The Sticking Points and the Prospect of the Iranian Nuclear Issue

Mr. Zhu Qianguo*

The Sticking Points and the Prospect of the Iranian Nuclear Issue


On March 24, 2007, the UN Security Council adopted the 1747 Resolution on the Iranian nuclear issue. The Resolution steps up the sanction against Iranian nuclear and missile programs by demanding Iran to adopt a moratorium on its uranium enrichment activities and at the same time seek to solve the Iranian nuclear issue through negotiation. The Iranian nuclear issue once again has come to a stalemate.

Then what are the sticking points of the Iranian nuclear issue? How will the r issue evolve? There are many analyses. The Iranian nuclear issue, just like other hot issues in the Middle East, is deeply rooted.

I. There are 3 major contradictions on the Iranian nuclear issues

The first is the contradiction between nuclear proliferation and nuclear nonproliferation. Currently, the international community has formed consensus that international security can be best served with less nuclear weapons. However, on the one hand, the USA and other nuclear weapons states refuse to dramatically cut down their nuclear arsenals, and enhance the role of nuclear weapons, even by formulating nuclear preemption strategy and improving the quality of nuclear weapons. Some have tacitly accepted that India, Israel as nuclear weapons states. On the other hand, the USA does not allow other NPT states parties, especially those having ideological difference with the West countries to engage in developing uranium enrichment capabilities permitted by the NPT. This actually deprives some countries like Iran of the legitimate right to peaceful use of nuclear energy. In this sense, The USA and other Western countries are pursuing a double standard in nonproliferation.
Iran believes it has the legitimate right to peaceful use of nuclear energy according to the NPT. Therefore it insists that its bottom policy is to have uranium enrichment technology. Facing the UN Security Resolutions demanding Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, all of the Iranian leaders responded strongly and called the Resolutions illegitimate.

