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What Should the World Do with Nuclear Iran?

CAS prof says regime is calculating, not crazy


In the video above, scientists hunt foratomic fingerprints at a Seibersdorf, Austria, contamination-free laboratory. They are looking fortelltale signs of uranium or plutonium that can reveal illegal nuclearactivities. Video by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Photo below by Frank Curran

In October Iran promised the United Nations Security Council that it would ship its low-enriched uranium to Russia, where it would be further processed, packaged in fuel rods, and returned. Last month Iran rejected parts of the deal, which would have given international observers a better look at Iran’s use of uranium. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has suggested that Turkey — a country with closer cultural and economic ties to Iran — would make a better processing partner than Russia

Ahmadinejad, a former transportation engineer and tunneling expert, also declared that Iran would build 10 more uranium enrichment plants similar to its Qum site, an underground facility whose existence was revealed in late September, and would raise the enrichment levels of its uranium.

All that from a man who says he doesn’t want to withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

BU Today spoke with Augustus Richard Norton, a College of Arts & Sciences international relations and anthropology professor, for some insight on Iran, its leaders’ intentions, and how the international community is responding to the dilemma.

BU Today: How does President Obama compare to former President George W. Bush in his dealing with Iran’s uranium enrichment?
I suppose there isn’t a categorical difference. The Bush administration certainly understood the difficulties of dealing with this topic militarily. I think the people in the Pentagon who were advising President Bush were acutely aware that a military solution was not likely to lead to any long-term success and could be counterproductive. I think there’s a similar understanding in the Obama administration.

The problem is you don’t have a lot of other options that are likely to change Iran’s current course. Even focused sanctions are not likely to be effective in terms of changing Iranian behavior. So really, what you’re left with is diplomacy. That’s a path that’s being pursued. The Obama administration is more patient on the diplomatic track.

There needs to be some adjustment in approach not just to Iran, but to the region. It’s striking that there’s been no discussion of the Israeli nuclear arsenal, which includes 100 weapons according to reliable estimates.

The Obama administration has talked much more clearly about the long-term goal of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Still, that hasn’t been a major priority of the administration.

You have to ask yourself, why might these countries want nuclear weapons capabilities? Because one of their major adversaries has nuclear weapons.

Given the political realities in the United States, it’s going to be very difficult to deter the Iranians from what they’re doing. They’re acquiring the know-how to move along the path to the production of irradiated fuel and nuclear explosive devices. Even if you destroy the machinery that makes that possible, that knowledge will not be erased.

Is there any indication that the international community would support an enriched uranium swap between Iran and Turkey?
Last I heard, the Turkey proposal was still being considered by the United States. Turkey is seen as less problematic than Russia. It’s another Muslim country. The Turks and Iranians are significant trading partners. They have cultural links. In some areas of Iran, Turkish is the first language. Diplomatically, the Turkish government’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has talked a lot about double standards among members of the NPT.

Of U.N. Security Council members, the United States favors sanctions against Iran, while Russia and China oppose them. Would sanctions force Iran to change?
If I were advising the president on this topic, I would allow the situation in Iran to continue to unfold, pursue and facilitate the swap of enriched uranium vis-à-vis Turkey, and pursue limited sanctions with a view to targeting Iranian officials rather than the Iranian public in general.

Iran is in a situation where the regime is increasingly isolated. It’s important that we move forward in a deliberate, but not foolhardy, manner in order to keep the Russians and the Chinese on board.

Is a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities a viable option? Would Israel consider going it alone?
Most people that I know that follow Iran closely are certainly persuaded that a military attack on Iran is unlikely to solve the problem.

From the technical military standpoint, it would be difficult for Israel to do it without some U.S. assistance. Even if Israel could do it on its own, the United States would be blamed for helping Israel. Israel would have to fly across Iraq, but the United States controls that air space. So Israel needs permission from Iraq and the United States, and it is unlikely both would occur.

