Flynt Leverett, Matthew Bunn, Barry Posen
Panelists engaging in the discussion about a nuclear Iran included Flynt Leverett (from left), Brookings Institute; Matthew Bunn, Belfer Center; and Barry Posen, MIT. (Staff photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

A recent discussion at Harvard Law School about Iran’s nuclear ambitions mirrored the current state of international relations: The Iranian faction claimed that Iran is within its rights enriching nuclear material, while U.S. representatives asserted either that Iran is untrustworthy or, worse, that Iran clearly intends to develop nuclear weapons. The March 16 discussion was titled “Iran and the Future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime.”

Tensions between the United States and Iran have increased over the past few weeks as Iran resumed enriching nuclear material. Iran claims that the materials are destined for nuclear reactors that will provide much-needed power to the country; the United States fears that the materials will be used to construct nuclear weapons. Kaveh Afrasiabi, former adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team and senior researcher at the Center for Strategic Research in Tehran, said that the Iranians were well within their rights to pursue nuclear-enrichment activities. He recalled that in 2004, Iran signed the “Paris Agreement” with Germany, France, and England. In this agreement, Iran agreed to voluntarily and temporarily suspend nuclear enrichment activities, which it did. A year or so later, the “European Three,” under pressure from the United States, according to Afrasiabi, went back to Iran and asked for a permanent cessation of uranium enrichment. The Iranians, said Afrasiabi, felt betrayed by this pressure and, because they had only agreed to a temporary suspension of the activities, are within their rights resuming uranium enrichment.

Matthew Bunn, senior research associate at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, got to the heart of the disagreement when he identified the lack of “a broad and verifiable gap … [separating] activities that can continue in Iran – and nuclear weapons capability.” For example, Iran has been insisting that it be allowed to maintain 168 centrifuges to produce material for nuclear reactors. According to Bunn, there is nothing in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – of which Iran is a signatory – that says that Iran can’t have centrifuges; however, it “would be desirable to draw a broader line between what countries ordinarily do, and nuclear weapons capability.” The problem with the centrifuges, said Bunn, is that they can be switched very quickly from producing uranium for nuclear power plants to producing material for nuclear weapons.

As the Bush administration and Iran lock horns over the enrichment issue, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported on Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the UN Security Council. The report voices concern that “uncertainties related to the scope and nature of Iran’s nuclear programme have not been clarified after three years of intensive Agency verification.” U.S., French, and British diplomats are attempting to rally the 15 members of the Security Council to support a draft statement that calls on Iran to cease its nuclear enrichment activities. Iran has responded with threats to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States has implicitly threatened military action.

The way out of this impasse, according to Bunn and Flynt Leverett, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute and former senior director for the Middle East Initiative at the National Security Council, is through good-faith negotiations between Iran and interested parties, most notably the United States. For those negotiations to be successful, said Leverett, the United States has to get serious about addressing Iran’s motives for pursuing nuclear weapons in the first place.

Leverett is one of those who assume that Iran holds nuclear-weapon ambitions. And, he asks, why not? “Iran is in a tough neighborhood,” he said. “When this program was in its infancy, it faced an Iraq that was in pursuit of nuclear weapons and an Iraq that, under Saddam Hussein, actually used chemical weapons in a war against Iranian targets both military and civilian. This threat has been removed from Iran’s strategic environment, but Iran still faces what it sees as a threat from a nuclear-armed Pakistan that is ideologically hostile to the Islamic Republic [of Iran] and has a record of persecuting Shia [the majority of Iranians are Shiite Muslims],” Leverett continued. “And it has to factor Israel’s nuclear capability into its strategic picture … and then, quite frankly, they have to worry about the U.S. Particularly in a post-9/11 environment in which the American military presence in Iran’s neighborhood has beefed up dramatically.”

Iran, he says, has some very powerful security motivations for wanting to develop nuclear weapons and, until the Untied States addresses those motives, we’re unlikely to reach a diplomatic solution.

However, the United States and Iran are in a diplomatic stalemate, according to Leverett – a stalemate that includes American memories of the hostage crisis and disgust with Iran’s support of Hezbollah; a stalemate that includes Iranian memories of U.S. support of an oppressive regime headed by the Shah, and memories of intelligence and military support given to Saddam Hussein while he waged an aggressive war against Iran. Yet, since 9/11, Leverett says that he has seen three opportunities to move out of the stalemate. “And it pains me greatly when I consider how badly the Bush administration has squandered those opportunities,” he said.

The basic dilemma, said Leverett, is that we can’t solve the problem diplomatically unless the United States is prepared to put security guarantees on the negotiating table, including a guarantee that the United States won’t use force to change the government or borders of Iran. “The problem,” he said, “is that you have an administration that ultimately doesn’t want to give that guarantee, regardless of what it would get for it.”

Another person who assumes that Iran desires nuclear weapons is Barry Posen, Ford International Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who discussed possible outcomes of a nuclear-armed Iran. “One set of risks,” he said, “is that it’ll set off a falling-domino sequence of proliferation in the area.” And he named Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey as those countries that might feel that they needed to pursue their own nuclear programs in response. But, added Posen, Israel is already a nuclear power and the others can be leveraged to stay nuke-free.

“The second set of problems,” he said, “are essentially ‘bold Iran’ problems,” which include Iran arming terrorists with nuclear weapons, engaging in “nuclear coercion,” or engaging in conventional aggression while imagining that its nuclear capabilities give it a safe umbrella. A nuclear Iran is not likely to do any of these, said Posen, because to do so would put Iran in at least two bull’s-eyes – those of the United States and Israel – “and these are the gun sights of some very potent nuclear states.” Therefore, he argues, a nuclear Iran is a bad thing and a problem, but a manageable problem.

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