Iran's Nuclear Threat Also Represents a Significant Opportunity


Tuesday morning, Iran began negotiations over its nuclear program with major world powers in Geneva. There exists a will now, and an opportunity, to make a breakthrough. 

Over the past month, Iranian-American relations were refreshed with an exchange of letters between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and American President Barack Obama. At the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Rouhani gave a speech that reiterated Iran’s right to development, the injustice of sanctions as a tool of foreign policy and a commitment to a diplomatic resolution of the issues surrounding its nuclear program. Obama’s speech was more sweeping in character, methodically investigating the role of the UN and the U.S. in the world, the standard menu of Mideast conflicts and a general appeal for the respect of human rights and democracy around the world. The president had no qualms about insinuating that mutual mistrust with Iran will continue and full relations are a long-term prospect, including continuing the policy with sanctions.

There is one possibility that can drive diplomacy and force cooperation on nuclear proliferation: Iran developing threshold ability to produce nuclear weapons, but not closing the circuit by actually doing so. It offers critical opportunities for gradual and multidimensional diplomacy, whose aim is the normalization of international relations in the Middle East.

There are several political advantages of having threshold capacity, but not developing weapons:

First, should Saudi Arabia, or any other Mideast power choose to militarize nuclear power, it will be seen as the provocateur of nuclear tensions in the Mideast. While the proliferation of nuclear technology is slow and nearly inevitable, Iran can act as a deterrent against the spread of nuclear power in the region with the option to produce nuclear weapons, should another country try to use the atom militarily.  

Control of Iran’s nuclear materials and technology will be in the hands of its own agencies, but also under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency – it is important to note that Iran has never withdrawn from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and continues to allow IAEA personnel to inspect its infrastructure. Cooperation via the IAEA is a critical forum for trust-building between the United States and Iran.

On the flip side, Iran’s threshold ability would also be a source of uncertainty for other Mideast powers and serve as a motivation to drive up defensive and conventional capacities, especially in the Persian Gulf. Such a development could lead to the formation of a regional cold war in the Middle East.

A second risk comes from a potential decision by Tehran to export nuclear technology, especially when its program matures and additional nuclear plants are constructed. The issue is not too dissimilar from that in North Korea, which could also commercialize nuclear power, but Iran would be able to do it on a bigger and more sophisticated scale.

Having the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, but not necessarily doing so, creates an entire menu of diplomatic options, some better and some worse. Heading into Tuesday's talks, Washington has several goals: First, reigning in militaristic rhetoric and provocative behaviour by Israel and the Gulf allies; second, ensuring an effective military deterrent against Iran, potentially via the permanent dislocation of a  carrier group in Bahrain; finally, a tentative opening of relations, in the same manner that the Clinton administration opened relations with India in 1998, after 24 years of frozen diplomatic relations.

Sanctions will remain in place for the foreseeable future, but they will have to be removed if full cooperation on Iran’s nuclear program is to be expected – and here we must understand that cooperation cannot just proceed according to American or European terms. In a word, there must be agreement on the principles of nuclear use and the consequent practical implications of the application of these principles.

The diplomatic road is long and hard, but it is the most responsible choice in an already volatile Middle East.