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Responding to Iran's Nuclear Challenge

Panel Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University, to  Lowy Insititute/Council on Foreign Relations Council of Councils Fifth Regional Conference, Sydney, 24 February 2014

I have been optimistic from the outset, and remain so –  especially since the conclusion of the interim agreement between the P5+1 and Iran in Geneva last November -- that the Iranian nuclear problem is capable of peaceful diplomatic resolution, and in a way that puts at risk no country’s, including Israel’s, vital national interests. The crucial requirement is that all the key players focus on what their respective vital interests really are, be prepared to compromise on lesser issues, stare down their more extreme respective internal constituencies, and above all stay calm, avoiding the kind of brinkmanship that can make a small stumble turn into a catastrophe.

Such optimism has long been a hard sell in the West and Israel, because of the widespread perception that Iran is hell-bent on actually acquiring a physical nuclear arsenal; that all else is dissimulation; and that negotiations can at best buy time. Certainly pessimists and sceptics have plenty to point to in Iran’s long record of obstruction in the IAEA and elsewhere in addressing legitimate international concerns about its nuclear programs. Nor should one underestimate the difficulty of assessing Iran’s real intentions. Mixed signals from competing power centres, whoever has been President, don’t help; nor does the recurring contrast between Iranian officials’ usually-strident public pronouncements and often-moderate private discourse – of both of which I have had plenty of personal experience in Tehran and elsewhere, especially during the nearly ten years I worked closely on this issue as President of the International Crisis Group from 2000-09.

But my belief is that the situation has always been, and remains, less alarming, more containable and more soluble than the doomsayers would have it. To justify that position, one has to have credible answers to three important questions: Why has Iran behaved as it has in the past? What possible grounds are there for taking seriously its insistence that it will not build nuclear weapons in the future if it has the capability to do so? What kind of negotiated agreement could actually meet the needs and interests of all the relevant players?

First then: why, if its ultimate intentions are not aggressive, has Iran have played such a high-risk, ambiguous game for so long with its nuclear program – developing enrichment and other capabilities it did not strictly need for any civil nuclear energy program, and often being opaque, uncooperative or both in explaining itself? For a possible answer here I don’t think one needs to look very hard: when in doubt, never underestimate the motivational force in international relations of national pride. From my conversations with many Iranians over many years, the explanation I hear is that it’s all about, in the eyes of the leadership and the public that supports it on this issue, redeeming the humiliations of the Mosaddeq era and beyond:

  • partly politically, by staring down the West politically by not compromising on its “right” to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (and losing no opportunity in the process to point up the West’s perceived double standards on WMD by abandoning Iran to Saddam Hussein’s chemical warfare in the late 1980s); and    
  • partly technically, by demonstrating very high-level technological prowess to the region and the wider world.(One only wishes that something less sensitive than the nuclear fuel cycle had been chosen to make that point.)

But even if one were minded to accept that, the next big question, is why on earth Iran would now stop short of building the nuclear weapons that it may soon have the capacity to produce? How could anyone, least of all Israel – who has an obvious existential stake in the matter – ever be confident that Iran would  not cross that line as soon as it could, and give itself whatever additional status, regional authority, and raw military power that possession of actual nuclear weapons might bring.  I have asked this question many times over the years in off-the-record discussions with senior officials in Iran and elsewhere during my time at Crisis Group, and have heard five distinct answers stated with clarity and consistency. Not everyone will take the explanations, particularly the last, at face value, but in my judgement at least, they deserve to be taken seriously.

  • The first reason is Iranian concern that Israel will indeed perceive the existence of one or two Iranian bombs as an existential threat, demanding a pre-emptive military attack – with or without US support, but in either case with resources that Iran knows it cannot match.
  • The second reason is that Iranians have long understood that there is zero tolerance in both Russia and China for an Iranian bomb, and for all the rope these powers gave them in earlier years in the Security Council, all bets would be off if Iran actually weaponizes.
  • The third reason is that there are limits (now becoming very apparent in a way which was not so clear earlier) in Iran’s capacity to absorb international sanctions, especially financial sanctions, and Iranians know that in the event of them crossing the weaponization red-line those sanctions would become more completely universal and tougher still.
  • The fourth reason, readily acknowledged by the Iranian officials is that any regional hegemony bought with nuclear weapons is likely to be short-lived. There is some scepticism about the capacity of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey to move quickly to build bombs of their own (less so about their willingness and ability of the Saudis to buy off the shelf from Pakkistan); and it is also acknowledged that they would be under much international pressure, especially from the US, not to do so. But there is also a clear view that Arab-Persian, Sunni-Shia, or more straightforward regional power anxieties would make a nuclear-arms race inevitable.
  • Finally, there is a religious reason: weapons of mass destruction simply violate the most fundamental precepts of Islam. Few in the West are likely to find this line very compelling, but it has echoed strongly in every conversation that I have ever had with Iranian officials, senior or minor, and was often repeated by President Ahmadinejad even when at his virulent worst fulminating against Israel. And it is not without plausibility: Iran did not, after all, respond in kind when it was bombarded with chemical weapons by Iraq.

