Iran-U.S. Faceoff at UN

Yesterday’s dueling speeches at the UN suggest a continued impasse on Iran’s nuclear program, says CFR’s Ray Takeyh. And Iranian politics make that unlikely to change anytime soon.

May 04, 2010

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

The five-yearly Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference opened at the United Nations on Monday with a harsh but predictable exchange between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Ahmadinejad’s speech was "a standard kind of assertion" of Iran’s rights and peaceful intentions, blasting at the United States, says CFR Iran expert Ray Takeyh, who notes that Iran wants to convince other NPT signatories the treaty is biased toward the nuclear powers. In declaring the size of its nuclear arsenal, the United States is trying to persuade the conference that it’s turning away from nuclear weapons and is interested instead in helping other countries develop nuclear energy.

The only head of state so far to attend the NPT Review Conference is President Ahmadinejad, who spoke first. What did you make of his speech?

It was a standard speech that he has given before. It had a number of parts: First, there was the assertion of Iran’s peaceful intention for its nuclear program. Second, he played on the themes of haves and have-nots, asserting that those countries with nuclear weapons are trying to prevent those without from using nuclear fuel for economic growth and so forth. And third is kind of a harsh accusation directed toward the United States as a country which presumes to lecture other people but nevertheless has actually used nuclear weapons in the past [in 1945 against Hiroshima and Nagasaki]. So it’s a standard kind of assertion of Iranian rights, declaration of Iran’s peaceful intentions, and accusations, particularly at the United States, of aggressive and hostile behavior.

In some of his previous UN addresses, he used a kind of messianic imagery to bolster his case, but this speech was completely secular, wasn’t it?

It was free of previous statements that he has made, namely that God was putting him there for a specific purpose, or that he’s representing a sort of a religious revivalism. In this case, I wouldn’t say it was a secular speech, but I would say it was more of a national chauvinistic speech as opposed to a religious messianic one. Usually he combines the two themes, but in this particular case, he went with the former.

In the afternoon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded by blasting him for his comments and announced that the Pentagon was making public the size of the U.S. arsenal--5,113 warheads on active duty. Both Iran and the United States seem to be trying to persuade conference delegates of their point of view. Does Iran have much support?

Ahmadinejad could have made news if he had announced that Iran was adhering to some aspects of its commitments to the IAEA.

The United States has been trying to reduce its nuclear stockpile since the end of the Cold War, because obviously that was part of a policy of deterrence toward the Soviet Union. The purpose of this conference for the United States was to try to frame the NPT as a relevant document for the twenty-first century. So in essence, in trying to strengthen the NPT the United States suggests that the overall community of nations wants to move to reduce the threat of nuclear weaponry, while figuring out ways to enjoy the fruits of nuclear energy.

For Iran, the purpose of this conference, and the nuclear summit that Iran held in Tehran earlier that a number of countries attended, is to essentially suggest that there is an imbalance in the way the international community is looking at the NPT. Iran argues that there is an unfairness and inequality to this. The United States and others--France, Japan, and others that rely significantly on nuclear energy--are nevertheless trying to deny Iran’s desire to have a nuclear structure, within the context of the NPT. Iran argues that they are actually misusing, if not abusing, NPT and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as a means of blocking Iran’s nuclear aspirations, which Iran claims are peaceful and transparent.

Crisis Guide: IranThat claim may have some attraction for some non-aligned members, which have always been concerned about some of the aspects of the treaty, namely the rights of the five "nuclear weapons states"--the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France--versus those who have no nuclear weapons. But overall, I’m not quite sure if Iran manages to convince the great powers, if you would, that there is nothing to be concerned about regarding its nuclear program. Ahmadinejad could have made news if he had announced that Iran was adhering to some aspects of its commitments to the IAEA.

What is the actual problem that the IAEA has with Iran?

There are several. There is some degree of concern regarding Iran’s experiments with weaponization technology in the past, and Iran has not accounted for some of the evidence that in the past it had nuclear weapon designs and attempted experiments on how to put a nuclear weapon on a missile. Much of this evidence that has come forward, the Iranians have simply dismissed as fabrication. The revelation last September of a nuclear site near Qum has led to a disagreement between Iran and the IAEA. Iran suggests that it is not obligated to announce a nuclear laboratory, a nuclear infrastructure, until it introduces nuclear material in it, while the IAEA’s interpretation is that as soon as the IAEA starts working on a nuclear plan, it has to announce to the IAEA that it is embarking on such activities and therefore the inspections can be there from the start. So there’s a lot of technical disagreements, but at the core, there’s a lot of concern that Iran seeks nuclear technologies for purposes of nuclear weapons as opposed to nuclear energy.