The second is the contradiction between peaceful use of nuclear energy and nuclear proliferation. The NPT allows the countries that already had nuclear weapons before 1965, to legally possess nuclear weapons and stipulates that those countries that did not have nuclear weapons commit to give up the development of nuclear weapons, however they can peacefully use nuclear energy. This was the result of the international order dominated by big powers, since the first nuclear weapons states are big powers. However, on the other hand, since the NPT allows those countries that have given up their right to develop nuclear weapons to peaceful use of nuclear energy, Iran naturally has the legitimate right to develop its own capability to produce nuclear material. Iran has primarily built a complete nuclear fuel cycle system and has the capability of uranium conversion and uranium enrichment and tested plutonium separation technology. On April 4, 2006, Iran declared that it got several hundred grams of 4.8% enriched uranium by using a cascade with 164 centrifuges after it resumed uranium enrichment activities. Now it is believed with certainty that Iran has installed 2 cascades with 328 centrifuges. Iran plans to install cascades with 3000 centrifuges in the near future. Technically speaking, if time permits, Iran will be able to produce enough nuclear material and develop nuclear weapons. Up to now, Iran has not yet reached the phase of developing nuclear weapons. The USA believes that without imposing restrictions Iran may have the capability to develop nuclear weapons within 3 to 10 years.
On the other hand, although the NPT allows the non-nuclear weapons states to have the capability to produce nuclear materials, these countries must report all their nuclear activities to the IAEA and accept the IAEA’s safeguard and inspection. However, the IAEA’s safeguard has been not able to prevent nuclear materials from being used for nuclear weapons for many years. Iran had conducted secret nuclear activities for more than a decade and was not discovered. Especially when a country, that has obtained enough capabilities when it is a NPT states party, declares to withdraw from the NPT and develops nuclear weapon, the NPT and the international community do not have any good means to prevent it. Recently, the UN Security Council adopted several resolutions on the Iranian nuclear issue and the primary reason is that Iran has secret nuclear activities and some of its activities have violated its obligation of subjecting these activities to the IAEA’s full safeguards. But this is not the key of the problem. The key of the problem is that the USA and other Western countries firmly believe that Iran has the intention of developing nuclear weapons. However, the IAEA has not found any solid proof of Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Actually, to a quite large extent it is under the USA dominance that the UN Security Council and adopted those Resolutions on Iran.
The third contradiction is that there are differences between the USA and Iran and among the big powers in terms of geo-strategic interests in the Middle East.
That the strategic goals and interests of the USA and Iran are conflicting with each other is the fundamental cause that the Iranian nuclear issue has not been solved. On the one hand, after “9/11”, the USA listed Iran as one of “the Axis of Evil” and of the 7 countries that supported terrorism in the world. In the US’s National Security Report released in March 2006, the USA firmly held that Iran was the US’s number one enemy, one of the tyrannies and the biggest threat of proliferation. The USA criticizes that Iran is a center of terrorism, sheltering terrorists at home and, supporting terrorists at abroad, interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. The USA believes that Iran seeks to develop nuclear technology means that Iran wants to have nuclear weapons. If Iran has nuclear weapons, that would mean the US’s policy towards Iran is a failure and President Bush’s grand strategy of democratic reform of the Middle East will face serious challenge. Therefore, the USA cannot accept that Iran has the capability of making nuclear weapons. The USA regards Iranian nuclear issue as an obstacle blocking the USA from realizing its global strategy. The USA has defined Iran as one of “the Axis of Evil”, exaggerated Iran’s threats to the US’s security for the purpose of making the Iranian nuclear issue to serve its strategy to control the Middle East.
Under the current international order dominated by the big powers and that the national security interests of the small powers can not be guaranteed by themselves, Iran seeks national independence and security and wants to realize its dream of becoming a regional power. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office, Iran obviously considered the US’s strategic deployment in the broader Middle East the biggest real threat to Iran. Iranian President has made quite a few tough speeches opposing the USA and Israel in Iran and in other Middle East countries so as to strengthen domestic political cohesion and exhibit its aspiration of striving for big power status. Directed by the dream of becoming a regional power dream and the experiences from India and Israel that only nuclear weapons could protect national security and enhance a country’s status in the international community, Iran has come to the realization that only by having nuclear technology could its security effectively be guaranteed. The nuclear program, which is against the Islamic creed, is becoming widely supported in Iran. Iran has repeatedly made clear that it does not have the intention to develop nuclear weapons, however it has the legitimate right to use nuclear technology for peaceful purpose and to master such technologies.
Although the Iranian nuclear issue is mainly created by political confrontation between Iran and the USA, neither the USA has the political will to seek reconciliation with Iran, nor Iran is willing to bend to the US’s high political pressure. Even if the USA gives up its hostile policy to Iran, Iran still does not want to give up its strategy of seeking regional power status, the Iranian nuclear issue still cannot be solved smoothly. Therefore, although the US factor plays a decisive role in the process of solving the Iranian nuclear issue, the strategic intention of Iran should not be neglected. It is not difficult to find that although Iran has repeatedly promised that developing nuclear technology is for peaceful use of nuclear energy. But if developing nuclear technology is purely for peaceful purpose, Iran will show flexibility on producing enriched uranium for peaceful nuclear energy within or outside its territory.
That Russia, the EU and China have economic interests in Iran is always a major factor affecting the Iranian nuclear issue. In recent years, Iran has cooperated with Russia, France, Germany, Japan and China on its oil and gas market. The energy sectors of these countries have invested more than $100 billion in Iran. The UN Security Council Resolution on Iran adopted on Mary 23, 2007 accepted the Russian’s recommendation, only imposing sanctions against the Iranian nuclear sector and not restricting the Iranian officials’ visit to foreign countries and its enterprises’ economic activities with foreign countries. Thus, Russia is able to protect its own economic interests in Iran and continues to implement the contracts it signed with Iran, including the contracts on building Bushehr nuclear power station and military technology cooperation. At present, 70% of Iran’s import of military technologies is from Russia’s 13 defense corporations. Russia will continue to cooperate with Iran on military technologies and will provide defensive weapons to Iran.

II. The Prospect of the Iranian Nuclear Issue and Its Impact on the International Situation

If the international situation does not undergo any big change, the Iranian nuclear issue will continue to be crisis-ridden but will not develop into a full crisis.