None of this suggests that Iranian intentions can be taken on trust. There is too much history, and there are too many continuing grounds for suspicion, for that. Any final agreement, if it is to bring an end to sanctions and the diplomatic isolation of Iran would need to:

  •  be accompanied by intrusive monitoring, inspection, and verification arrangements, covering not only all sensitive stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, but also any suspected weapons design or engineering facilities;
  •   give the international community real confidence that there would be enough lead time – twelve months or so – in which to respond to any evidence of real intent to move to weaponization;
  • do that  by dramatically reducing the number of operating centrifuges – to  as few as 3000 or so compared with the 20,000 or so (albeit of variable quality) now installed – and setting strict limits on the amount of enriched uranium Iran could possess at any time;
  • further limit Iran’s capability by shutting down, or at least substantially altering, the design and purpose of the deep-underground enrichment facility at Fordow, and the reactor under construction at Arak (the heavy water design of which increases the amount of weapons-grade plutonium that could be extracted in a reprocessing facility); and
  • be of a duration (certainly much greater than Iran’s presently proposed five years) genuinely long enough to convince the international community of Iran’s peaceful intentions.

In return, any agreement if it is to satisfy Iran’s own political – and psychological – needs and interests, would have to:

  • recognize, if not necessarily precisely in these words, Iran’s “right to enrich” uranium under the NPT (even if that treaty, if it were being negotiated now, would be unlikely to be remotely as tolerant on the subject of  enrichment facilities – sometimes referred to as ‘bomb starter kits” – given the technological capability now possessed by  many states);  and
  • make provision for unwinding the sanctions regime – at the front end, back end and along the way -  in an orderly fashion that gives Iran the necessary incentives.

So that is my answer to the third question I posed - what kind of negotiated agreement could actually meet the needs and interests of all the relevant players.  The question, of course, now is whether any such agreement can in practice be delivered. The most heartening evidence to date that there is a will on both sides for a diplomatic solution is the agreement on Joint Plan of Action, that was at last reached – after years of both sides missing opportunities genuinely on offer at various times – in Geneva in November. Intended as an interim arrangement pending negotiation of a comprehensive agreement within six months, this involves Iran agreeing to:

  • halt the installation of new enrichment centrifuges;
  •  cap the amount and type of enriched uranium that Iran is allowed to produce;
  •  halt work on key components of the Arak heavy-water reactor; and
  •  accept significant increases in oversight, including daily monitoring by international nuclear inspectors;

in return for which it receives modest relief of trade sanctions and access to some of its frozen currency accounts overseas.

The hostile reaction to the November agreement from sections of the US Congress and within Israel suggests that anything less than a total capitulation by Iran, and total dismantling of its nuclear program, will be met with serious opposition. But just as Iran has to understand (as I believe it long has) that none of the P5 is prepared to accept its emergence as a nuclear-armed state, and that the world has a right to demand credible and comprehensive proof of its assurances that it has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons, so too must the US and its friends modify their own expectations, accepting a reasonable level of enrichment activity under  international supervision, and, more generally, finding some means of accommodating Iran’s demand for positive (rather than negative) recognition as a country of global significance and  unqualified admission to the society of advanced nuclear-capable states.

Cooler heads have so far prevailed, and it is desperately important that they continue to do so. While the rewards of Iran’s full acceptance back into the international community are potentially very great, the risks of clumsy brinkmanship triggering inflammatory confrontation, or precipitate military action triggering large scale conflict, are very high. Catastrophe can be averted only by level-headed diplomacy of the kind that, until very recently, has been in unhappily short supply.


Gareth Evans was Australian Foreign Minister 1988-96 and President of the International Crisis Group from 2000-09. He co-chaired (with Yoriko Kawaguchi) the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (2010), and co-edited (with Ramesh Thakur) Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play (ANU, 2013).