Ahmadinejad says he doesn’t want to withdraw from the NPT, yet he plans to build another 10 uranium enrichment plants. What do you make of these mixed messages?
It’s impossible for them to rapidly expand to 10 plants. So that is more in the fantasy realm. It seems to me that it’s a posturing more than something likely to happen anytime soon. Iran certainly cannot claim to have adhered to the NPT, because it has clearly cheated and hidden developments from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran really can’t claim clean hands.

The Iranians have learned from the Iraqi experience. Iraq had all its nuclear development at one site. What the Iranians have done is spread the thing all over the country. Any attack is marginal in effect. You might knock off a hubcap, but the wheels and the bumper are someplace else.

France gets more than 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, but no one suggests shutting down its plants. Why does the international community demand control over Iran’s uranium enrichment?
I think the answer simply has to do with the relationship in the world today and the fact that Iran is seen as a major challenger to the status quo. I think that Iran is certainly pursuing roles as the major rival to the United States in the Middle East.

The Iranian regime, however distasteful it may be, is not crazy. It’s not a regime likely to commit suicide. Despite things about the regime people may not like, I still think their behavior is rational and they are deterrable. Ultimately, it’s likely that Iran is going to be able to develop its own alternative nuclear program and will be able to develop nuclear weapons.

Still, the regime in Iran is in big trouble. There’s a lot of popular discontent. The legitimacy of the regime is very much in question. If that continues, I think that’s going to be an increasing limitation on the regime.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu.


7 Comments on What Should the World Do with Nuclear Iran?

  • mike on 01.29.2010 at 2:33 am

    Turkey is no longer this ‘lackey’. And according to Kiniklioğlu, that’s something “Israel must get used to” Not too long but,after a decade Turkey will not need EU or US if other Muslims and Arab world can take advantage of this solid,ground, powerful opportunity Turkey has created in the region.

  • Anonymous on 02.01.2010 at 10:15 am

    I don't think allowing the situation to unfold is an option

    There are a couple of issues I have with this analysis. First of all, I don’t exactly get what the ‘reliable sources’ are that provided professor Norton with the info on Israeli nuclear arms. I am not saying they do no exist, and it is likely Israel has nuclear capability, but I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to give Iran any slack. Israel is not likely to use those weapons in acts of aggression, whatever you think of Israel. That would damage its image too much, and the US would drop its support. Iran, on the other hand, might soon find itself in a situation where war is the only way out. As prof. Norton pointed out, there is a lot of tension in Iran, and tension like this often leads to war. It is not that anyone is crazy, but once Iran can’t deal with the opposition any more, it will lash out on neighboring countries. And it has already announced that in case Israel strikes it, it will attack American bases in the gulf, so an Israeli strike, unless it miraculously destroys all of Iran’s nuclear plants, will drag the US in. And even if a military strike is not a good option, diplomacy has failed. Obama has set a date of the end of 2009 for Iran, and Iran has ignored it. Without further sanctions, and they seem more and more unlikely thanks to China, Iran will go on to develop nuclear arms. For Israel this will be a question of survival: it won’t matter that the attack will be ineffective, because if nothing happens, Israel will be ‘wiped of the map,’ literally. This is how Israel sees it, and that’s why it will most likely strike if nothing happens in the next two or three years. I know people like diplomacy, I like it too when it works. But in this case diplomacy is failing, if it didn’t already. And the risks are too high to let Iran ‘unfold.’ This will lead to a big war in the region which is likely to drag in other countries.

  • freshouttatime on 02.01.2010 at 11:46 am

    norton brings up good points that the US engagement with Iran should be diplomatic and it is a path that requires patience; especially with a country that has been a political rival for the last 30+ years.
    Recognizing discrepancies and double standards with Israel’s cache of nuclear weapons, or the french example should make more people realize that there is no moral issue on Iran’s nuclear status.
    Rather the issue is about regional presence/influence, and cooperation with regional neighbors (china, russia, iraq, israel, turkey etc)
    In order for stability and to secure the global community and US interests, it is crucial to avoid military attacks that further fuel the tension and instead pressure diplomatically for US strategic goals.

