US Foreign Policy

Conference in Tehran on Iran’s Nuclear Program

in Program

Iran’s Nuclear Energy Program: Policies & Prospects

Tehran, Iran, 24-25 April 2006

a Joint Conference of the Pugwash Conferences and the

Center for Strategic Research, Tehran

by Emile El-Hokayem
25 April 2006

On April 24-25, 2006, Emile El-Hokayem attended a conference in Tehran on Iran’s nuclear program. He also served as the conference’s rapporteur.

For more details about the conference, click here.

 This two-part conference on the situation in Iraq, and Iran’s nuclear program, was held in Tehran on April 24-25 2006 and was hosted by the Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research. The first part of the conference looked at developments in Iraq and their implications for Iran, Iraq’s other neighbors and regional stability. The second part of the conference examined Iran’s nuclear program and regional security. Part of the conference was open to the public and the media and distinguished speakers included Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Larijani, Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki, and former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and head of the Center for Strategic Research Hassan Rohani. Closed-door, expert-only workshops delved into more detailed and technical discussions of the topics at hand.

As is customary with Pugwash meetings, most of the discussion was held on a non-attribution basis, thus this report is the sole responsibility of the author and has not been endorsed by any of the participants.

Recent Developments in Iraq and the Prospects for Regional Security

The first day was dedicated to an in-depth discussion of political developments in Iraq and their impact for the region. In addition to Iranian presenters and Pugwash foreign guests, the Center for Strategic Studies invited several Iraqi political leaders and analysts to address the participants.

As Iraq’s eastern neighbor and longtime foe, Iran has vital and legitimate interests in what happens next door. Indeed, Iran’s recent history is marked by the long and bloody war it fought with Iraq. The legacy of this war is still vivid in both a psychological and political dimension. The world’s support of Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, the heavy Iranian death toll, and Iraq’s use of chemical weapons still shape how Iran articulates and promotes its national interests. At the same time, the historical, religious and societal ties that link the two countries guarantee that Iran will have a major say in Iraq’s future.

Many Iranian participants held ambivalent views about the US invasion of Iraq. Paradoxically, in Iranian eyes, the US failure to build strong institutions, deliver key public services and goods and create a secure environment does not imply that Iraq is a failing state on the verge of civil war, a view largely held in the West. This disconnect seems to have much to do with the sense that Iran has succeeded in cultivating good ties with Iraq’s most powerful factions, positioning itself as a key power-broker in Iraq, and bogging down the United States.

While US intentions and objectives were largely condemned, there was a sense that the US intervention removed from power Iran’s most potent and committed foe and redefined the regional balance of power in its favor. Moreover, there was a significant measure of confidence about Iraq’s future direction. Many Iranian participants lauded the democratic achievements that brought to power Iraqi parties with strong ties to Teheran and greeted with enthusiasm the appointment of Jawad al-Maliki as Iraq’s new Prime Minister. Indeed, from Tehran’s perspective, the electoral and constitutional processes have established the preeminence of Shia parties such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) in Iraqi politics. Iran patiently cultivated its ties to these parties opposed to Saddam Hussein’s regime and now sees this investment as having brought the substantive political benefits it expected.

After decades of bloody enmity and strategic rivalry, Iran now sees itself as Iraq’s natural mentor and partner. Participants asserted that Iraq was following Iran’s steps in establishing a religiously-inspired system of governance, suggesting that the Iranian model of an Islamic republic could very well inspire future developments in Iraq. The viability of Iraq’s democratic institutions was linked to the necessity to abide by edicts from Shia authorities, in particular Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s most revered marja’. Moreover, Iranian officials strongly recommended that Iraq’s constitution, approved by referendum in December 2005, be not reviewed or amended, as is allowed for a period of four months under a formal agreement between the different Iraqi parties. Reviewing the Constitution is widely viewed as a Sunni attempt to re-negotiate some of the most contentious clauses of the Constitution, including the nature of federalism in Iraq and the distribution of oil revenues.

The issue of security was hotly debated. While Iranian participants put much of the blame for the current security situation on the United States, they suggested that a fully-empowered Iraqi government would be able to restore security. Iran recommends a quick withdrawal of US and British troops from Iraq and a regional dialogue about Iraq’s future. Foreign participants doubted this judgment, stressing that Iraq’s police and military forces need to be better trained and organized, lest they be overtaken by sectarian militias.

