It is all quite clear that the UN Security Council's approach to Iran's nuclear program is designed not to eliminate but to perpetuate the suspicions about it, with a growing sense of urgency, fear and panic. It goes without saying that the protagonists of the alleged Iranian nuclear threat are the same as those who are effectively dominant in shaping and mobilizing the council's resolutions in this matter
Since then, a perpetually growing sense of panic has dramatically raised the prospects of either a massive regional conflict in the Persian Gulf, involving both Israel and the United States, or a regional cold war that pits Iran, Iraq and Syria against Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab world. Given the council's overall approach in this matter, however, one is compelled to question if Iran's intention to build nuclear weapons, or the prevention of it from doing so, are really of primary concern. It seems that for those blowing the clarion against Iran, this country's probability of having a nuclear weapon and the pervasive fear emanating from this probability are more important than actually ensuring that it does not have, or get, one.
Following the resolution adopted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Feb. 4, 2006, the Security Council issued a presidential statement in March of the same year expressing its concern about Iran's nuclear program and asking the latter to fully suspend its nuclear program and to allow the IAEA to verify its peaceful nature. Subsequently, the council adopted Resolution 1696 (2006), invoking chapter VII of the UN Charter and obliging Iran to suspend its program; Resolution 1737 (2006), imposing sanctions by cutting off nuclear cooperation and freezing the assets of individuals and entities linked to the nuclear program; Resolution 1747 (2007), expanding the list of sanctioned entities; Resolution 1803 (2008), further expanding the sanctions, imposing a travel ban on the sanctioned persons and banning the export of nuclear and missile-related dual-use goods to Iran; Resolution 1835 (2008), reaffirming all the sanctions already imposed on Iran; and finally Resolution 1929 (2010), imposing a complete arms embargo on Iran, banning it from any activities related to ballistic missiles, authorizing the inspection and seizure of shipments violating the council's sanctions and extending the asset freeze to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL). As should be remembered, both Turkey and Brazil voted against this resolution, believing that further sanctions on Iran would be counterproductive in trying to resolve the issue.
Resolutions that are designed not to resolve
The crux of these resolutions is captured in a specific clause on which they are all predicated: “The IAEA is unable to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran.” Therefore, the council continues to call upon Iran to re-establish “full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA.” That is, Iran should suspend its nuclear program, even if it is in fact a peaceful one, until the IAEA makes sure that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities anywhere in the country. In response, the Iranian authorities argue that they have been cooperating with the IAEA as required. They also argue that they have the right to continue the enrichment for research and development in conformity with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory and which stipulates that the signatory states have a right to “develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” In the meantime, the fear and panic about Iran's alleged intentions to acquire nuclear weapon capabilities have grown exponentially thanks to very well organized campaigns in the West, especially in the US.
If it is seeking nuclear weapons Iran is certainly violating international law, threatening to shift the regional balance of power and risking a massive arms race and escalation of tensions among its neighbors. Hence, this potential threat must be dealt with before it is too late. However, the Security Council's approach to the issue is problematic. As such, the council itself hinders the resolution of the problem.
As the council considers Iran “guilty until proven innocent” as opposed to “innocent until proven guilty,” this problematic approach has two dimensions, the first of which is more of a technical one. What is the reason for the IAEA's inability to fulfill its mission? Is it because of Iran's lack of cooperation, which actually does not seem to be the case, or because of the IAEA's lack of sufficient technical capabilities? Or worse, could the reason be the political pressure on the IAEA that precludes it from coming to a conclusion that would undermine the deliberately constructed fear and panic about Iran's alleged nuclear program? In the context of this connection, how should one interpret former IAEA General Director Muhammad ElBaradei's statement during his interview with the Austrian Press Agency (APA) in January 2011, in which he said, “The threat posed by Iran's nuclear program was exaggerated by the West”?
In the same interview, ElBaradei accuses the West of thwarting an agreement with Iran by making “unrealistic demands” and speaks of the second dimension of the council's approach, which is problematic, both conceptually and practically. How is it possible to ensure that Iran does not have an intention to pursue nuclear weapons? And how is it possible to ensure that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran? Trying to do either or both is tantamount to trying to prove that something does not exist. However, whereas discovering just one single example suffices to prove that that thing exists, proving that it does not requires one to look for it in every bit of space in order to ensure its nonexistence. Only then can one conclude that it does not exist. By this token, if the council's resolutions are to be fulfilled, the IAEA would have to search everywhere in Iran in order to ensure the nonexistence of undeclared nuclear material or activity, which is practically impossible. Even if the IAEA manages to fulfill such an unrealistic mission it is always possible that the protagonists of the alleged Iranian nuclear threat can dismiss the IAEA's conclusion by simply ridiculing it for its inability to find evidence of Iran's nuclear weapons program, which they so strongly believe exists somewhere. It is especially likely, given that the same actors had paved the way to the 2003 invasion of Iraq with similar tactics, only to admit in shame years later that they were wrong about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction. In addition, the fact that Security Council members do not take similar action against another regional state, which does not deny its possession of nuclear weapons, further undermines the council's credibility vis-à-vis the alleged Iranian nuclear threat.
So, it is all quite clear that the Security Council's approach to Iran's nuclear program is designed not to eliminate but to perpetuate the suspicions about it, with a growing sense of urgency, fear and panic. It goes without saying that the protagonists of the alleged Iranian nuclear threat are the same as those who are effectively dominant in shaping and mobilizing the council's resolutions in this matter, namely the US, the EU3 (United Kingdom, France and Germany) and Israel.
