President Obama marked the Persian New Year festival of Nowruz in March 2009 with a video message to the people of Iran, offering ‘a future where the old divisions are overcome’. Such a process, he said, will ‘not be advanced by threats’ but through engagement would be ‘honest and grounded in mutual respect.’
In exchange, President Obama hoped for a less bellicose and more responsible Iranian government – at least in its rhetoric – and a practical path through the increasingly difficult nuclear issue.
So far no tangible progress has been made in resolving the Iranian nuclear situation. Although it was in the mid-1990s that the Iranian nuclear programme first began to occupy the minds of western policymakers, it was President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in January, 2002, that was the game-changer. In it he connected Iraq, North Korea and Iran as an ‘axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world’, saying that ‘by seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger’.
Iran observed the subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003 – ostensibly over the issue of weapons of mass destruction – and the impact of sanctions on North Korea ; Iranians fear that President Obama has kept the same list and that they are next.
Actions and rhetoric seem to be reaching a fever pitch reminiscent of the lead-up to the US-led war on Iraq : assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists ; cyber attacks through ‘worms’ such as Stuxnet ; reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency ; the rehashing of old Western intelligence ; talk of military action and time running out ; and pleadings from around the world for restraint.
If the intention was to make Iran feel beleaguered, then the strategy has been a great success. If the intention, however, was to ensure that Iran does not develop a military nuclear weapons capability, then we may be witnessing yet another catastrophic mismanagement.
Iran’s reaction has not been just to remonstrate, delay and deceive. Despite – or perhaps because of – sanctions, Iran announced in September that the Bushehr nuclear power station is now operational and connected to the grid. Even though there were previous attempts to block this enterprise, Bushehr is no big deal ; this reactor is not a military installation and will provide much needed energy for Iran.
It is Iran’s uranium enrichment programme that has vexed the United States and its allies. Most nuclear reactors operate with low enriched uranium. For the most part this means uranium enriched so that 3-4 per cent of the fuel is the useful uranium-235 isotope. For some reactors – primarily research reactors – this enrichment is as a high as 19.75 per cent. Above 20 per cent, we refer to it as highly enriched uranium. Enriched uranium suitable for nuclear weapons would usually be above 90 per cent. However, numbers can be deceptive. Because of the way uranium is enriched, it requires very little extra effort to go from reactor grade to the concentration needed for a nuclear bomb.
Several other states have uranium enrichment programmes, including Argentina, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, the Netherlands, North Korea, Russia, Pakistan, Britain and the USA. Eight of these are acknowledged possessors of nuclear weapons and have developed highly enriched uranium for military programmes. Other countries – such as Israel – are thought to have done so in the past.
In February, 2012, President Ahmadinejad announced a number of scientific breakthroughs, including the use of domestically fabricated fuel (just under 20 per cent enrichment) in the Tehran research reactor and the installation of new, more efficient centrifuges.
The frustration felt in the IAEA is palpable. In January and February this year, IAEA officials visited Tehran but made no progress and were not allowed access to the military complex at Parchin, although Iran has since announced that access will be granted under certain conditions.
Iran has notched up an impressive set of achievements for a country under international sanctions. It has tripled its monthly production of 20 per cent enriched uranium thanks to four new cascades at Fordow, and 15 additional centrifuge cascades have begun operating at Natanz.
So is there any room for optimism ? President Obama has criticised ‘loose talk of war’, a statement which was welcomed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. On March 8, the European Union agreed to restart talks with Iran within the P5+1 format, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
Perhaps one of the ways out is to discover what ordinary people think. The Saban Centre, a Washington think tank, recently carried out a survey of Israeli jews that shocked most pundits with the unexpected finding that 65 per cent would prefer neither Israel nor Iran to possess nuclear weapons, and would choose a nuclear-free Middle East.
In Iran, support for the nuclear programme may not be as great as the government claims. Although polls carried out by the Iranian Students’ Polling Agency – which comes under the Ministry of Higher Education – need to be treated with caution, a 2010 survey of Tehran residents showed that public support for Iran’s nuclear programme may have declined since 2008. In that two-year period, the poll showed that favourable opinion towards the programme had decreased from 45.2 to 22.1 per cent. In addition, 41 per cent said the administration had done a ‘poor job handling the nuclear case’, an opinion held by only about 21 per cent 2 years earlier.
These results differ from those of foreign polling organisations, but the trend still indicates declining support for the nuclear programme. A Gallup poll, conducted by telephone from a call centre outside Iran and published in February, showed that only 40 per cent of Iranians were in favour of developing nuclear weapons, while 57 per cent supported a civilian nuclear programme (whereas in 2010, a Rand survey had this figure at 87 per cent). Almost one quarter of respondents refused to respond.
As for the authorities, Ayatollah Khamenei issued a fatwa in 2005, saying that that the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons was forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons.
Let’s hope that we can take the Supreme Leader at his word. There is not much hope of progress during the partisan rhetoric of the US election campaign. But if President Obama is re-elected in November, is it too much to imagine that he could, as he promised in 2009, reset this relationship ?