In addition, there was some confusion regarding the nature and potency of the threat to Iraq’s stability. Those who maintained that violence in Iraq is the product of an unlawful war and occupation and that the insurgency in Iraq is a legitimate resistance movement also claimed that there is a terrorist threat that endangers the survival and unity of Iraq. However, when asked to clarify their definition and understanding of this terrorist threat, Iranians participants generally shied away from the question. Indeed, Sunni-Shia tensions in Iraq and their regional repercussions shadowed the discussions but were rarely mentioned. Shias are identified as the victims and Baathists as the perpetrators of terrorism. Participants had mixed views about the role of Iraq’s neighbors in contributing to Iraq’s stability. It was asserted that some countries were actively encouraging terrorists.

Moreover, while a small minority held that the United States had an interest in stirring sectarian tensions, most participants identified US incompetence and lack of knowledge of Iraq’s society as the key reasons for its failure to provide security to the Iraqi citizenry.

In the same way, the reasons why the United States invaded Iraq were passionately debated. Chief among them was the perception that America was driven by deeply-ingrained, oil-centered imperialistic ambitions. By invading Iraq, the United States sought to dominate the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. Some argued that the need to counter a region-wide, Iranian-inspired Islamic awakening, dishonestly defined by the United States as terrorism, compelled it to intervene in Iraq and pressure Muslim nations, casting the current conflict as one of cultures and civilizations. Others identified Israel as the key beneficiary of US policy in the Middle East, and argued that the need to secure Israel drove the United States into Iraq. The demonizing of Iraq as a WMD proliferator and a state sponsor of terrorism, followed by the failure to find WMD and the now disproved allegations of ties between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, added to a widely shared sense that the United States had a hegemonic agenda dressed in benevolent intentions. Few credited the United States with a sincere desire to promote democratic values in a region plagued with authoritarianism. On the contrary, the United States was criticized for its perceived hypocrisy, especially in the light of its opposition to Hamas, despite the latter having achieved power through the very democratic elections that the Bush administration espouses. 

Foreign participants offered a more nuanced view of US objectives in the Middle East and put US foreign policy in the context of the post-9/11 world. They stressed that President Bush, driven by the need to respond to the 9/11 attacks, re-arranged America’s strategic interests, prioritized threats emanating from Islamic extremist movements, and embarked on a mission to change the fundamental dynamics of the Middle East.

Iran’s Nuclear Energy Program: Policies and Prospects

The second day was devoted to a discussion of Iran’s nuclear program and regional security. It featured former and current officials from several Iranian agencies in charge of Iran’s security and nuclear policy. [Note: The workshop was held days prior to an IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Vienna to consider Iran’s compliance with its NPT obligations, and two weeks after Iran announced it had enriched uranium for the first time.]

Under Article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, countries signatories to the NPT have the right to develop a nuclear program for peaceful, civilian purposes. The IAEA is tasked with facilitating and monitoring the transfer of nuclear technology. Since 2002, the IAEA has issued several reports about Iran’s nuclear program, alternating praise and criticism of Iran’s cooperation, and culminating with the February 2006 referral of the Iran issue to the UN Security Council.

Iranian participants, including top officials, reiterated Iran’s peaceful nuclear intentions, stressing the economic and technological benefits Iran would derive from possessing homegrown civil nuclear capabilities. In particular, some Iranian participants emphasized that exporting electrical power as well as gas and oil would dramatically improve Iran’s trade and current accounts, shoring up Iran’s finances and benefiting Iran’s population. In Iranian eyes, pursuing civil nuclear energy is a key element of Iran’s development strategy and its response to the looming energy crunch. Iran’s nuclear program also has a research dimension (medical and university research, agriculture etc.) that is essential for any country seeking to establish a scientific reputation.

All Iranian speakers insisted that Iran would never give up any of its technological achievements in the nuclear domain. According to one participant, Iran’s nuclear program is similar to “a bullet fired from a gun. You can’t put it back in the barrel. What has been learned cannot be unlearned.” The nuclear program enjoys considerable support among the Iranian population and is an achievement borne of the national consensus in line with the Islamic Revolution. The international community has to accept and adjust to this new reality.  

