Walking a Mile in Iran's Shoes

March 29, 2007 Topic: Security Region: Persian GulfMiddle East

Walking a Mile in Iran's Shoes

Iranian Ambassador to the UN Javad Zarif defends Iran’s uranium-enrichment program and suggests that Iran cannot be "bullied" into denuclearizing.

Despite the long-standing enmity between the United States and Iran, there is one thing that the two countries can agree on: Nuclear weapons are dangerous. Of course, according to the Iranian Ambassador to the UN, Javad Zarif, most Iranians would disagree with Bush's notion that Iran is a "most dangerous regime" that seeks these "most dangerous weapons." Speaking at The Nixon Center yesterday, he strenuously defended his country's right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. But he emphasized that nuclear weapons are very dangerous weapons and that Iran does not want them.

The sophisticated but occasionally fiery Zarif blamed mutual misunderstandings between the United States and the Iranians for creating the present showdown on nuclear weapons. The lack of communication between the two countries has allowed gross misperceptions to flourish, breeding an atmosphere of deep mistrust when their officials do interact. Some of this tension between the United States and Iran would be alleviated if the two adversaries would consider the national interests of the other, the ambassador asserted. A recognition of each state's security concerns could represent a first step towards a solution to the nuclear standoff, he said.

Unfortunately, the ambassador perceives that the possibility of a negotiated settlement is receding: Iran, the United States and Europe had a much better chance of striking a deal two years ago than they do today. The root of this impasse, as Zarif sees it, is the United States' assumption that ratcheting up the pressure on Iran will compel the mullahs to meet U.S. and UN demands.

However, as the United States continues to "bully" Iran, Zarif said, the Islamic Republic's leadership becomes increasingly hesitant to make concessions on its nuclear program, Zarif said. In the end, he added, current U.S. policy on Iran will "backfire", as "a few more Security Council resolutions [will make] a few more centrifuges in Iran."

Not only does the United States employ the wrong techniques to resolve the nuclear issue, but it apparently involves the wrong parties in the process of finding a solution. While the United States frames Iranian uranium enrichment as a problem with a multilateral solution, the Iranian government strongly believes that only bilateral talks between the United States and Iran-not Security Council sanctions-will produce positive results.

By making the nuclear conflict the overriding issue in its relations with Iran, the United States-in the ambassador's opinion-is squandering the opportunity to gain Iran's assistance in quelling the violence in Iraq. Both Iran and the United States have an interest in creating stability in Iraq, so-Zarif asked-why does the United States insist on alienating Iraq's neighbor?

He also suggested that resolving the U.S.-Iran conflict might be easier than holding Iraq together. While the mullahs and politicians may not agree on every issue, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder in favor of uranium enrichment. There may be multiple power centers in the Iranian government, but these competing groups coalesce around the nuclear issue. Meanwhile, the ever-unfolding Iraq drama presents the United States with a multitude of domestic players with incompatible interests. The American officials responsible for managing the situation in Iraq have a task in front of them akin to retrieving water that has been poured on the ground, said Zarif.

Before moving into the off-the-record portion of his talk, the ambassador offered a stern warning to those who still think that a military solution to the nuclear issue is possible. An American use of force would not only violate international law, he said, but would also be ineffective in resolving the nuclear issue. In fact, Zarif concluded, it is precisely because force has been shown to be ineffective in international affairs that governments were able to outlaw its use.

Marisa Morrison is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.