Iran after the elections: nuclear non-proliferation and regional stability

17 March 2008

Volker Perthes, Director, Stiftung für Wissenschaft und Politik, Berlin, said the recent United Nations Security Council Resolution 1803, approving further sanctions against Iran (for refusing to suspend its nuclear programme), was unlikely to resolve the situation.

He agreed with Javier Solana, the EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, that the only answer is a negotiated settlement, but this depends on the international community jointly telling Iran that it is not allowed to acquire nuclear weapons because of the fear of proliferation. It also depends on Iran’s domestic politics.

Whatever the official results of the Iranian elections last weekend, the future really depends on Iran’s political elite, which believes that:

  • economic and technological progress are vital for Iran;
  • Iran must build its international prestige and be accepted as a regional power;
  • national and regional security are vital for the country’s developments.

Developing a nuclear programme enables Iran to fulfil these objectives, said Mr Perthes – even though the country’s political elite refuses to admit that having nuclear power bears any relation to these. Iran’s leaders would prefer the country to have ‘Japanese status’ – i.e. having the technological ability to acquire a latent military nuclear capacity, but not needing to put it into effect.

The EU is well placed to support the first two goals, but the US, with its troops in the area, is key to the third. Washington opened talks with Iran in 2006, but these were quickly frozen, and the current stalemate is likely to continue until the new US President takes office in 2009: the US will not intervene, but Iran is not going to give up uranium enrichment or produce a bomb either.

The EU + 3 (France, Germany, the UK) will have to decide whether the next move should be a moratorium on uranium enrichment, to accept a ‘Japan-like status’ for Iran, to invite Iran to be a full partner in a multilateral consortium carrying out enrichment, or whether the EU should apply other measures to break up Iran’s fuel cell circle.

The EU + 3 needs to put regional security arrangements in place, said Mr Perthes. This could be the Saudi Proposal for a ‘nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Persian Gulf’, or a Stability Pact on the Balkans’ model, which would begin with confidence-building measures.

The international community’s relationship with Iran is based on a dilemma over security and trust – Iran needs security, while the world distrusts Iran; Iran neighbours need security, while Iran distrusts the rest of the world.

François Heisbourg, Special Advisor, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, Paris, believed the key relationship was that between the US and Iran, as Tehran’s behaviour is determined by what it seeks and what it fears from Washington.

Iran-US relations have “changed for the worse” as the US is in a “policy stasis” - no longer interested in entering into “broad-scope negotiations”, nor in using the threat of force to get its point across.

So how will the Iranians behave and what is their programme? Mr Heisbourg pointed out that the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) reported last December that Iran stopped developing nuclear weapons in 2003, but the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believes work has continued.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejah has said that within 18 months Iran expects to launch a satellite, which could carry a nuclear warhead, capable of reaching the US, and although Iran is not embarking on a crash (nuclear) programme, it is clearly moving forward.

Mr Heisbourg hoped that the next 18 months would not witness an accumulation of Iranian ‘nuclear chips’, as the US would neither be in a position to threaten nor to negotiate with the government. To resolve the situation, the international community should “plug away” at UN sanctions, with the EU introducing its own sanctions.

Washington has to be convinced to move towards the ‘Grand Bargain’, based on the 2003 ‘Roadmap’ offered by Tehran, although this is more likely to happen under a new US administration.

In its 2003 ‘Grand Bargain’, Tehran said it was ready to drop support for Hizbolleh, condemn Hamas violence, deliver Al-Qaeda operatives in Iran to the US, and accept a two-state solution for Israel/Palestine. In return, it asked the US to drop its regime- change policy, urge the UN to drop sanctions and work towards diplomatic solutions to the problems of the Middle East.

However, that was five years ago, when Iran felt threatened by the proximity of US troops and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The situation has changed since then, and moving towards a negotiated solution would take a “hell of a long time”, said Mr Heisbourg.Given how quickly Iran is developing its nuclear programme, the international community needs to act quickly.

Walter Posch, Senior Research Fellow, EU Institute for Security Studies, focused on the results of the recent Iranian elections, which took place on two levels: the ‘upper level’, which was where the power lay; and the ‘local level’, where the community elected “their” deputies.

The Iranian Parliament is a lively institution which confirms ministerial appointments and overseas the budget, he said, but is a relatively weak player, particularly in foreign policy, where it can be over-ruled by the country’s National Security Council.

The recent elections, in which there was an estimated 62% turnout, served as a referendum on the current regime, for while it is now reaching maturity, it needed a show of public support. Although the elections generally followed democratic procedures, they were not entirely fair he said.

Iran’s political set up is divided into two strands.

  • the Conservative Alliance, which consists of some reformist currents, military groups, some right-wing groups and some ultra-Conservatives, with the current President coming from this Alliance;
  • the Reformist Coalition, which is composed of many different groups and is developing towards a political party, although it is still relatively weak.

In the recent elections, President Ahmadinejah and the Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei consolidated their positions, and the Reformists appeared to be in disarray. However, their influence cannot be ruled out as, given the nature of Iranian democracy, many of those elected will change their policies once in Parliament.

The West should clearly not underestimate President Ahmadinejah’s ability to survive the country’s current economic troubles, as he might change policies, depending on the views of the Supreme Leader - who is the person who really dictates what happens - and on decisions taken by the country’s National Security Council.