Cracking the Deadlock on Iran’s Nuclear Program

The solution between the United States and Iran’s nuclear stance is a political puzzle inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Despite years of sanctions, political talks, scientific researches, and military threats, resolving the nuclear dispute in the region is happening at a glacial pace. The good news is that there is a chance for effective negotiations this year.

Iran’s national insecurity plays a major role in the decision on its nuclear program. Its neighbor, Israel, an ally of the United States, has nuclear weapons. Neighboring countries such as Syria and Iraq claim to have biological/chemical weapons which “balance out” the nuclear threat from Israel. Iran is looking for a way to protect itself from the military prowess of its neighbors by building its nuclear capacity which may eventually lead to the creation of nuclear weapons.

On March 18, 2013, Joel Rubin, Director of Policy and Government Affairs for the Ploughshares Fund, remarked on The United Nations Association of the United States’ conference call Deciphering the Iranian Nuclear Standoff: “this is a political call by [the Iranians]. We have to ask what would motivate the Iranian leaders to make nuclear weapons.” If the United States or Israel implements a military action, such as an air strike, that may tip the scale and motivate the Iranian government to make a dash for nuclear weapons. If this happens, Iran may become the next Libya or North Korea.

Jim Walsh, Ph.D., Research Associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program, also on the conference call, made a candid remark: “we can’t bomb the knowledge out of their heads.” Although the option of a military action against Iran is not completely off the table, it is a decision that most political and military leaders do not want to make. Negotiations and diplomacy will be the preferential tools used to resolve the nuclear program dispute.

A set of negotiations are planned between Iran and P5+1 countries (United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, and Germany). Dr. Jim Walsh welcomes the negotiations but all of the players know that their relationships with Iran is of a well justified mutual distrust. Part of the Iranian government’s identity is to oppose the United States since there is a long and ugly history between the two countries. Weak states, as measured by the economy and other non-political factors, do not want to negotiate with strong states because of the power difference. There’s suspicion in Iran that the United States is using the nuclear talks as catalysts for a regime change. The mistrust is insurmountable. No one expects a grand bargain. A small nuclear deal, such as a decrease in the amount of enriched uranium that Iran is allowed to have, is a welcomed deal but one with an abundance of technical and political obstacles.

Even though it is this author’s opinion that sanctions are ineffective tools for peace creation, Dr. Jim Walsh and Joel Rubin offered the perspective that sanctions can be useful if they are used in the service of diplomacy. For Mr. Rubin, if sanctions are “too onerous and too tightly wrapped up with other issues, [sanctions] can be counterproductive.” Dr. Walsh remarked that sanctions on Iran have caused pain on its economy to some degree but “it’s a fantasy that somehow sanctions alone will force Iranians to their knees” on this issue.

Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, in his article Why Iran May Be Ready to Deal pointed out the logic that “if Iran is going to face sanctions anyway, better to face them with the bomb than without [has] produced a saying in Tehran these days: Better to be North Korea than Iraq.” If sanctions are pushing the Iranian leaders towards nuclear weapons, why are sanctions the go-to decision in Congress?

Currently, Congress is not sufficiently focused on the US-Iran nuclear issue when it has other national concerns to deal with such as the state of the economy, gun control, and immigration. Sanctions allow politicians to remain active on an issue without having to pull the trigger in a military fashion. Sanctions delay negotiations, but at least the negotiations are planned for and the seed of goodwill is there. Perhaps strategic delays in talks are meaningful especially when Iran has elections coming up in June which may create political turmoil in Tehran. The elections are a difficult and complicated factor for US diplomats to take into account in planning for negotiations.

Sanctions imposed on Iran are the bargaining chips for negotiations. Vali Nasr stated, “Washington should offer to do away with specific sanctions, piece by piece, in exchange for specific Iranian concessions. In that way, both sides might begin dismantling the most dangerous aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in incremental, verifiable ways.” Hopefully, the prospect of lifting the sanctions will be enough reason for Iran to stand down on its nuclear weapons endeavors. If not, a novel idea that Dr. Jim Walsh came across in the academic and the periphery of the non-proliferation world is to have a multi-national nuclear program. Perhaps have an arrangement in which nuclear facilities remain on Iranian soil or is partially owned and managed by Iran and other international groups or states. How well will this idea be received by Congress, Iran, and the P5+1 community? That’s another can of mystery that most people don’t want to open.

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