What If Iran Leaves the NPT?

Washington's endgame in Tehran remains unclear, and the Iranians may be considering dramatic action.

As negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program have reached an impasse, two explanations attempt to decipher why this has happened. The first scenario centers on domestic American politics, and the second explanation suggests a more hard-line U.S. posture.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration hinted at a compromise in which it would accept Iran indigenously enriching uranium up to 5 percent if it agrees to unrestricted inspections, strict supervision and numerous safeguards in return for sanctions relief and normalization of its nuclear file. This approach foundered because of electoral concerns, leading some to speculate that President Obama would have more flexibility to hammer out a deal with Iran if he is given a second term.

Yet there is an alternative possibility. Perhaps the administration’s unwillingness to accept what it earlier hinted at—and what the Iranians would most likely accept—is evidence that the United States is utilizing the nuclear issue as a means to undermine Iran’s government while advertising to the international community that it’s giving diplomacy a chance.

If there is an Obama victory this fall, both of these scenarios will soon be tested.

The U.S. Perception

In the narrative of regime change, the American rationale is not difficult to understand. According to this scenario, Washington would keep pressure on the EU to cut off its oil exports from Iran, place extraterritorial sanctions on Iran’s banking infrastructure that impede international business and put massive pressure on Iran’s existing trade partners. Subsequent damage to the Islamic Republic’s revenues and thus the average Iranian’s quality of life would put intolerable strain upon the regime.

The Iranian government would either cave into U.S. demands, be overthrown by popular uprising or lash out militarily—a move that would legitimize American aggression against Iran. Thus, with this approach, Washington feels that it has Tehran boxed in. Even if Iran capitulates, the United States may not remove any of the sanctions; it could string out relief by claiming human-rights abuses or support for terrorism. If sanctions lead to street demonstrations, the United States may entertain what Vali Nasr has referred to as the Libya scenario: “economic pressure causing political unrest that invites intervention by foreign powers that feel safe enough to interfere in the affairs of a non-nuclear-armed state.” Moreover, as many U.S. hawks have suggested, it would be preferable for Iran’s government, under economic pressure, to lash out at the American behemoth in a rash, uncalculated way, therefore providing a casus belli that puts the United States in a sympathetic light. As the economic strangulation continues, Internatioanl Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring of the Iranian nuclear program guarantees that Iran cannot make a “mad dash” toward a bomb.

This narrow reading of the Iranian position assumes that Iran has fewer options than it actually does. Earlier this year, as the U.S. position on Iranian enrichment hardened. Sadegh Kharrazi, Iran's former deputy foreign minister, suggested that if Iran’s membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treat (NPT) does not “bring with it all [the] privileges associated with the treaty, including the right to enrichment . . . [Iran] has no choice but to reconsider its membership in that treaty.” And after it was clear that negotiations were deadlocked, Hossein Mousavian, former head of the Iranian National Security Council’s Foreign Relations Committee, explicitly stated that the West, in attempting to force total capitulation on Iran, “is inadvertently pushing Iran toward nuclear weapons.”

These statements suggest a notable shift in the minds of Iranian decision makers regarding the logic of remaining in the NPT.

Since the beginning of the Iranian nuclear dispute, Iran has tied its nuclear efforts to its NPT membership. As Iran relies on hydrocarbons for over 90 percent of its growing electricity needs, it views the potential of nuclear power as critical for future economic development. Tehran viewed its NPT membership as protecting this process, which was disrupted by the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war.

Fearing that the possession of nuclear infrastructure would give Iran the capability to manufacture weapons, the United States has vehemently opposed Iran through the use of U.S. financial and diplomatic power, the UN Security Council and Washington’s overwhelming influence within the IAEA.

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