Wars: destructive for some, profitable for others
As the council keeps passing one resolution after another about Iran, Israel too keeps threatening to strike Iran's nuclear facilities if diplomacy fails. The US and the EU3 have described Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program as a major threat to international security and sought to increase pressure on Iran through national sanctions along with the UN sanctions. In the meantime, although it does not single out Iran as a specific threat or target (thanks to Turkey's efforts), NATO's new strategic concept and missile defense system have been developed on the assumption that Iran is pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program. In reaction, Iranian officials have repeatedly warned that Iran would deliver a crushing response to any kind of military attack on its nuclear facilities, in a war that would have devastating implications far beyond the region. Moreover, Iran criticized the presence of US warships and aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. It warned against possible EU sanctions on Iranian oil exports by suggesting that it may shut down the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 20 percent of the world's oil is transported. In response, the US has noted that any attempt by Iran that would disrupt the flow of oil to the world markets would not be tolerated.
In the meantime, as the only winner in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran has been expanding its sphere of influence in the region, whereas its Sunni Arab neighbors are losing theirs as a shattering effect of the so-called Arab Spring. Iraq is now pretty much considered a Shiite state within the orbit of Iran. Syria's Alawite-dominated regime relies heavily on Tehran's support. Shiite communities all over the Arab world, including in Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia not only increase Tehran's leverage but also create a misleading sense of “Shiite emancipation from the Sunni oppressors,” which can be easily manipulated. In fact, before his recent visit to Tehran, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu warned about the existence of certain parties intending to deliberately instigate a Sunni-Shiite war in the region.
At this point, it would be a mistake to think that the US, the EU3 or Israel are seeking to prepare the ground for an invasion of Iran, or trying to instigate a Sunni-Shiite war across the region. Yet, it would be equally, if not more, mistaken to think that there are not certain special interest groups within each country, who would want to do either or both. One may be inclined to ask why they would be interested in pursuing such an agenda. But the real question one should ask is, why would they not? After all, pragmatically speaking and as seen during the course of the Iran-Iraq war as well as in the run up to the first Gulf War, sustained regional wars and the escalation of tension among the regional powers can be manipulated to become quite profitable, both politically and economically, for the United States, the European Union and, most notably, for Israel.
Nevertheless, there are strong reasons to believe that the US, the EU3 and Israel would not directly engage in a military conflict with Iran. First, neither the US nor the EU3 are financially stable enough to sustain a war with Iran, especially after a decade of military engagements both in Afghanistan and Iraq. Second, throughout its history Israel has never had any conflict with Iran beyond mere exchange of threats and condemnations. Nor is there any reason for them to do so, given that they share a similar fate in the ocean of Arabs surrounding them. Actually, in his “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States,” Trita Parsi notes that the relationship between Tehran and Tel Aviv continued even after the so-called Islamic revolution in 1979 under the auspices of the dreaded Khomeini. Third, since the end of the Cold War the fundamental tenets of US policy towards the Middle East are to ensure safe and smooth access to energy resources and to protect Israel. Since it would be existentially detrimental to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf countries supplying the world energy markets, any military confrontation with Iran is antithetical to the vital interests of the US. Fourth, Iran is a major energy supplier to both the EU and China. Although the EU is entertaining the idea of sanctions on Iranian crude exports, it is hardly capable of sustaining these sanctions, given that doing so would strengthen Moscow's leverage towards the EU as the only major energy supplier. Similarly, with an ever-increasing need for energy resources, China would oppose any scheme that would disrupt its energy supply from Iran.
Fifth, Iran is not like Afghanistan or Iraq. It has survived for more than three decades despite the isolation and sanctions imposed on it. In a way, these hardships enabled Iran to develop self-sufficiency and technological capabilities not only to the extent of pursuing a nuclear program but also of being able to intercept and seize possession of an American drone. Most importantly, Iran has an ideology which glorifies martyrdom from the age of seven to 77 and this could be quite costly for all of its perceived enemies. There is no need to mention that with its heavy influence over the Shiites in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, Iran is quite capable of burning the whole region.
From the perspective of certain elements within the US, the EU3 and Israel, the deliberate escalation of tensions and consequentially the occasional low-intensity military conflicts between Iran, Syria, Iraq and Shiite communities on one side and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries and Sunni communities on the other may be considered to be a lucrative opportunity to manipulate and profit from. With the realization of this second scenario, all of the states in the region and the ethno-religious groups within each state would turn into potential customers for all kinds of military technology, from conventional weapons to long-range missiles and fighter jets and cyber-security systems. The energy suppliers on both sides would be even more willing to get their oil and gas to the world market, because only then would they be able to sustain their economic strength while engaging in an arms race or military conflict with the other side. Moreover, these countries would be much more fragile politically, economically and socially and hence easier to manipulate diplomatically. Finally, these countries would be consuming one another for a period with no foreseeable end. Of course, for this scenario to fully materialize Iran must continue to be perceived as a growing nuclear threat to regional and international security, as a major threat to the Sunni majority within the Muslim world and as an existential threat to certain Arab states, like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates.
In its final analysis, the IAEA is not suggesting that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, but that the agency is “unable to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran.” In any case, such an objective is impossible to achieve conceptually and practically. So long as that remains the objective of the IAEA, as well as the criterion for the Security Council, the perception of an "Iranian nuclear threat" will pervade and the panic is likely to increase. As a result, rather than a military conflict between the US, the EU3, Israel and Iran, a sustained escalation of tensions, military confrontations and proxy wars are likely to ensue between Iran, its allies and the rest of the region. In the end, it is up to Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the emirates and other regional actors to allow this second scenario materialize.
*Mehmet Kalyoncu is an independent political analyst.