NEW YORK — The Iranian nuclear program’s “known unknowns” are many: from the precise state of Tehran’s nuclear know-how to the reliability of Western intelligence assessments, from the innate difficulties in calculating an opponent’s perception of political risk to the unpredictable results of military intervention.
Yet while the details are complicated, in many ways the fundamental questions at the heart of the years-long standoff with the Islamic Republic are simple. Can Tehran be dissuaded from pursuing a nuclear weapon? Does the West have the political will to stop the program by force if the Iranians cannot be convinced to do so peacefully?
This week offered a series of signals, each a mere fragment of a wider diplomatic discourse that, taken together, might raise profound questions in any concerned observer.
On the diplomatic front, it’s been a busy week of running in place.
In Vienna, the 10th meeting in 18 months between the IAEA and Iranian negotiators ended Wednesday without an agreement on the international nuclear watchdog’s ability to investigate Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The IAEA’s investigation of these efforts has been stalled for more than five years because the Iranians won’t cooperate.
Herman Nackaerts, head of the IAEA team, showed remarkable diplomatic flair for understatement when he noted glumly, “Our best efforts have not been successful so far.”
Meanwhile in Istanbul, the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili on Wednesday without result, though Jalili helpfully noted on Thursday that there is a good chance there will be more talks next month.
In Washington, the Treasury Department this week announced new sanctions on two Dubai-based companies for their dealings with Iran, but diplomats could not offer any optimistic signs that the Iranians were responding to the pressure. State Department nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman and Treasury Department sanctions chief David Cohen told Congress on Wednesday that the US was getting more creative in exploring new ways to pressure Tehran, including additional sanctions and diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian civil war.
Meanwhile, even as diplomatic efforts moved from one inconclusive meeting to another, it was announced this week that Iran would serve as the next president of the UN’s Geneva Conference on Disarmament, the UN body that more or less invented the international nuclear non-proliferation regime that much of the world agrees Iran is undermining.
Iran will hold the presidency, which rotates automatically among member states, for four weeks, from May 27 to June 23.
Iran’s UN mission spokesman Alireza Miryousefi this week defended the country’s right to chair the conference. “The Islamic Republic of Iran is a founding member of the United Nations. Its election to the presidency of the Conference on Disarmament, as the most important disarmament negotiating body of the UN, is its right in accordance with the established practice and rules of procedure of this organ.”
The practices and procedures of the body do indeed grant Iran the right to chair the conference for a month, but this led at least a few observers to wonder if those practices and procedures fulfill their purpose.
“This makes a mockery of disarmament issues, and the world’s sincere desire to make progress,” insisted Rick Roth, spokesman for the Canadian Foreign Ministry. “In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere, the [Iranian] regime is working directly against global disarmament goals and subverting the fundamental principles of this committee.”
The US State Department called the move “unfortunate and highly inappropriate,” and suggested a country under UN sanctions for violations of the NPT should not be chairing the body that created the NPT.
US and Canadian diplomats have said that the two countries’ representatives to the UN body would boycott any meeting chaired by Iran, leaving the world’s main nonproliferation body to conduct its business without an ambassador of the world’s last remaining superpower in the room — and with the nonproliferation regime’s chief opponent in the international arena at the head of the table.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, a new study was published this week by the Center for a New American Security, a think tank closely affiliated with the Obama administration, which proposed an American containment policy should the US fail to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The study, “If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear-Armed Iran,” points out that “the United States could eventually be forced to shift to a policy of containment despite current preferences.” The US must be prepared for such an eventuality “not because the United States wants to take this path, but because it may eventually become the only path left,” the authors explain.
The study’s lead author: the Obama administration’s former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl.
So it’s been a busy week.
To be sure, any one of these diplomatic signals and disappointments would not constitute, on its own, a significant setback in the peaceful effort to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. But the combination of all of them in a single week offers a snapshot of the state of the multi-pronged diplomatic process that, to put it diplomatically and echo the IAEA’s despondent Nackaerts, is not yet showing signs of success.
Unfortunately, success matters. The US, EU, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and many other nations have all said, whether officially or unofficially, that a nuclear Iran could mean the collapse of the entire edifice of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. An Iranian nuclear weapon is likely to lead to a Saudi one, as Saudi defense spending is several times that of Iran’s and is geared in large part to opposing Tehran’s encroachment in the Persian Gulf and throughout the wider Arab world. Once American and European policymakers prove unable to deny the ayatollahs in Tehran a nuclear weapon, it might be hard to convince the Saudis, Egyptians, Turks, or anybody else that they should be left to depend on others rather than possess the advantages of nuclear arms themselves.
The NPT regime was upheld in the past by superpowers intent on preventing chaos and disaster through proliferation. It was not merely the diplomatic structures that kept nuclear technology from spreading, but the shared interest of the world’s great powers.
The international order may be shifting away from dominance by any great power to a more chaotic world of asymmetric power, of states that wield non-state actors as tools of diplomacy and war, of rising ideologies and nations that have not experienced the horrors that were the catalyst for the old international order. The practices and procedures of the past may no longer reflect the hard geopolitical realities of the present.
Negotiations in Vienna and disarmament conferences in Geneva may no longer do the job.
The isolation of Iran continues to gather steam, with new sanctions announced every now and then in Western capitals. But there are no signs that these efforts have lessened the regime’s appetite for nuclear weapons, and for the advantages they bring — including regime stability, immunity to foreign attack, and regional dominance.
If the greatest single threat to global arms control can be permitted to chair the main international forum on global arms control, if the Obama administration that insists Iran’s nuclear drive can and will be stopped sees senior former officials producing policy papers about the possibility that Iran cannot be stopped, if diplomats walk out of meetings in elegant Swiss and Austrian hotels with little to show for their efforts, could we be witnessing the beginning of the end for the diplomatic track?
AP contributed to this report.