The Spectrum of Perceptions in Iran's Nuclear Issue

By Rahman G. Bonab - Center for Strategic Research (CSR) (Tehran) | Jan 29, 2009
Flickr user Shahram Sharif
Flickr user Shahram Sharif
The Spectrum of Perceptions in Iran's Nuclear Issue

The relationship between Iran and the West has been marked by mutual mistrust and confrontation for the past 30 years. Iran’s nuclear standoff with Western countries is currently regarded as the main symbol of that confrontational relationship. Iran insists that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful, while Western countries are suspicious of Tehran’s intentions. There are polarized and incompatible views about this complicated and multidimensional issue. The main source of incompatibility is that this issue is seen from different perspectives.

Skeptics argue that Iran has the technological capability and a sufficient amount of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) to make a nuclear bomb within six months if it were to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Others remind us of the legal and political difficulties of using Article 10 of the NPT regarding withdrawal from this treaty and the negative impact this would have on Iran’s national interests. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has not given Iran a clean bill of health despite nearly five years of intrusive random and regular inspections. During this time, inspectors have not been able to find satisfying evidence of Iran’s diversion from peaceful nuclear activities. The latest IAEA Safeguard Report says that this watchdog organization does not have any document related to a military dimension of Iran’s nuclear activities other than the UF4 (uranium tetrafluoride) document. Iran is continuing uranium enrichment and sanctions have not been able to persuade the country to suspend its enrichment activity.

Since 2003, the Western media have frequently said that Iran is very close to make a nuclear bomb. None of these predictions has been realized yet, and we have not reached a “point of no return” in using diplomacy. If the latest assessments were not accurate and scientific, then it is time to review the recent policies. The current stalemate in Iran-IAEA cooperation may be an opportunity in this context. In its recent attempts to exert pressures on Iran, the United States has given documents related to Tehran’s alleged studies to the IAEA in order to show the hard copies to Iran for the first time since 2004. The United States has not explained the authenticity, source, and accuracy of these so-called Laptop documents, although Iran denied their veracity.

A mutual lack of confidence is the main obstacle to reconciliation between Iran and the West in the nuclear issue. The constructivists are right to say that a perception of threat is more important than the threat per se. The West is sure that even a nuclear Iran is not able to pose an existential threat. Meanwhile, Iran is aware that without Western help, it won’t be able to realize its development plans. However, Iranian decision-makers are suspicious of Western countries’ intentions. One of the reasons for this distrust may be a lack of cognition between the two sides. While the West and, to a lesser extent, China and Russia see Iran’s nuclear activities within the framework of a neo-realist approach, Iran’s decision-makers comprehend it mostly via domestic and local criteria.

A neo-realist approach supposes that Iran has sufficient motivations to make a nuclear bomb in order to be confident of its survival in an anarchic and unipolar post-Cold War world and a war-burdened and unstable region. Iran’s security environment is the dominant analytical concept in this approach. According to this approach, the Bush Administration’s offensive and provocative polices have intensified the sense of insecurity among Iran’s political elites and have encouraged them to pursue nuclear deterrence.

Proponents of this view ignore the realities of nuclear reversals in the last decades and the complexities of nuclear decision-making. Comparative studies of various nuclear decision-making systems demonstrate that security concerns are not the most important variables in nuclearization or nuclear reversal. Furthermore, having a fuel cycle does not automatically lead to making bombs. Japan, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Argentina all have uranium enrichment capability, but they have not decided to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and make bombs.

Inside Iran, political elites apprehend Iran’s nuclear issue mostly through the prism of domestic politics and the West’s long-standing double standards in dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran during the last 30 years. According to them, accepting the Western preconditions on the nuclear issue would only be an introduction to being forced to comply with the West’s intrusive demands in other areas, such as human rights, terrorism, and Israel. Furthermore, history plays an indisputable role here. The outcome of the last 30 years of interactions between Iran and the West cannot be neglected by either side, at least in the short term.

Both sides have tested many policies vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear issue, and they have implicitly admitted that Iran’s nuclear game is not zero-sum. The legitimacy of the Iranian regime is deeply reproduced by the political mobilization of people, and the nuclear issue will have considerable impact on the mobilization policy. The 5 + 1 group and especially the Obama Administration should pay attention to this basic fact in dealing with Iran’s nuclear issue. It seems that the main assumption of polyheuristic theory in foreign policy is correct here: The concerns of Iranian policy makers are domestic rather than foreign. The main characteristic of Iran’s decision-making system is delaying, not recognizing. The West has not paid balanced attention to these two important aspects of the Iranian decision-making system. It looks at the outcome rather than the process of decision-making. In March 2005, Iran proposed a package of objective guarantees and even accepted permanent inspections of its nuclear activities and ratification of the Model Additional Protocol. The EU-3 missed this historic opportunity.

The present deadlock on the nuclear issue may encourage the West to reassess its policies. Iran’s nuclear issue is an opportunity for the West to recognize the capacities of Iranian political system, especially in domestic politics. The reproduction of distrust during the last years has made it too difficult to find a face-saving and middle solution. Here the role of academics is important. Instead of spawning this atmosphere and sticking to theories, they should try to help decision-makers deepen their knowledge of both sides. We have learned from diplomats that it is possible to find solutions, even in apparent deadlocks. Going beyond stereotypes is a prelude to finding a solution to this problem.

Western countries are suspiscous of Tehran's intentions