Security Studies Program Seminar
Iran and the Diplomacy of Nuclear Confrontation: Ambitions, Accusations, Ambiguities
Director, International Security Program at the Belfer Center
September 10, 2008
- Dr. Miller has studied Iran and the nuclear crisis for several years. He has a strong background in nuclear nonproliferation research. He does not claim to be an Iran expert, but he tries to engage in “strategic empathy” and understand the Iranian point of view. This talk will focus on the Iranian perspective concerning the current nuclear crises.
- A nuclear Iran is nothing new: Iran was part of the Atoms for Peace program since the 1950s.
- The Iranian nuclear program was mostly small, research-oriented, uncontroversial for quite a long period of time.
- The modern Iranian nuclear program dates back to the Shah in 1970s, who initiated a large nuclear program that continues in close to the same form today.
- The Shah’s plan was always to have a full fuel cycle and the full range of dual use technologies. He saw Iran as a regional hegemon and was encouraged by U.S. in this perception.
- After a brief interruption in the Shah’s program during and after the Islamic Revolution, Iran started making fitful but consistent efforts to put the Shah’s program into place starting in the early 1980s.
- President Bill Clinton invested huge amounts of energy and capital to prevent the Iranians from achieving their nuclear program, including successful pressuring of both Russia and China to pull back from deals with Iran.
- The current crisis started on August 14, 2002, when the National Council of Resistance of Iran held a press conference to announce that the Iranians had enrichment and heavy water facilities under construction.
- Iran’s interest in a nuclear program was nothing new, but the specific facilities and sites represented progress. Thereafter, the U.S. (and much of the world) entered into a crisis mode from which we have yet to depart.
Phases of the Crisis
- August 2002-October 2003
- Iranians were largely recalcitrant and followed a policy of concealment.
- October 21, 2003
- Iranians announced that they were changing course. They agreed to embrace transparency, suspend enrichment, and work with IAEA.
- Sanctions didn’t happen until years later, and American unilateral sanctions were in place for decades earlier, so sanctions likely were not the reason for the shift in policy.
- The Bush administration pointed to the demonstration effect of the Iraq war as driving reason for Iranian policy change.
- Miller believes it was realization of the destruction of the A.Q. Khan network that drove the Iranian shift. They could now be transparent (and wanted to be before the Americans found out everything from A.Q. Khan.)
- November 10, 2003
- Mohamed El Baradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), issued a report to the IAEA board of governors, which included the quote: “There is no evidence that previously undeclared nuclear materials and activities are related to a weapons program.”
- The Bush administration did not like this; such a sentence did not appear again. Nonetheless, it was never retracted, and there is no evidence to the contrary.
- The Iranians ultimately cooperated in allowing investigation of many sensitive military sites, something that the U.S. would never allow, but no comprehensive agreement was reached.
- August 2005-present
- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is elected president of Iran in August of 2005. He promptly throws out everyone who negotiated with IAEA.
- In January 2006, the Iranians announce that they are abandoning suspension of their nuclear program. This begins a race between sanctions and centrifuges, with centrifuges winning by large margin according to Miller.
- Last summer, El Baradei negotiated with the Iranians over a ‘work plan’ that specified six outstanding issues, most dealing with clarifying what had happened in the early days of the relationship with A.Q. Khan and Iranians in 1980s. Bush and the Europeans were not happy with this.
- Four of the six issues were declared resolved by IAEA, two of the six “not inconsistent” with IAEA findings (February 2008).
- With most of the major issues now resolved, what remains on the agenda is the so-called “laptop of death,” which is a laptop computer handed to a U.S. embassy in Germany by a walk-in in 2004. On the basis of this laptop, the U.S. makes allegation after allegation about Iran’s nuclear program without sharing the evidence.
- After the IAEA seemed ready to give Iran a clean bill of health, the U.S. shared some of the laptop evidence with the IAEA but it could not be publicly distributed.
- The two main problems presented by the U.S. were that Iran had engaged in ballistic missile reentry vehicle design and high explosive research.
- Although the Iranians dismiss this, the IAEA says that serious questions remain and Iran’s full return to good standing is not possible as long as this is the case.
- Miller asks whether there is any law or treaty anywhere that the Iranians are violating if they have done these tests? He claims that neither represents prohibited activity, and further notes that the IAEA doesn’t have authority or competence in those areas.
Iran’s Point of View
- Iran feels itself to be under assault by the U.S. since 1979, but especially since January 20, 2001 when the Bush administration came into power.
- Iranians cite published allegations of cross border raids by the U.S. into Iran, U.S. support for the Mujahedin-E Khalq (MEK), published reports of U.S. sabotaging Iranian commerce, especially its nuclear commerce. The Iranians face U.S. forces on all sides, there is open debate among conservatives about the joys of attacking Iran and regime change, and there are open campaigns of economic warfare.