In parallel, Iranian participants vehemently denied any intention to build nuclear weapons. Iran understands its obligations under the NPT and seeks to respect IAEA rules. This unfair and politicized charge damages any effort to reach a lasting solution to the crisis. As evidence of Iran’s peaceful intentions, Iran refrained from using WMD even after being attacked by Iraq with chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war. Moreover, Iran’s security doctrine expressly forbids the development of nuclear weapons.

Iranian participants deplored the referral of the Iran file from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the UN Security Council, calling it a politicized move that undermined the credibility of the IAEA as a guarantor of the right of NPT signatories to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. In Iranian eyes, the breaches identified by the IAEA in its successive reports since 2002 did not warrant or justify this move, especially in view of Iran’s subsequent cooperation with the UN agency and volunteer suspension of uranium enrichment activities until January 2006. This episode has done much to tarnish the IAEA’s standing in Iran and worldwide. It sets a dangerous precedent for other states members of the NPT that seek to acquire homegrown nuclear know-how. Some Iranian participants threatened to end all cooperation with the IAEA or leave the NPT should the UN Security Council adopt a resolution imposing for sanctions against Iran. Iran would make no distinction between comprehensive and targeted sanctions. Similarly, even sanctions imposed by one or several countries could irremediably damage relations with the IAEA.

Nevertheless, as a sign of goodwill, if its file were returned from the UN Security Council to the IAEA, Iran would again resume its dialogue and cooperation with the IAEA. Iranian participants stressed that Iran would abide by all the standard IAEA safeguards and offer additional guarantees on a volunteer basis. Nevertheless, Iran would rebuff any IAEA effort to impose additional safeguards specifically designed for Iran. It would interpret this as an unfair encroachment on Iran’s rights under the NPT.

International participants inquired about Iran’s compliance with IAEA safeguards—or lack thereof—and its procurement of nuclear technology. In particular, questions regarding how and where Iran acquired the designs and prototypes of centrifuges necessary for enriching uranium, about the delays and ambiguity in declaring key nuclear activities, and about the resumption of uranium enrichment despite IAEA demands, were raised. Moreover, some questioned Iran’s economic rationales. For an oil-rich country such as Iran, developing nuclear capabilities comes at great financial cost. Moreover, the civilian technology is outdated, especially the Bushehr reactor. Finally, as pointed out by a foreign speaker, only one-third of the countries that use nuclear energy enrich their own uranium.

Foreign and Iranian participants agreed that the crisis was of a political, not technical nature. Foreign speakers outlined technical proposals that could emerge as solutions with sufficient diplomatic momentum and political will:

    * the multi-nationalization of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, described by one participant as “putting a UN flag on the Natanz facility;”
    * the establishment under IAEA auspices of international fuel centers that would guarantee fuel supply to all nations and deal with spent uranium;
    * the Russian proposal to enrich and take back spent uranium on Russian soil.

Foreign participants asked about the confidence-building measures Iran could announce to demonstrate its peaceful intentions. They suggested that ratifying the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and adhering to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) would send positive signals to the international community and create positive momentum to reach a fair and sustainable solution. Other participants described in detail additional verification and safeguard measures that Iran could implement.

Asked which model Iran considered the most appropriate for its own nuclear project, an Iranian speaker dismissed the North Korean and Libyan models and advocated the Japanese model. By demonstrating full transparency, total cooperation with the IAEA and its peaceful intentions, Japan has developed top-notch nuclear capabilities, including the mastery of the complete fuel cycle. For many, the reluctance of the international community to allow Iran to adopt this model arises from Iran’s lack of transparency and cooperation with the IAEA prior to the 2002 revelation that Iran was building a uranium enrichment plant in Natanz and a heavy-water reactor in Arak.

