Iran: You Cannot Bomb Knowledge and Technical Expertise

Very wise piece on the complexities of negotiating with Iran by Philip Stephens in today’s UK Financial Times.

Ingram Pinn illustration©Ingram Pinn

The who-said-what game  about last weekend’s talks in Geneva has become a distraction. The six-power negotiations  with Tehran to curb Iran’s nuclear programme may yet succeed or fail. But  wrangling between the US and France on the terms of an acceptable deal should  not allow the trees to obscure the forest. The organising facts shaping the  negotiations have not changed.

The first of these is that Tehran’s acquisition of a bomb would be more than  dangerous for the Middle East and for wider international security. It would  most likely set off a nuclear arms race that would see Saudi Arabia, Turkey and  Egypt signing up to the nuclear club. The nuclear non-proliferation treaty would  be shattered. A future regional conflict could draw Israel into launching a  pre-emptive nuclear strike. This is not a region obviously susceptible to cold  war disciplines of deterrence.

The second ineluctable reality is that Iran has mastered the nuclear cycle.  How far it is from building a bomb remains a subject of debate. Different  intelligence agencies give different answers. These depend in part on what the  spooks actually know and in part on what their political masters want others to  hear. The progress of an Iranian warhead programme is one of the known unknowns  that have often wreaked havoc in this part of the world.

Israel points to an imminent threat. European agencies are more relaxed,  suggesting Tehran is still two years or so away from a weapon. Western diplomats  broadly agree that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not taken a definitive decision to  step over the line. What Iran has been seeking is what diplomats call a breakout  capability – the capacity to dash to a bomb before the international community  could effectively mobilise against it.

The third fact – and this one is hard for many to swallow – is that neither a  negotiated settlement nor the air strikes long favoured by Benjamin Netanyahu,  Israel’s prime minister, can offer the rest of the world a watertight insurance  policy.

It should be possible to construct a  deal that acts as a plausible restraint – and extends the timeframe for any  breakout – but no amount of restrictions or intrusive monitoring can offer a  certain guarantee against Tehran’s future intentions.

By the same token, bombing Iran’s nuclear sites could certainly delay the  programme, perhaps for a couple of years. But, assuming that even the hawkish Mr  Netanyahu is not proposing permanent war against Iran, air strikes would not end  it.

You cannot bomb knowledge and technical expertise. To try would be to empower  those in Tehran who say the regime will be safe only when, like North Korea, it  has a weapon. So when Barack Obama says the US will never allow Iran to get the  bomb he is indulging in, albeit understandable, wishful thinking.

The best the international community can hope for is that, in return for a  relaxation of sanctions, Iran will make a judgment that it is better off  sticking with a threshold capability. To put this another way, if Tehran does  step back from the nuclear brink it will be because of its own calculation of  the balance of advantage.

The fourth element in this dynamic is that Iran now has a leadership that,  faced with the severe and growing pain inflicted by sanctions, is prepared to  talk. There is nothing to say that Hassan Rouhani, the president, is any less  hard-headed than previous Iranian leaders, but he does seem ready to weigh the  options.

Seen from this vantage point – and in spite of the inconclusive outcome –  Geneva can be counted a modest success. Iran and the US broke the habit of more  than 30 years and sat down to talk to each other. Know your enemy is a first  rule of diplomacy – and of intelligence. John Kerry has his detractors but,  unlike his predecessor Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state understands  that serious diplomacy demands a willingness to take risks.

The Geneva talks illuminated the shape of an interim agreement. Iran will not  surrender the right it asserts to uranium enrichment, but will lower the level  of enrichment from 20 per cent to 3 or 4 per cent. It will suspend work on its  heavy water reactor in Arak – a potential source of plutonium – negotiate about  the disposal of some of its existing stocks of enriched uranium, and accept  intrusive international inspections. A debate between the six powers about the  strength and credibility of such pledges is inevitable, as is an argument with  Tehran about the speed and scope of a run down of sanctions.

If there is an agreement when talks resume later this month, it will not  satisfy hardliners on either side. The challenges to Mr Obama from those in  Washington who think the US should be ready to start another Middle East war  will be mirrored by opposition from the more reactionary elements in Tehran to  any concessions to the “Great Satan”. Sad to say, Mr Obama does not have a great  record in winning arguments in Congress, while no one really knows the limits of  Ayatollah Khamenei’s negotiating flexibility.

So far Mr Netanyahu’s government, in tune with the Gulf  states, has had nothing to say beyond denouncing any deal. The message  from Israel and from Saudi Arabia, its ally on this, is that Iran must be  kept in a permanent state of isolated enfeeblement, lest it re-emerge as the  region’s most powerful actor. They point to Tehran’s support for Hizbollah and  for the murderous Assad regime in Syria.

The interests of almost everyone else are otherwise. Not to be tricked by  smooth talking into making it easier for Iran to acquire the bomb, but to open a  well-policed pathway that would allow it eventually to rejoin the community of  nations. There is no guarantee this strategy will work even if an interim accord  is reached during the second round of talks, but, to paraphrase a famous British  statesman, it is better than all the alternatives.

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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