- In March 1974, the Shah launched a massive nuclear energy program. He had a plan aiming for 20-30 nuclear reactors within 20 years; western companies were falling all over themselves to sell things to the Shah.
- Presidents Ford and Carter backpedaled a bit on giving Iran an entire fuel cycle, but generally the West helped plan and provide the equipment and know-how for Iran’s nuclear program. (Many of the workers were trained at MIT.)
- The current Iranian administration largely took the Shah’s program off the shelf, so the Iranian punch line is not that they are doing anything wrong, but that they lost their relationship with the U.S.
- The Iranians therefore perceive the nuclear crisis as just one other way to keep Iran weak. To them, this is not a nonproliferation issue, it is an America-Iran issue, specifically America’s desire for regime change and keeping Iran a weak and backwards nation.
Questions for Iran
- #1: Why does Iran need nuclear energy since they are so oil-rich?
- Iranians now produce 4.2 million barrels of oil a day, down from 6+ million per day before the revolution. They are working very hard just to maintain those levels and cannot increase their production significantly.
- This is a problem because the rate of Iranian energy consumption is increasing rapidly, up to 1.63 million barrels of oil per day currently.
- This is shrinking Iranian oil exports, which represent 85% of Iran’s national budget. High oil prices have helped Iran avert disaster thus far. If oil were $12 a barrel the Iranians would be in a desperate situation.
- Furthermore, the high price of oil makes it much more valuable as an export than for domestic consumption.
- Iran wants to take its place in the world, be high tech and cutting edge. A nuclear power program has many positive externalities. Iran is not Abu Dhabi. It has a population of 70 million and growing; they can’t survive on profits from 4 million barrels of oil per day.
- Iranians have a civil nuclear power program with huge domestic support, and they have contracts to bring them up to the 20 power plants the Shah envisioned.
- Iran is not a natural gas exporter; the U.S./the West won’t let them get the necessary infrastructure due to sanctions. They have the natural gas resources, but all of the arguments about oil also pertain.
- #2: You can have nuclear power but not enrich, so why are Iranians enriching?
- There is a global glut of enrichment services, why do Iranians need the fuel cell?
- Since 1979, they have been subjected to a comprehensive nuclear embargo. The international nuclear market is hopelessly politicized.
- The Iranians have tried to buy nuclear goodies from almost every country in vain.
- The Iranians had a deal with Siemens, but the Germans refused to honor the contract after the revolution. The Iranians sued and won the case, now suing for damages as Germans continue to refuse.
- The Iranians signed a big deal with Russians to provide an entire fuel cycle in 1995. Under excruciating pressure from Clinton, Boris Yeltsin overruled his own experts and largely pulled out of the deal.
- The U.S. got China to back out of contract with the Iranians as well in 1997.
- These are just some examples of how the Iranians are not able to rely on the global marketplace to honor a contract. In many of these deals, the Iranians paid money up front but never got it back. It is hard for the Iranians to build 20 reactors and spend billions and billions of dollars, yet rely on the world marketplace for their fuel.
- Tehran doesn’t think Russia providing fuel assurances means anything, since the U.S. was able to successfully pressure Russia in all previous cases.
- #3: Why is Iran enriching now?
- The Iranians respond that their nuclear program would be much farther along if U.S. and others hadn’t been preventing their progress on the nuclear energy front for so long. Iranians think they are at least 10 years from having a functional commercial enrichment program.
- Iran has very little natural uranium, which is the greatest weakness of the Iranian position.
- However, the Iranians only just started looking and the natural uranium marketplace is more diverse and less dominated by U.S. than enrichment services.
- #4: Since Iran could have proceeded openly with its program, why did they do it secretly?
- Iranians question how secret it was given that their pursuit of a full fuel cycle was front page news all over the world.
- The core of the Iranian argument is that it couldn’t build its program with the U.S., Germany, Russia, China, Argentina, Brazil (to name a few); it could only buy from A.Q. Khan.
- From the Iranian perspective, the Americans drove them to the black market and into the arms of Khan, but they use this as evidence of Iran’s malicious intent.
- In fact, the Iranians are enraged at Khan since he sold them some bad equipment.
- #5: Why did Iran cheat on safeguards?
- Iranians definitely cheated on safeguards in IAEA reports.
- However, Iranian sins are failure to report/declare certain items, not in what they were doing.
- #6: If Iranians have nothing to hide, why haven’t they cooperated?
- The Iranians were asked to suspend their program and they did that twice to little avail. They negotiated additional transparency measures above and beyond what U.S. would allow itself; all of Iran’s facilities are under continuous closed circuit surveillance and subjected to monthly visits, including those with 2-hour notices.
- Iran made a number of offers, including the “grand bargain” in 2003, but none of them are seriously considered. The U.S. policy is regime change, period.
All IAEA documents can be found online, including El Baradei’s reports. See their web site.
Notes prepared by Peter Krause
back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2008