Dr Matthew Moran is a Deputy Director in the Centre for Science and Security Studies, King's College London. Wyn Bowen is a Professor of International Security in the Department of War Studies, King's College London.
In the eyes of many commentators, the election of Hassan Rouhani as president has changed the nature of the Iranian nuclear challenge.
Throughout his electoral campaign, Rouhani made re-engagement with the international community a priority and this theme has persisted since he took office. In a speech at the UN, he declared Tehran's willingness to 'remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran's peaceful nuclear program', and nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 in October were described as the ‘most detailed talks ever’ by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton.
The overtures of the new administration have been well received by Western leaders and, even if President Rouhani has been careful to manage expectations, there is now real hope of a lasting diplomatic agreement on the nuclear issue. In this respect, the unexpected arrival of US Secretary of state John Kerry and other foreign ministers at the second round of talks in Geneva last week was a positive sign. Even if the tough stance adopted by the French has complicated matters, it seems there is now a genuine opportunity for the P5+1 and Iran to reach an agreement.
So what does this mean for Iran’s nuclear aspirations? Does the new administration’s desire to re-engage reflect changing strategic objectives in Tehran? Or should the recent change in approach be seen as a tactical manoeuvre designed to muddy the diplomatic waters and buy more time for the Iranian nuclear program?
While Rouhani’s more conciliatory approach is a far cry from the hostile and often belligerent rhetoric of his predecessor, little has changed in Tehran’s broader approach to nuclear strategy.
We have argued elsewhere that Iran has, particularly since 2002, been engaged in a strategy based on ‘nuclear hedging’. That is to say, Tehran has sought to develop the technical wherewithal for producing nuclear weapons but has stopped short of taking a decision to acquire them.
Rouhani’s apparent willingness to re-engage with the international community does not reflect any fundamental change in Tehran’s broader strategic objectives. Given the advanced state of the nuclear program, any agreement reached with the P5+1 will almost certainly allow Iran to retain much of its capability in return for increased transparency, a comprehensive inspection process and a full explanation of past work. In striking such a deal the P5+1 will be implicitly acknowledging, and accepting, Iranian hedging.
The only real difference, perhaps, is one of timing. With such great importance attached to the civil nuclear narrative by the Iranian administration, and so much attention focused on the country’s nuclear program, nuclear hedging becomes a perilous form of brinkmanship. Getting it wrong could result in damaging fallout for Iran’s leadership at the domestic, regional and wider international level.
At present, Iran’s nuclear activities go beyond what is strictly necessary for a civil nuclear program. Yet the program has not advanced to the point where the civil rationale no longer holds any credibility. The question for decision-makers in Tehran, then, is at what point should latency – moves towards a nuclear infrastructure that offers the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons – be capped?
This decision is at the centre of a complex web of influencing factors, the most important of which is undoubtedly the significance that the nuclear issue has gained in the domestic political arena.
For many years now, the nuclear program has been linked to national pride, scientific advancement and Iran’s rights as a nation-state. Successive administrations have drawn on this important source of political capital, and opposition to international efforts to curb or halt Iran’s nuclear activities have unified a notoriously factionalised domestic political arena. The nuclear issue has also aligned neatly with the anti-Americanism that has been a prominent feature of the Islamic Republic’s political landscape since 1979.
Little surprise, then, that any perceived capitulation to Western powers is seen as unacceptable in Tehran. The failed Geneva agreement of 2009 is a case in point. President Ahmadinejad was attacked by moderates and conservatives alike for agreeing to a deal that was perceived as a loss for Iran. So it is easy to see how the narrative constructed around the nuclear program has given it a powerful and almost organic momentum.
Yet unprecedented economic sanctions are crippling Iran’s oil-based economy and having a tangible impact at ground level. Furthermore, the threat of an Israeli military strike continues to loom. The leadership in Tehran cannot be sure how much more progress on the nuclear program Israel will be prepared to accept. It is not by chance that Iran has converted some of its 20% enriched uranium to oxide fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor – Israel has suggested an amount greater than 240 kilograms would trigger an attack. On a larger scale, long-term international isolation does not align with Iran’s self-perceived role as a regional and even global power.
It seems the damaging effects of defiance and continued advancement are beginning to outweigh the benefits. This is surely evident to President Rouhani, a moderate with a reputation for pragmatism. Iran has already achieved a low level of latency and, given the advanced nature of the nuclear program, it is not realistic for the P5+1 to expect significant rollback. Rouhani thus has an opportunity to maintain much of Iran’s existing capability – allowing him to ‘sell’ an agreement at home – while beginning to rehabilitate the country’s international image. It is quite possible that, rather than changing Iran’s strategic objectives, Rouhani feels that the country has largely achieved them.
Photo by Flickr user Asia Society.