August 15, 2012 / 3:20 PM / 5 years ago

Column: Dealing with a nuclear Iran

(The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and not those of Reuters.)

Ten years since the start of the Iranian nuclear crisis, we can see how successful Western powers have been in preventing the Islamic Republic from acquiring a bomb. Diplomacy has achieved little. Facing an international "red line" forbidding any enrichment whatsoever, Iran has stockpiled enough uranium for several bombs, acquired thousands of uranium-enriching centrifuges and now enriches uranium to 20 percent <here> - which involves about 80 percent of the effort to reach weapons-grade levels.

Many in Washington and Tel Aviv see military force as the only option left. Mitt Romney’s promise in Jerusalem last month to give Israel a green light for a pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities may have been alarming, but it reflected growing international sentiment - not least from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly stated that he views a nuclear-armed Iran as an “existential threat” to the State of Israel.

Mainstream international exasperation now takes the form of sanctions against Iran's oil and banking sectors, intensifying three decades of the Islamic Republic's economic mismanagement <here>. The Bush administration's repeated threats of "regime change" to prevent a nuclear Iran once served to rally Iranians to the nuclear cause, with many telling me that they would fight if Washington attacked Iran. Today, rising inflation (the rial has lost 50 percent of its value against other currencies in the last year, while consumer prices are rising officially by 25 percent annually) and unemployment (now at around 11 percent) have become a bigger concern than nuclear prowess. The ayatollahs have taken notice. Until April this year, Iran upped its enrichment rate <here> and refused so much as to hold negotiations over its nuclear program for nearly two years. Since then, Iranian officials have met with the P5+1 powers (the U.S., Russia, China, UK, France and Germany) three times.

But they remain defiant. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other prominent regime figures have stated repeatedly that nothing will stop Iran's pursuit of its "inalienable right" <here> to enrich uranium under international law. Iran has responded to international pressure with threats of its own, hinting it might close the Straits of Hormuz '(through which around 20 percent of the worlds oil passes). <here>

What makes its defiance worse is that Iran claims it is enriching uranium to make fuel for nuclear reactors. But Iran only has one nuclear reactor, at Bushehr: Russia built it and will also provide its fuel when the reactor finally comes online. Although Iran claims it intends to build up to 20 new reactors at some unspecified time in the future, as it stands now the country is antagonizing the West to make fuel for reactors that do not exist.

Such a seemingly perverse course of action has convinced a growing number of politicians and analysts that Iran is driving toward a nuclear bomb. And that makes sense. No serious observer could believe that Iran's program has ever only been for civil purposes. There are too many unanswered questions with military connotations. Iran has experimented with Polonium-210 <here>, which is used in the production of nuclear weapons, and documents have been found <here> in its possession explaining how to enrich to weapons-grade uranium and chemically convert this into metal components for use in nuclear weapons.

But there is a further reason for Iranian intransigence that goes beyond the mere military. For 10 years, Western powers have repeatedly failed to realize what Iran wants and what its nuclear program means to the country. The nuclear crisis has never been just about uranium and centrifuges; they spin within a wider context.

To understand Iran, we must understand Iranian history. Foreign powers have meddled in Iran for almost two centuries. For much of the 19th century, Britain and Russia battled for control of Central Asia, playing out their Great Game in an Iranian arena - and meddling in the country in the process. In 1953, Britain and the U.S. collaborated to overthrow democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, replacing him with the autocratic Shah. Iranian diplomacy is thus driven by the belief that the world is fundamentally hostile and must be negotiated from a position of strength.

The question, of course, is how Iran derives this strength. A nuclear bomb would certainly suit. Nuclear weapons and strength are synonymous to many: It has not, for example, escaped Iranian notice that the U.N. Security Council powers are nuclear powers. But it is not yet time to panic. Alarmist reports <here> that Iran has enough low-enriched uranium to make several bombs are true, but misleading. To enrich to the necessary levels, Iran would have to throw out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which - the odd grumble aside - it has never shown any serious inclination to do. If they did, as a senior American official told me, Washington would just bomb the enrichment plant at Natanz. The Iranians wouldn't be that stupid, he said.

But there is something else, too. Iran is undoubtedly a rogue state: It sponsors terrorism <here> and is one of the worst human rights violators <here> in the world. But the term is incomplete. Iran is also a developing country, and in a world where such countries often feel inadequate relative to their developed contemporaries, anything that is seen to level the field has a high premium. They view civil nuclear power programs as a shortcut to technological advancement and to modernity itself. To become a nuclear state <here> - a boast Ahmadinejad has made many times - is, for many developing countries, to become a modern state. Already paranoid about Western interference, Iran sees attempts to halt its nuclear progress as imperialist attempts to keep an Islamic country down in the best traditions of the "perfidious" West. Its nuclear drive is informed by its own history and by a belief that colonialism has reappeared in the form of "nuclear apartheid." <here> For many Iranians <here>, the nuclear program remains a totem of national achievement, indicative of the country's status as a serious power that the world must acknowledge.

Once Iran’s motivation is fully understood, there is hope for a solution. Its desires stem from a single impulse: the need to be accepted. Iran wants more engagement, not less. Its status as international pariah is an affront to its self-image as a great nation with 5,000 years of history behind it. But history has taught Iran that such acceptance must be achieved on its own terms. The acceptance it seeks may come from having a nuclear bomb, but it may also come from being given the respect it believes it deserves.

The recent engagement with Iran must continue: Combined with biting sanctions, it may compel Iran into compromise. But Iran must be brought back into the international fold for any compromise to work. This is the only hope for a non-military solution. Involving Iran on regional issues, supporting its membership in international organizations (such as recent U.S. and Israeli support for its World Trade Organization membership) must be a priority. Once the country believes it is being treated as it deserves, it may well be more inclined to be reasonable - especially when sanctions are making it suffer. It is in many ways a long shot. But if this is not tried, we may face more, and potentially bloodier, conflict in the Middle East.

David Patrikarakos is the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State, forthcoming from I.B. Tauris. A London-based writer and journalist, his work has appeared in publications including the Financial Times, London Review of Books, and New Statesman. Follow him on Twitter @dpatrikarakos.

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