  • freshouttatime on 02.01.2010 at 12:15 pm

    israel wiped off the map?

    i think israeli security is a legit issue to keep in mind, but to really think that Iran’s number one priority is to ‘wipe israel off the map’ is just absurd. All rhetoric from the regime aside, actions do indicate more than words.
    To continue thinking that Iran is some substate terrorist organization rather than a NationState is the biggest mistake people make when they consider iran.
    Iran’s biggest trading partners are countries that the US have working relations with- Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan and China. Iran’s interest in the region is the same as any other country, Israel included. The further a country’s interests are involved with other states, the harder it becomes for a country to do something outside of the international consensus.

    There is no need to discuss the nuances of Israeli nuclear availability/capability, all of it is available with a simple google search. what needs to be discussed is the ‘pre-emptive military campaign approach towards our political adversaries’. This presupposes an opinion that the other is uncompromisable and can only be deterred through force. Once diplomatic means have been exahausted (first the us must open up their relationship with iran on more imminent issues than israeli security vis a vis iran- like iraqi and pakistani stablity, completely before we even consider diplomacy as failing) then military strikes can be considered. To see a mobilized populace against a regime in Iran does not indicate a failing state. Reducing Iran to the level of some substate organization run by militant conservatives that are bent on ending another state is a gross error and assessment of world politics.

  • Indonesia on 02.11.2010 at 6:02 pm

    Iran is a peace-loving country. Iran’s nuclear purely for peace.

  • Anonymous on 02.21.2010 at 2:44 pm

    I understand Israel is afraid, but slight rumors and suspicions is NOT enough to bomb people.

    The fact is, Iran has the right to develop its own energy producing technology so long as it conforms to IAEA standards (which, by the way, Israel does not, as it has not agreed to sign the NPT).

    Just being afraid of death doesn’t mean you kill everyone around you just to be safe, the US needs to stop this silly support of Israel. Israel, if it decides to do something, be it sanctions or war, should do it all on its own, no more entangling the US in endless war from which the US sees no gain, even at that, war with shaky premise. Force out Israeli war lobbyists.

    Failing the argument that Iran wants to strike Israel militarily, everyone then likes to claim Iran supports terrorist groups as the ultimate justification, but Israel’s track record with terrorizing Palestinian citizens and enacting marginally apartheid laws in UN condemned settlements isn’t great either. Perhaps there is reason for supporting militant opposition, as history has shown Iran that the west will react in whatever way it pleases with it for political gain unless it has some significant playing cards against the west and its current allies (in this case, cover in the form of ability to conduct asymmetrical warfare). The US shouldn’t pretend military support for Saddam (the aggressor) during the Iran / Iraq war did not exist. Or that the CIA did not help overthrow Irans relatively secular republic and put in place a dictatorial west-friendly Shah who did not nationalize Iran’s own oil fields (a major source of income for the Iranians). These events in history clearly still directly affect the state of Iran today.

    Here’s the best solution: no more baseless support for Israel no matter how friendly its own regime is with the US, no more special treatment. If we talk about supporting justice in the world, it’s time we acted it.

  • Rameyuk on 09.25.2011 at 10:15 pm

    Why don’t we all lay down our weapons and join hands in a happy world where there’s no fighting, no tension, just pure happiness. If US shows compassion and trust to the rest of the world by getting rid of their Nuclear weapons, the rest of the world wouldn’t be so hostile to them and therefore, won’t be spending precious materials to developing weapons and compete who has the bigger stick. We got starving children in Africa and other third world countries that needs assistance. Why waste those money on bloddy weapons and wait for the other to strike first just to have a reason to fight back.

    As with Israel-Palestine… That shit has gone on for bloody too long, just settle your differences, marry one with the other and we all can live a happy life rebuilding what we have lost. Everyone’s happy.

    Fight hate with love, beacuse when you trust and love someone, they will trust and love you back. If the whole world is like this, there’s no need to defend yourself, because there’s no reason to defend yourself.

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