For the past decade, the apparent danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program has continuously raised the prospect of yet another war in the Middle East. Granted, the threats uttered by all sides often appear to be more strategic than sincere but the tensions that have developed over the past few months between Israel, the U.S. and Iran should not be brushed aside. Hostility only serves to make war more likely. In this case, the consequences could prove especially devastating.
The fact that Iran’s military power does not come close to matching either the U.S. or Israel is not important. Thousands stand to be killed because most of its nuclear facilities – which would be the major target of any American or Israeli strike – have been built near major population centers (the expected pronouncements about “precision strikes” designed to avoid “collateral damage” notwithstanding).
War also poses problems for a global economy still struggling to recover, especially since the Middle East holds most of the world’s oil (Iran is the world’s fourth largest producer). More broadly, the already strained relations between the West and the Muslim World – which have yet to recover from the impact of 9/11 and Iraq – would surely take a severe hit if fighting were to occur.
Surrounded by U.S. military bases and conscious of what a nuclear deterrent can do (Iraq was invaded, North Korea was not), Iran could easily be pushed into developing nuclear weapons. The more important point is there is no evidence to suggest it has done so. Instead, it claims its interest in nuclear power is simply intended to help it cope with a rising population that has led to greater oil consumption (thus restricting the amount of oil that can be exported for profit) and provide a means to manufacture medical isotopes needed to treat cancer.
For the P5+1, and especially the US, these arguments are treated with doubt if not outright disbelief. The reason is that they simply do not trust Iran.
Some of this reflects Iran’s actions. Its decision to enrich uranium to 20 percent – far beyond what is needed for conventional nuclear power – is cause for concern. The fact that some of this is taking place at Fordow, an enrichment plant buried deep underground that remained secret until it was uncovered by Western intelligence agencies in 2009, makes its actions even more suspicious. As such, the issue will be the major focus of discussion in Baghdad, with the P5+1 – and the U.S. in particular – expected to push for the export of the specific uranium stockpiles that could be used to make nuclear weapons and the closure of Fordow (although their position is by no means uniform. Still, Iran will have to budge on this at the talks if it hopes to lessen the impact of sanctions on its economy).
The problem is that this still does not tell us much about why Iran’s policies are viewed with such scepticism. Uranium must be enriched to at least 90 percent in order to make nuclear weapons, a number far greater than anything currently being pursued. Yet, there remains an underlying belief that Iran is interested in nuclear weapons – hence the resort to negotiations – and that if it were to acquire such a capability the world would become far more insecure. Why?
Because there is no sure way to understand the nature of Iran’s activities – the inspection powers of the International Atomic Energy Agency are limited – fear and mistrust enter the equation. It might also help explain why the promising developments that followed 9/11 – where Iran cooperated with the US by providing it with intelligence on the Taliban – and the overtures made by Barack Obama upon assuming the Presidency, failed to go anywhere. At the same time, a strict focus on uncertainty has its limits.
Always lurking in the background is the legacy the 1979 Islamic Revolution. For the U.S., the taking of the American embassy and the hostage crisis that followed has entrenched a threatening image of Iran in the minds of the American public and its state officials. This is made worse by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 9/11 conspiracies and anti-Semitism (in all its complexity). Combined, this illustrates – at least for some – why certain states (such as the entire P5+1 minus Germany) can be trusted with nuclear weapons while others simply cannot (in such a context, it’s very easy to forget that power over foreign policy is held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei). Added to this is the perspective of the Iranian leadership which sees itself as the torchbearers of a revolution against imperial aggression and persists in claiming that it’s a victim of a conspiracy bent on keeping it down.
The talks in Baghdad can still set in motion a process that will allow for peace; however, overcoming the mistrust that exists between both sides might prove impossible. But, is there really an alternative other than dialogue?
Peter Fragiskatos teaches at the University of Western Ontario and holds a PhD in International Relations from Cambridge University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org