How is the West handling Iran’s nuclear ambitions?
Since Iran’s nuclear programme was exposed in 2002, Western powers have expressed grave concerns over the development of nuclear weapons in the country.
For Western diplomats, cooperating with Iran has been difficult, to say the very least. The gulf that separates the two sides is vast, augmented by a history of cold conflicts and bitter disagreements, and progress has been slow. The last two rounds of negotiating in Vienna in November 2014, and more recently in Geneva, failed to deliver any definitive course of action, and there are now some leaders whose patience is wearing thin.
Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu has been the most vocal opponent of these negotiations. In comments made last week, he criticised the West for neglecting its previous commitment to eradicating completely the nuclear threat in Iran:
“From the agreement that is forming it appears that they have given up on that commitment and are accepting that Iran will gradually, within a few years, develop capabilities to produce material for many nuclear weapons.”
Mr Netanyahu may be fully entitled to demand swifter action; regarding the development of nuclear weapons there is no acceptable level of tolerance other than zero-tolerance. Nevertheless, would it really be wise to dismiss negotiations as readily as this?
Since 2002, Iran’s nuclear programme has been the subject of prolonged investigation. For instance, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has heavily scrutinized Iran’s nuclear facilities and have been consistently dissatisfied by the opacity of its uranium enrichment activity.
As a result, in 2005, the IAEA referred Iran to the UN security council specifically for failing to adhere to the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a long-standing agreement between 190 countries aimed at preventing the development of nuclear weapons and working towards total disarmament.
In 2006, the UN drew up six resolutions requiring Iran to curb its uranium enrichment programme, four of which involved the implementation of economic sanctions against Iran. Since then, the EU, US, Japan and South Korea have imposed similar sanctions and the total effect has been extremely damaging to Iran’s economic well-being.
But have these sanctions been sufficiently effective in promoting diplomatic relations between Iran and the West? And can we be confident that, by persevering with this strategy, any nuclear threat Iran may pose will be uncovered and duly extinguished?
To the first question, the answer would appear to be yes. As part of an interim deal in January 2014 between Iran, the EU and the countries of P5+1 – the US, the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany – Iran agreed to reduce its uranium enrichment activities in exchange for an alleviation of selected sanctions. To the second question, it is worth wondering whether or not the West can actually afford to pursue a tougher course of action than mere sanctions.
Writing in the Guardian in January of this year, US congressman, David Price warned that any more severe action against Iran at this point might only deter those within the country from negotiating further:
“New punitive action,” he said, “could strengthen Iranian hard-liners and make their withdrawal from the negotiations more likely”.
He continued to write: “The United States and the International community must press ahead – because of the security that the removal of the nuclear threat would bring and the dire alternatives we’ll face if negotiations fail.”
While it is desirable to act as swiftly as possible to weed out any latent nuclear threat that may exist in Iran, hastily opting for “new punitive action” without due consideration of the implications would be an ill-advised approach for Western powers to adopt, if they wish to secure any public faith in diplomacy.