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Diplomacy will not end Iran's nuclear programme

Author: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
December 21, 2005
Financial Times

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As the international community reels from the incendiary denials of the Holocaust by Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s president, the rituals of diplomacy persist. After a long period of suspension, the EU-3 of France, Britain and Germany today resume their negotiations with Iran over its contested nuclear programme.

The additional twist this time is the offer of conducting part of Iran’s enrichment activities on Russian territory. However, much of the prevailing diplomacy disregards the remarkable changes that Iran’s nuclear calculations have undergone since the election of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad. Iran’s nuclear policy is increasingly predicated on a mixture of ideological imperatives and nationalistic determinations that are largely immune to threats of sanctions or dangled rewards. Given this stark reality, the latest round of European negotiations is likely to meet the fate of the previous ones.

After 26 years in power, the Iranian regime is changing complexion as a new generation of austere ideologues assumes the mantle of leadership. For Mr Ahmadi-Nejad and his allies, it is their experience in the war with Iraq that defines their strategic outlook. Iraq’s indiscriminate use of chemical weapons against Iranian civilians and combatants has scarred the returning war veterans, making them suspicious of the motives of the international community that was largely indifferent to Iran’s plight.

An examination of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s speeches reveals that for him the war is far from a faded memory, as its sacrifices and struggles lace his pronouncements. The bitter experience of the war has led to cries of “never again”, uniting the veterans-turned-politicians behind the desire to achieve not just a credible posture of deterrence but potentially a convincing retaliatory capability. It will be very difficult for Iran’s suspicious leaders to relinquish critical components of their nuclear programme for pledges of European goodwill.

After nearly three decades of acrimony and tension, Iran’s reactionaries perceive that conflict with the US is inevitable and that the only manner of preserving the regime’s security and Iran’s territorial integrity is through possession of the “strategic weapon”. Although, today, the US may seem entangled in an Iraqi quagmire that tempers its ambitions, for Iran’s rulers, it is still an aggressive state whose power cannot be discounted and whose intentions must not be trusted.

The final pillar of the new regime’s approach to the nuclear issue is its sense of aggrieved nationalism. Western demands that Iran relinquish fuel cycle rights granted by the nuclear non-proliferation treaty as a confidence-building measure have aroused intense nationalistic hostility. As a country that has historically been subject to foreign intervention and onerous capitulation treaties, Iran is inordinately sensitive to its national prerogatives and sovereign rights.

For Iran’s new rulers, they are being challenged by the international community not because of their provocations and previous treaty violations, but because of superpower machinations. The nuclear programme and Iran’s national identity have become fused in the imagination of its leaders. To stand against impudent western demands is to validate one’s revolutionary ardour and nationalistic fidelity. Thus, the notion of acquiescence has a limited utility to Iran’s nationalists.

As such, for Tehran, its nuclear programme is not one to be bartered away for European investments. Nor is the Russian offer likely to entice a regime that views its nuclear rights through a nationalistic prism. The populist appeal of Iran’s uncompromising stance, the inherent value of nuclear deterrence to a beleaguered regime and Iran’s suspicions of the international community militate against Tehran accepting the latest European mandates.

All this is not to suggest that Iran will brashly dispense with the negotiations and embark on a provocative course that may lead other powers to embrace America’s punitive approach. For the new masters of Tehran, the negotiations are valuable in terms of potentially fracturing western unity and preventing Iran’s nuclear portfolio from being referred to the UN Security Council. However, it is the process not the results of diplomacy that appeals to Mr Ahmadi-Nejad and his cohort.

In the coming months, diplomats will debate and international organisations will issue their periodic rebukes and contemplate their sanctions. And, all along, Iran will inexorably edge closer to the nuclear threshold.

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