What is the "Additional Protocol" that the IAEA wants Iran to agree to? Iran apparently agreed to it at one time but pulled out.

Additional Protocol is just another measure of enhanced inspections. Iran agreed to the Additional Protocol in 2003, at the time when it suspended its nuclear program in conjunction with negotiations with France, Britain, and Germany. However, the Iranian parliament never confirmed the Additional Protocols, which have to be passed by national legislature. So in a sense, Iran has always suggested that its commitment to that particular provision was not compulsory, and was never ratified. And I should note that you don’t have to adhere to the Additional Protocol. It is not a compulsory obligation. Additional Protocols came about in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, when the IAEA recognized that its inspection regime was inadequate and therefore needed additional surveillance and additional inspection measures over Iraq. Now, Iran is in a peculiar case, because as you suggested, they did adhere to it for a while, and I think about 2005 they said they would not do so any longer.

Why Iran won’t engage in a more substantive negotiation with the other powers? Is it because they really are hell-bent on producing nuclear weapons? Is it a national pride issue?

I’m not quite sure it’s convincing, given the nature of the Iranian regime today and given how disgruntled and displeased the Iranian population is, that they would view an accord between the Islamic Republic and the United States as a means of refurbishing the lost legitimacy of the state.

It would be in their interest to have a serious negotiation, even if their objective is to have a nuclear weapons program, because at least there will be some diplomacy for people to point to. At this particular point, the Iranians seem to feel comfortable where they are. They have suggested that they remain open to negotiations regarding their collapsed Tehran Research Reactor deal of October, and they have made proposals regarding TRR to their various interlocutors--the Brazilian Foreign Minister, the Turkish Foreign Minister--who have visited Tehran recently. Tehran’s position is that they are willing to exchange the 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium for higher-enriched uranium for the TRR, but they would demand an immediate swap. This means they give 1,200 kg and they get 20 percent enriched uranium. The position of the international community is that that particular arrangement is technically impractical. Because the whole purpose of the swap is Iran gives its low-enriched uranium, and in Russia or France or someplace, that will be reprocessed to a 20 percent grade and returned to Iran. That takes some time--six months or so. So the idea of an immediate swap has been rejected as technically deficient by the international community, and that’s the latest impasse.

The larger issue may be that Iran is not inclined to assume obligations on its nuclear program beyond its existing NPT adherence. Whatever the inspection regime is, however tentative it is, they say, "Well that’s it, and you’re not going to renegotiate the NPT just for us. We’re not going to adhere to obligations above and beyond what we have assumed under the NPT." The response of the international community is that there are several Security Council resolutions that have called on Iran to suspend its activities and engage, as you mentioned, in a more substantive negotiation with the international community. And therefore Iran is no longer a routine member of the NPT, but a country that stands in violation of its nuclear obligations as identified by the Security Council.

The Iranian elections that occurred last June were disputed, and many believe they were rigged. Does this political situation in Iran hamper chances for negotiation?

The Iranian government has a long-term problem of both legitimacy and authority. There is now a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the government and the population. The population by and large feels that it was disenfranchised as a result of last year’s elections and that the elections were rigged in a particularly egregious manner. That essentially has caused the regime to have legitimacy problems. It still has strength, and it still has the capacity to repress, but on that particular point it finds itself in a rather tenuous position. Therefore, there is a long-term built-in insecurity in Iran’s political system today, where the regime is suspicious of its constituency, while its constituency and citizenry are disgruntled and displeased about the conduct of the regime. So that’s a long-term problem of insecurity and vulnerability that the regime feels. That is not going to go away. It’s just an endemic part of Iran’s political order today.

If Iran made a deal with the West, would that improve its situation at home, or wouldn’t it matter?

Well, it’s highly speculative, and I certainly think it’s President Ahmadinejad’s perception that if he manages to have some foreign policy success it will rebound to his domestic advantage. And he’s not the first politician to think that. That’s what Richard Nixon thought when at the height of the Watergate scandal he went to the Middle East. I’m not quite sure it’s convincing, given the nature of the Iranian regime today and given how disgruntled and displeased the Iranian population is, that they would view an accord between the Islamic Republic and the United States as a means of refurbishing the lost legitimacy of the state. Ultimately a state is legitimate or not, not based upon its interactions with the international community, but because it rests on some electoral appeal, it provides services and goods for its population, and there is a feeling among the populace that they can affect the regime’s deliberations through voting and lobbying and so forth. None of those factors are going to be ameliorated by a nuclear agreement with a great power. But it probably would relieve some economic pressure on the regime, and that may actually be to its benefit.