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.
Throughout this U.S.-led effort, allegations of past nuclear-weapons research have been provided to the IAEA by unnamed member states and anonymous sources, eventually resulting in Iran’s nuclear file being transferred to the UN Security Council. Iran, with limited success, worked with the agency to clear up these allegations in an attempt to transfer its case back to the IAEA, partially resulting in the 2007 and 2010 U.S National Intelligence Estimates (NIE), which state that Iran had no active nuclear-weapons program but accused Iran of prior nuclear-weapons research that purportedly stopped in 2003 . Yet since Yukiya Amano became the IAEA’s director general, new reports of weapons programs have surfaced: while the technical aspects of the IAEA reports explicitly “verify [Iran’s] non-diversion of declared nuclear material,” many of the anonymously driven allegations that Mohamed ElBaradei chose not to entertain have reemerged.
As a result, Iran’s relations with the IAEA have deteriorated, with the agency bringing allegations that Iran has previously dealt with or finds impossible to disprove. Amano’s tenure has also coincided with a series of high profile assassinations of persons associated with Iran’s nuclear program and considerable cyber attacks against its industrial infrastructure. Iran’s IAEA envoy, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, has gone so far to accuse the agency of spying on behalf of Western intelligence. And though U.S. intelligence still sees no hard evidence that Iran has decided to weaponize its nuclear program, 2012 has seen the rapid escalation of the U.S.-led sanctions regime on Iran.
Leaving the NPT
In this environment, Iran’s rationale for continuing NPT membership is becoming obsolete, for the treaty has stopped functioning as a protector of its nuclear efforts and has instead become a liability. Currently, Iran’s very membership in the NPT is facilitating onerous U.S.-led sanctions upon the country, obliging it to amorphous regulatory measures without providing Iran the benefits it gives other members, with no hope for a resolution.
Article X.1 of the NPT allows an exit if a member state’s “supreme interests” are threatened. Iran knows that its NPT departure would exacerbate the escalating conflict with the United States and Israel. Since it takes three months to complete withdrawal, the likelihood of an attack in the interim would be high. But by the time of withdrawal, Iran might view an attack by the United States (or possibly Israel with U.S. support) as preordained and thus would be incentivized to change the strategic environment by taking away the momentum from the other side.
In submitting its notice to the UN Security Council, Tehran likely would point to the years of cooperation with the IAEA as having failed to allay the agency’s concerns. It can point to the escalating sanctions, cyber attacks, assassinations and the fact that the benefits of NPT membership have been chipped away. And despite there being no concrete evidence of the existence of a nuclear-weapons program, Iran would highlight how U.S. accusations of Iran’s NPT violations have brought about draconian sanctions that impact the country’s economic standings and the quality of life for its citizens. Hence, the Iranians could claim that continuing membership is only facilitating economic warfare against it and that these “extraordinary events” have “jeopardized its supreme interests,” forcing it to leave the treaty.
But Iran’s NPT exit would have two critical ramifications for the strategic environment. First, during the interim period, while Iran would still be obligated to answer the IAEA’s questions, in all likelihood cooperation would be reduced to an absolute minimum. As the only instance for NPT withdrawal is North Korea, it is highly unlikely that Iran and the IAEA, based on precedence, would come to a cooperative agreement in the interim period before an exit.
The second result is that the United States, along with its partners, would no longer have access to Iran’s nuclear efforts, save for possible drone reconnaissance and satellite imaging, which is no substitute for the IAEA’s on-the-ground presence. There would be a virtual blackout of key aspects of Iran’s research sites and nuclear facilities, which would complicate U.S. military plans and force the U.S. hand: Americans could either escalate military plans to full-blown regime change, which would certainly turn into a regional war with incalculable consequences for the global economy, or continue with their original stated objective of crippling Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, yet without the on-the-ground IAEA presence that would direct where to strike and thus risk an incomplete operation.
Once an exit does take place, Iranian decision makers will most likely issue their own version of Israel’s posture of nuclear ambiguity and state that Iran “will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the region.” Any change to Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa against the production and stockpile of nuclear weapons would be contingent upon the U.S. response to an NPT exit. If Iran is not attacked, its new policy of nuclear ambiguity, not being bound to IAEA cooperation, would most likely hold. Many of the countries currently engaged in the U.S.-led sanctions regime eventually would reconsider their involvement, considering a latent Iranian nuclear capability a fait accompli.
In the event of an attack, however, systemic constraints that have kept Iran’s nuclear program in a latent phase would disintegrate. In a wide-ranging interview on the U.S.-Israel strategic posture concerning Iran, former Israeli general Giora Eiland, who once served as head of the Israeli Defense Forces’ planning directorate, spelled out that “whether or not the strike succeeds, it will give the Iranians the best pretext for openly striving to obtain nuclear weapons,” as aggression becomes justification for weaponization.
But once Iran has left the NPT, the United States and Israel will not know when Tehran comes to possess the bomb. As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations recently alluded to, “it is unlikely that Iran would needlessly test a nuclear weapon, since it would not be required to verify that it worked.”
A poststrike sanctions regime may believe it can keep necessary components for such an enterprise out of the hands of the Iranians. In reality, Iran’s defense industry, though technologically years behind the West, is still indigenized and does not need outside assistance for atomic manufacturing.
An extensive nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran is still possible. But if a compromise cannot be found, one where both sides feel that their core interests have been met, than Iran is highly unlikely to remain within the NPT. The result would be the unraveling of the confinement that kept Iran in a latent but transparent nuclear posture. With or without war, Iran’s nuclear efforts would become free of the NPT’s international legal constraints. And as Kenneth Waltz has argued, the brunt of the international community ultimately, begrudgingly accepts the most extreme outcome: Iranian possession of atomic weapons.
Analysts describing Iran’s nuclear program constantly evoke the critical nature of the “next few months.” But as those months have come and gone, the strategic equation has remained intact, with no war arising. With the escalation of the U.S.-led sanctions regime, this formula cannot hold any longer, forcing each actor in this decade-long drama to reconsider its strategic calculations.
At this point, the true American motive remains unclear. Does Washington want to arrive at a nuclear accord with Iran? Or, alternatively, will U.S.-led sanctions, which depend upon the continuation of the nuclear crisis, continue to push regime change? Election or otherwise, it’s time for an answer.
Reza Sanati is a research fellow at the Middle East Studies Center and a PhD candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University.