Iran’s history with its pre-Islamic Revolution nuclear suppliers informs much of its current stance on the nuclear issue. Iran’s most senior officials reminded the audience that prior to 1979, the United States, France, and Germany, today the driving forces behind the international community’s effort to obtain a permanent suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, were Iran’s major partners in developing its nuclear sector. For Iranians, the memory of the bitter disputes over these suspended contracts between Iran and its Western partners in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution acts as a powerful reminder of the need to assert complete control over Iran’s nuclear program. Even Iran’s current partners of necessity, Russia and China, are considered unreliable when it comes to nuclear issues. Iran’s officials recalled several instances when these two countries, under US pressure, reneged on their commitments at great financial and political cost for Iran.

Iranian participants blamed the West in general, and the United States in particular, for what they perceive to be double standards in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iranians complain about the nuclear apartheid forced on the developing world. For Iranians, this attitude reveals lasting evidence of colonialism. The issue of Israel’s undeclared nuclear capabilities dominated much of the discussion. Israel, which did not adhere to the NPT, is suspected of having a large arsenal of nuclear weapons and maintains a policy of “nuclear ambiguity.” The fact that the IAEA does not have access to Israel’s nuclear program amounts to intolerable uncertainty for Tehran. Moreover, it stands in the way of any effort to create a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, Iran’s stated preference. Similarly, the US-India deal suggested to many that the United States prioritizes its own expedient interests over international norms and obligations. Under this deal that has yet to be approved by the US Congress, the United States proposes to support India’s own civil nuclear program in exchange for some guarantees and concessions deemed insufficient by many non-proliferation experts.

International Diplomacy and Regional Security

The Pugwash-CSR conference took place in the midst of the debate over US and international options vis-à-vis Iran and a few days before the April 28 meeting of the IAEA on Iran.

Conference participants discussed Iran’s strategic environment and threat perceptions. Iran operates in what it perceives to be a hostile environment, surrounded by four nuclear powers (Pakistan, Russia, Israel and the United States) and two potential failing states (Iraq and Afghanistan). It must also deal with rising Sunni-Shia tensions, terrorism in the Khuzestan region, and attacks by Kurdish separatists in northern Iran. The US rhetoric, captured by the “Axis of Evil” speech, and aggressive diplomacy, evidenced by the push for coercive action at the UN, aggravates what is already a tense situation.

In this volatile environment, Iran must preserve its independence, territorial integrity, vital interests, and strategic depth. In particular, it must assert its role in the Persian Gulf by strengthening its relations with its Arab neighbors. The latter worry that Iran’s nuclear program, especially the Bushehr reactor with its outdated and unreliable design, comes at considerable environmental risks to their own populations and basic infrastructure. To demonstrate Iran’s goodwill and willingness to assuage Arab concerns, Iranian participants suggested joint scientific activities with its Arab and other neighbors. Iran believes that, instead of being a point of tension, nuclear technology can become a key area of economic and scientific cooperation. Iranian participants stressed Iran’s good diplomatic ties with most of its neighbors and other middle powers throughout the world.

In this charged atmosphere, the question of US-Iran relations and their role in the current crisis was on everyone’s mind. Not surprisingly, there is deep distrust in Iran for US intentions. Iran views the United States as prone to provocation, adventurism and aggression. For Iran, as evidenced by the threats of force emanating from the United States, the United States is using the nuclear crisis to further its real objective, regime change. The perceived US unwillingness to respond to Iranian overtures during the Khatami presidency illustrates its malevolent intentions.

In contrast, foreign participants at the meeting pointed out the deep continued distrust of Iran felt in the international community, stemming from Iran’s rejection of Israel’s right to exist, exemplified by statements of President Ahmadinejad, and of continued Iranian support for what are considered terrorist organizations.  It is also for these reasons, these participants explained, that Iran is fundamentally different from a Japan or Brazil when it comes to considerations of being a civil nuclear power with indigenous fuel cycle capabilities.

Though disappointed by the European position, Iranian officials left the door open for more negotiations with the E3. They deplored that the E3 had rejected its March 2005 proposal and presented a meager counter-offer in August 2005. Nevertheless, these nations have an interest in preventing a showdown. At its core, their worldview, based on mutual respect and cooperation, differs significantly with America’s.

Iranian and foreign participants mentioned the need for a framework for regional security in the Persian Gulf. Concerned nations should build on UN Security Council resolution 598, which called for such a security architecture. In particular, UNSCR 598 could become the backbone of a region-wide WMD-free zone.

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