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NIAC Memo: Will UN Sanctions Make the Nuclear Impasse Unsolvable?

Iran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment is rapidly leading to the reconsideration of its nuclear dossier by the UN Security Council. For the P5+1, the outstanding questions continue to be (a) what the likely outcome of greater pressure will be, and (b) what alternative approaches will have been foregone as the conflict escalates.

Washington DC - Iran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment is rapidly leading to the reconsideration of its nuclear dossier by the UN Security Council. For the P5+1, the outstanding questions continue to be (a) what the likely outcome of greater pressure will be, and (b) what alternative approaches will have been foregone as the conflict escalates. Neither the US nor the UK has offered clear answers to either question. Since the problem is one of "confidence," pushing for quick Security Council action at a time when Iran is still several years away from a weapons capability risks further eroding the one critical variable that can make the negotiations succeedtrust.

At its core, the Iran nuclear standoff is rooted in one principal dynamic: the lack of trust and correspondingly high levels of suspicion between the United States and Iran that extends back decades. 

Taking proactive steps to mitigate this shared mistrust of the two main protagonists, the US and Iran, will be a required element of any enduring solution to the standoff regarding the Iranian nuclear program. In this context, US efforts to bring about a forceful resolution of the nuclear impasse will likely only exacerbate existing tensions in the near term as well as for the foreseeable future. Moreover, steps taken by the US and its close allies—whether sanctions or the use of force—will not resolve the underlying crisis of confidence between Iran and the United States. Ironically, it will deepen it, perhaps irrevocably. 

The View from Tehran

So why does Iran remain defiant today despite gathering storm clouds? Iran’s collective leadership remains divided on many important questions. These cleavages have been visible throughout the past several years of negotiations, but with the ascendancy of the Ahmadinejad faction in 2005-2006, a clear shift to the right and greater suspicion of US and Western intentions has occurred.

The delicate consensus forged so far in Tehran in the past year has been to resist pressure to surrender its right to uranium enrichment—even temporarily—without tangible benefits such as firm security guarantees (rejected by the US to date) and an arrangement addressing other outstanding concerns regarding the US and a civilian nuclear program.

This is the crux of the matter. Iran will not negotiate away enrichment in advance because it does not believe the US is genuinely interested in resolving the broader relationship. Meanwhile, the US will not move to resolve the broader relationship until it is convinced Iran has conceded the point regarding enrichment to its satisfaction.

Notably, in a trend generally underappreciated in the West, Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric on this point has been unabashedly nationalistic. Indeed, the firmness of Iran’s stance on enrichment is grounded in the effectiveness of the Iranian leadership in framing US pressure as a domestic political question of Iran’s national rights. The success of this tactic is rooted in the strength of Iranian nationalism as a political force.

This pattern will not diminish as external pressure increases, but only strengthen as the population is forced to choose between their opposition to the more objectionable aspects of the regime and the pull of their nationalist sentiments. Iranian history demonstrates that to win the hearts and minds of the Iranian people, nationalism remains an unparalleled force.

In addition, these factors also contribute to Tehran’s calculations:

  • Tehran believes that the overriding US objective is to prevent Iranian independence and regional influence, viewed by most Iranians as their birthright; the nuclear question is seen as one way of doing so.

  • It makes little sense for Iran to concede the central point of contention—the right to enrich uranium—in advance of final negotiations and in the absence of IAEA finding a covert Iranian military program. US pressure today is designed to maneuver Iran into a disadvantage in this regard, Tehran believes.

  • There is no appetite for harsh international sanctions on Iran and their potentially significant consequences in the broader international community. This eventuality is therefore seen as relatively harmless, and probably ephemeral, in exchange for retaining an independent nuclear capacity.

  • In the event of a further escalation of the crisis—up to and including any military strikes—Tehran feels confident it will retain enough of its nuclear program to resume work immediately and that it is immune from a large scale invasion. Moreover, the domestic rally effect will be significant enough to counter any political fallout.

  • The prospect of Iranian retaliation via its burgeoning asymmetric capabilities, and dramatically increasing instability across the Middle East, is enough to give any would-be attacker pause.

Implications for US Policy

Having reached the point of a likely return the UN Security Council, the United States is faced with a series of pressing issues. The fallout of any international sanctions on Iran will be significant and unavoidable in terms of stoking Iran’s unwillingness to continue any meaningful dialogue. All cooperation with the IAEA, including the inspections that are still ongoing today, will likely be terminated by Tehran. Once taken, this step will be very difficult to reverse, making constructive negotiations in the future more unlikely once punitive action is initiated. If establishing confidence in Iran’s nuclear activities and intent is the question at hand, these developments will erode any realistic, mutually arrived at process for doing so.

 

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