In recent days, Iran has reaffirmed its commitment toward its goal of gaining complete control over the nuclear fuel cycle. Tehran’s desire to research and control every aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle required for producing nuclear energy has been hotly contested by the United States. The aspect of Tehran’s nuclear research program that has drawn the most flak is the uranium enrichment program.
In order to create fuel for a nuclear reactor, it is necessary to produce low-enriched uranium. At the same time, however, high-enriched uranium can be used to create nuclear weapons. It is for this reason that the US has made every attempt to prevent Iran undertaking the uranium-enrichment process and has attempted to forge a coalition of states demanding that Iran only import enriched uranium, rather than produce it independently.
The political wrestling between the two states culminated in an accord signed by Tehran last October 21. The United Kingdom, France and Germany intervened and compromised with Iran, causing Tehran to sign an Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) allowing for more intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and placing into effect a temporary halt on all uranium-enrichment activities inside Iran. In exchange for these concessions, London, Paris and Berlin offered Tehran nuclear-research information and greater access to modern technology.
Tehran agreed to the Additional Protocol not because it planned on giving up its uranium-enrichment program, but because it considered signing the protocol to be the best available route toward that program. By complying with the IAEA’s demands, and forging a compromise with London, Paris and Berlin, Tehran hoped to secure greater assistance from trade partners in the form of modern technology. This assistance would help Iran better understand the methods involved in all aspects of nuclear technology, including the methods of creating nuclear weapons. Outside support would also help Tehran build the necessary infrastructure to increase the country’s economic and military stability – a path that it must follow because of the regional threats it faces.
Iran’s true intentions of restarting its uranium-enrichment program can already be seen in the recent statements by Iranian officials. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi argued during a cabinet meeting that “it’s our legitimate right to enrich uranium”. Echoing statements made in October after the signing of the Additional Protocol to the NPT, Kharrazi continued, “We suspended uranium enrichment voluntarily and temporarily. Later, when our relations with the IAEA return to normal, we will definitely resume enrichment.”
Hassan Rohani, the secretary of the Supreme Council for National Security, also made a statement explaining how Tehran complied with the Additional Protocol only because it considered it the best route toward the country’s goal of controlling every aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle. Rohani explained that Tehran agreed to a compromise with the three European states because “the pressures applied on Iran were so great that most of the world’s leading industrial nations conditioned trading with us to the signing of the protocol, as seen in the Azadegan oilfields that the Japanese refused to develop”.
Also, by not compromising with the main European Union states, there would be little chance that the Europeans would be able to restrain the United States’ aggressive foreign policy. Rohani admitted as much, warning that had Tehran failed to comply with the IAEA, “it would face the same fate as Iraq”. Indeed, the threat that the US poses to Iran is very real, and could be one of the driving factors behind Iran’s possible quest for nuclear weapons.
Washington’s demonstration of power in Iraq perhaps proved to the leadership in Tehran that the threat from the US could not be taken lightly, and that to prevent the US from using force to push through political decisions affecting Iran, it would have to develop a solid deterrent force made up of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Tehran is also aware that its future progression as a regional power will be stunted by the State of Israel unless Tehran acquires the capability of deterring that country. Israel, because of its support from the United States, has always remained a force for the status quo in the Middle East, working with the US to prevent any Middle Eastern or regional contender becoming strong enough to alter the balance of power. This strategic relationship was best seen during Israel’s attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.
With these two threats in mind, Tehran is aware that if it is to have an independent foreign policy, free from the restraints of outside powers, it will need to develop nuclear weapons to deter conventional attacks. While becoming nuclear-armed would not ensure its protection from attacks from the United States, Israel, or other neighbors, it would lessen the risks. In fact, the only reason Iran would not seek nuclear weapons would be if it were afforded a nuclear umbrella, similar to the way the US shielded Western Europe under its own nuclear umbrella during the Cold War.
Iran at present has no such protection. The primary country willing to offer Tehran military support is the Russian Federation, but Moscow is in no position to assist Tehran in any military conflict with Washington. Therefore, the leadership in Tehran must rely on itself for its security and, in a region full of threats, it may need to develop nuclear weapons to do so adequately.
Rohani admitted as much, stating, “We want to be recognized as a member of the nuclear club, that means Iran be recognized as a country having the nuclear fuel cycle, and enriching uranium. This is very difficult for the world to accept.” Rohani continued, outlining Iran’s agenda, “We have two goals ahead of us that we must achieve. One is closing Iran’s nuclear dossier with the IAEA and bringing the board of governors to take it out of their agenda, and the other is to have Iran recognized globally as a nuclear country.”
With such outspoken policy goals, Tehran’s aim of joining the nuclear club is sure to spark incessant controversy. With the US and Israel desperately trying to preserve the balance of power in the Middle East, they will tactfully respond to each step Iran takes toward acquiring control over the nuclear fuel cycle. The only way such persistent conflict may end is if Iran does indeed prove that it is a nuclear-armed country. The response by the US and Israel might then be rather muted, similar to the way the world responded when China acquired nuclear weapons in 1964; rather than launch a military attack to restore the balance of power in the region, the administration of US president Richard Nixon instead responded to Beijing with none other than a full presidential visit, giving China instant credibility in the eyes of the world.