Iran’s civilian fuel cycle has reached a point of no return, and no amount of external pressure can reverse this Iranian nuclear achievement.
Western proliferation concerns about Iran reflect a basic misperception of Iran’s nuclear intentions and conflate the latent nuclear capability inherent in the fuel cycle with a manifest nuclear threat.
If decoupled from the unrealistic goal of no Iranian uranium enrichment, US policy could make inroads and keep Iran’s nuclear capability perpetually latent and thus harmless.
After a long hiatus, the Godot of US-Iran diplomacy may finally arrive in 2013, in light of the reciprocal overture at the recent Munich Security Conference, featuring the signs of a new approach to Iran articulated by Vice President Joe Biden. Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, who also attended the conference, welcomed Biden’s call for “serious dialogue” between the two countries and urged Washington to show its good will toward Iran. And although Iran’s spiritual leader has questioned the wisdom of bilateral talks with the United States as long as it is “pointing a gun,” Iran has nonetheless moved the chess pieces forward by agreeing to the next round of multilateral talks with the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany (or P5 1), which begin in Kazakhstan this week.
After several rounds of inconclusive Iranian talks last year — in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow — the expectations are naturally low that the coming talks can yield a significant breakthrough on the central issue of Iran’s nuclear standoff. Despite coercive sanctions, Iran remains adamant about continuing its controversial nuclear program and defying UN Security Council resolutions that demand a full suspension of uranium enrichment activities. In fact, Iran has now informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it will modernize its centrifuges, improving its mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle.
In effect, this means that the official US position of “zero centrifuges” is a non-starter. It should be replaced with an approach that seeks nonproliferation objectives without the harmful misperceptions and counter-productive rhetoric that hinder dialogue and a peaceful resolution of the Iranian crisis. One such misperception is that Iran is on the proliferation path, and therefore the United States is firmly committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear-weapon capability, to paraphrase former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s farewell speech. This approach has now resulted in comprehensive (i.e., both multilateral and unilateral) sanctions that have hurt the Iranian economy and both its oil and non-oil trade.
But, it is time to end this misperception and change the coercive diplomacy emanating from it, in favor of a realistic approach that recognizes that Iran’s nuclear ambition is not to turn into a North Korea, but rather into another Japan or Brazil — that is, into a country that enjoys its right, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to possess a full nuclear fuel cycle without facing external backlash.
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
Afrasiabi is a former political science professor at Tehran University, a former adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team (2004 to 2006), and an author of many books and articles on Iranian foreign policy.