff. To revive negotiations, a clear understanding of the key factors influencing Iran’s stance is paramount.

Carnegie’s James Acton and Shahram Chubin discussed Iranian nuclear policy from both the political and technical perspective, including the effects of the Iran-Iraq War on Tehran’s current behavior. Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment, moderated.

Nuclear Issue in an Iranian Context

  • Iran-Iraq war and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): The Iran-Iraq war radicalized the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), Chubin said. This resulted in the invention of a “strategic culture,” based on martyrdom, resistance, steadfastness and self-reliance, in which it sees itself standing alone as a victim, fighting sin, evil, and hypocrisy. Chubin noted that the IRI’s insistence on equality runs up against the fact that the NPT is an inherently unequal treaty. Iran therefore sees the NPT as fundamentally flawed as it enshrines inequality distinguishing between two categories of states; nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states. Additionally, it is applied selectively by the United States (i.e. it is no barrier to good ties with Israel and India), while Iran, a member, is under sanctions.
  • Enrichment and Self-Reliance: Chubin emphasized the importance of Iran’s reliance on domestic arms supply. The Iran-Iraq war left a strong and bitter legacy of dependency and vulnerability, which underlies Iran’s insistence on domestic enrichment programs.
  • Confidence-Building and Negotiating with Iran: From the perspective of Iranian authorities, compromise through negotiation is seen as problematic because it could be seen as weakness and lead to increased demands which eventually could jeopardize the existence of the regime, Chubin explained.
  • Diplomacy and the Nuclear Issue: The Iranian approach to diplomacy, based on the principles of its strategic culture, is to deflect and divide allies, delay sanctions, and divert attention, Chubin asserted. The regime promotes the idea that the nuclear issue is a national issue, just as the Iraqi war was, as a legitimizing force to keep itself afloat. Chubin speculated that Iranian authorities have no deep strategic game or clear end goal, and that the pace and direction of the issue depend on how future events unfold.

Key Potential End States and Solutions

  • Potential End States of Nuclear Issue: Acton stated that there are two possible end states to the current stand-off that it is critical to try to avoid: Iran developing a nuclear weapon, and Israel or Israel in coordination with the United States taking military action. These outcomes are not mutually exclusive, Acton added; attacking Iran does not necessarily stop it from developing nuclear weapons. Avoiding worst case outcomes will require compromise. Although offering Iran a credible way-out does not guarantee success, failing to do so does guarantee failure Acton warned.
  • Recommended Solution: Acton described four key components necessary for a credible solution to the nuclear issue:
    • Create a definition of what nuclear activities Iran can and can’t conduct;
    • Make clear to Iran that it will not be punished for acknowledging it had a nuclear weapons program, providing it works fully and proactively with the IAEA to resolve all outstanding issues;
    • Verify Iran’s declared nuclear activities; and,
    • Confirm that nuclear activities are only taking place on declared sites.
  • The Political Challenge of Verification: Verification is not a straightforward technical issue. It is prone to politicization and error, Acton said. Especially in verifying the absence of undeclared activity, it is possible to mistake compliance with noncompliance or vice versa. Either error could be catastrophic in this case.
  • The Technical Approach to Verification: Acton outlined possible components of a regime to verify the absence of undeclared enrichment activities. These included Iran’s disclosing details of centrifuge component suppliers, “tagging” by the IAEA of centrifuge components manufactured in Iran for tracking, inspector’s taking environmental swipe samples without advance notice at any public site in Iran, and developing managed access protocols or inspecting military sites in advance.

Negotiating with Iran

Acton, Chubin and Mathews led a discussion with participants to address potential challenges, outcomes, and timelines associated with negotiating the Iranian nuclear issue.

  • Internal Agreement: Acton insisted that internal differences pertaining to necessary measures for effective verification–which could arise, for example, within the permanent members of the UNSC plus Germany, and between Israel and Arab states–could severely complicate negotiations unless they are addressed in advance.
  • Decision Makers: Despite the complex economic, technological, diplomatic, and militaristic dimensions of Iran’s nuclear issue, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini is the final decision maker in Iran, panelists agreed. All engagement with Iran is made through authorities appointed and monitored closely by him. Chubin and Mathews pointed out that the decision making process is personal, informal, and thus, opaque and problematic.
  • Potential Outcomes: Acton added that if a credible negotiating position is not established, the guaranteed outcome is either the potential development of a nuclear weapon in Iran, military action against Iran, or both. If a credible negotiating position is established, a better outcome is possible (though far from guaranteed). Acton concluded that it is Iran’s political calculations, rather than its technical capabilities, that will set the timeline for the nuclear issue.