Containment, not rollback, is the key to Iran’s nuclear future

New best friends? Catherine Ashton and Iran’s Javad Zarif in September. European External Action Service

To gauge just how important a successful outcome to the latest round of nuclear negotiations with Iran is to the West – and how far the thaw with new president Hassan Rouhani has progressed – you only have to look at the newspapers.

According to reports from the US, Washington is considering an initiative that would allow Iran to access some of the oil revenues that have been frozen under US-imposed sanctions that have been gradually throttling Iran’s economy for 30 years.

This would represent a significant softening of the US position, given that it is sanctions that have largely been credited with driving Iran to the negotiating table. Rouhani was elected largely on the promise that he would prioritise an end to the sanctions. It appears that his charm initiative has begun to bear fruit.

In recent months, the dynamics of the Iranian nuclear challenge have changed. The very antithesis of his predecessor, Rouhani has tried hard to allay concerns that Iran has military, and not just peaceful, intentions for its nuclear programme. The initial signs have been positive: the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton said that recent meetings in Geneva were the scene of the “most detailed talks ever” on the nuclear issue.

But while the context framing the Geneva negotiations has altered, so too have the potential scenarios in which an agreement might be reached. Crucially, while it was once possible to envisage an Iran without a uranium enrichment capability this is no longer the case. The Iranian nuclear programme has progressed far enough to guarantee the continuity of enrichment in some form as part of any negotiated solution. The nature of domestic politics in Iran would not accommodate a complete reversal anyway.

If there is to be a solution, it will need to be based on containment rather than rollback of the nuclear programme: containing Iranian technical advancements and placing limits on further progress. Some may regard this as an unpalatable concession; but a more holistic approach to understanding Iran’s nuclear trajectory reveals that containment represents a pragmatic approach rather than a defeatist one.

Indeed, our research suggests this is the only likely path to a diplomatic solution.

Nuclear ‘hedging’

Since 2002, Tehran’s approach appears to have been based on “nuclear hedging” – where Iran has sought to develop the technical wherewithal for producing weapons but has stopped short of taking a decision to acquire nuclear weapons. The concept of hedging is an abstract one. As part of our research we have developed a more nuanced approach to understanding hedging and applied this to Iranian proliferation behaviour.

Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, was chief nuclear negotiator in 2003. Mojtaba Salimi

Given the highly secretive nature of nuclear decision-making, it is extremely difficult to find explicit evidence - so to shed light on hedging is a matter of identifying indicators, individual pieces of evidence and insights that together form a broader picture.

To fully understand Iran’s nuclear trajectory, then, three levels of analysis must be applied. First, Iran’s nuclear activities must be considered in terms of opaque proliferation – that is the extent to which Iran has covertly developed its nuclear programme, as well as its moves towards latency – or its ability to acquire nuclear weapons.

Central to hedging is an ability to maintain opacity, or at least partial opacity, vis-à-vis intent, capability, or both, as are coherent efforts to achieve latency. This is most likely to happen both through the covert procurement of nuclear materials and using civil nuclear development as a partial cover. It is also important to consider the level of coherence between Iran’s nuclear capabilities and the stated civil rationale of the regime, as well as any evidence of military involvement in the nuclear programme.

On all these counts, Iran has acted in a manner that is consistent with hedging. The nuclear programme now extends far beyond what is strictly necessary for a civil programme and the Iranian case has been characterised in part by its covert development of sensitive nuclear facilities. Moreover, a recent report by the UN Panel of Experts revealed that Iran continues to advance its nuclear infrastructure using complex and illicit procurement methods. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has also gathered evidence suggesting military involvement.

Second, it is necessary to understand the narrative around a nuclear programme, that is to say, the manner in which the state’s nuclear activities are represented by decision-makers and the political elite more broadly.

Successive administrations in Tehran have infused the nuclear programme with political symbolism. In Iranian political discourse, the nuclear programme is linked to national pride, scientific advancement and Iran’s rights and progress as a nation-state. In this context, issues of non-compliance with obligations under the NPT have been submerged by a powerful narrative of nuclear nationalism. It is for this reason that the nuclear programme has garnered support from across the domestic political spectrum.

Third, Iran’s diplomatic behaviour must also be examined from the point at which suspicions were raised regarding the country’s nuclear activities. Since the 2002 revelations regarding its undeclared nuclear activities, Iran has used negotiations as a diplomatic smokescreen while buying time to advance its nuclear capabilities. Tehran’s diplomatic track record has been marked by a series of failed negotiations, reneged agreements and intransigence.

Pragmatic politics

In combination each level of analysis provides considerable evidence that Iran is engaged in an approach based on hedging. But how do we know that Iran does not intend to follow North Korea’s path? What differentiates a hedging approach from a circuitous route to the bomb as typified by the regime in Pyongyang?

Two factors tip the case in favour of hedging. First, Iran views itself as a major power in the international arena and a country that should have a decisive influence on regional relations and politics.

Iran has no desire to be the “North Korea of the Middle East” and so a latent weapons capability that allows for the possibility of international engagement is a more attractive option than the isolation that nuclear weapons acquisition would guarantee.

Second, and more important, Iranian politicians of all ideological colours have embraced the nuclear programme as a symbol of sovereign rights and progress. This unity is rare in a domestic political arena that is heavily factionalised and notoriously combative. Crucially, however, the consensus on the nuclear programme does not extend to weapons and, consequently, any deviation from the peaceful nuclear narrative would leave the regime open to attack domestically.

So it makes sense that hedging is the only strategy for a regime that, on one hand, appears to have taken steps down the nuclear weapons path, yet on the other, is bound by the constraints of its own efforts to imbue the country’s civil nuclear programme with nationalist sentiment. This is not necessarily “hedging by design”, but may be better characterised as “hedging by default”. It is the only approach that allows the regime to reconcile any potential moves towards nuclear weapons with the strong consensus that exists on civil nuclear advancement. Furthermore, this same political context makes it very difficult for Iranian decision makers to slow or to reverse course.

This is not to say that Iran will not attempt to cross the nuclear threshold at some point - but there is no evidence as yet to indicate that since 2002 this has been the desired end-point of the programme.

The solution

If we accept that Iran is hedging, containment emerges as the only realistic means of achieving a peaceful solution. Tehran has come too far to give up its nuclear programme and any significant concessions would be perceived within Iran as a capitulation to Western powers which would come with a significant domestic political backlash.

A more realistic goal is to focus on containing Iranian advancements. Such an approach entails an implicit acceptance of “hedging by default” in the Iranian context. This would involve keeping Iran as far as possible from a credible breakout capability, but at the same time allowing Tehran to retain its programme in some form. Of course, the limits of how this might look are open to debate. There are a number of issues to be considered, from enrichment levels to stocks of fissile material. Another issue to be addressed is the advancement of the Arak heavy water reactor that, when completed, could potentially give Iran a source of plutonium and another route to the bomb.

The trade-off here would come in the form of greater transparency and increased oversight, with IAEA inspectors being provided with all necessary access and support to verify declared activities and rule out any further undeclared work. This idea of comprehensive oversight as part of a trade-off for enrichment is not new but it assumes new significance when considered in the cultural and political context that our understanding of hedging provides.

The new regime in Tehran brings with it the potential for real progress on the nuclear issue. The new president is a pragmatist who realises the scale of the challenges that the nuclear programme presents. Economic sanctions have crippled Iran and the threat of military action continues to loom. An agreement would start the process of rehabilitating Iran’s international reputation. Moreover, securing a deal that permitted Iran to retain a limited level of latency could be sold domestically as a “win”.

This would not represent a failure with regard to the Iranian nuclear challenge. It advocates pragmatism in the face of certain cultural, political and technical challenges. Tehran must be held to account for its non-compliance to date and be made to accept deeper oversight of its nuclear activities. But it is clear that ignoring the domestic political constraints that Iranian leaders – particularly the more moderate ones – must operate within, is a recipe for failure.

Expert Database

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 54,400 academics and researchers from 2,115 institutions.

Register now