First, Iran will not give up its goal of developing nuclear energy and will continue to step up its efforts to install more uranium enrichment facilities. This is because: First, Iran wants to realize its dream of being a regional power by developing nuclear technology, thus will not easily abandon its nuclear program. Since the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1747 on March 24, Iran’s position has not changed. The Iranian senior leaders have time again said that Iran’s nuclear program is totally for peaceful purpose, Iran will not seek confrontation, and pressure and coercion can not change Iran’s policy. Second, to highlight the development of nuclear program is an important way used by the Ahmadinejad government to inspire national pride and consolidate domestic political power. On April 9, 2006, after the Iranian government declared that Iran could produce low enrichment uranium and President Ahmadinejad said that Iran would enter the international nuclear club. This was celebrated by the whole nation. The Iranian people are united and wholeheartedly support the government and the Ahmadinejad government was further consolidated. However on April 9, when Ahmadinejad declared that Iran had the capability to start industrial-scale nuclear fuel production and Iran entered the nuclear club, and at almost the same time, the UN Security Council adopted two resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran, Ahmadinejad faced increasing criticism domestically, it became much more necessary to highlight the development of nuclear energy and the latest nuclear achievements. That is why to declare having 3000 centrifuges is more important than to let them operate. Third, if Iran plans to compromise, it needs to further increase the bargaining chip, so to seek advantages for negotiation. Although Iran declared that it has started industrial-scale uranium enrichment, Iranian officials are ambiguous when answering questions about Iranian centrifuges. Some international nuclear experts believe Iran’s statement that it has installed and are operating 3000 centrifuges is just a false show of strength.
David Albright, former UN nuclear inspector, says it is difficult to believe Iran has 3000 centrifuges at one time and it is doubtful that Iran is able to operate so many centrifuges with the same speed at the same time. Some U.S. experts believe that Iran may operate just 2 cascades with 164 centrifuges each and its operating efficiency is not more than 20%.

Second, the opportunity for resolving the Iranian nuclear issue by the means of sanctions or military strike has not arrived and there is still hope to solve the issue through diplomatic channel.
This is because: Iran has always emphasized that it has the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, has never said that it wants to develop nuclear weapons and the USA does not have any hard evidence to prove that Iran is indeed developing nuclear weapons. Even when the Iranian nuclear issue almost entered a stalemate, Elbaradei, the IAEA Director General, said on March 30 that up to now no evidence had been found that the Iranian nuclear activities were for non-peaceful purpose. On April 12, Elbaradei said that Iran was stepping up the construction of its uranium enrichment base in Natanz, however its purpose was to install 54000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment. Actually, there are only several hundred centrifuges at Natanz. He said uranium enrichment was not terrifying, what people should be worried about was Iran’s intention. Besides, Iran still keeps cooperation with people from the IAEA and these people still maintain their regular inspections on Iran’s nuclear facilities. This shows that Iranian nuclear program is still under the IAEA’s monitoring.
Secondly, Iran still has cooperation on oil and gas with big powers including Russia, France, Germany, China etc., and the interests of these countries are interwoven. If to impose full sanctions or start a war against Iran, Iran may suspend its oil export and the oil of the oil producing countries in the Gulf may not be transported to the outside world. This will lead to the rise of oil price and will seriously hurt the world economy. Many countries simply cannot bear the situation and will resist or oppose full-scale economic sanctions or military actions against Iran. This is also the reason that currently the UN’s sanctions are limited to the areas relating to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.

Thirdly, according to the public opinion poll in the USA, the majority of the Americans want to solve the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomatic means. The Bush administration has faced many condemnations for the Iraq war. If the Bush administration starts a war against Iran without any reason, the Bush administration will fall into serious political crisis. Besides, once the USA starts a war against Iran, it not only has to face Iran’s revenge, but also to face the “Jihad” or attacks from the Iranian supporters including the anti-US armed forces in Iraq, such as the Hamas, Hezbollah and Al-Qaida. If the US’s bottom line on the Iranian nuclear issue is to strengthen its control over the Middle East, it is not necessary for the USA to fight a war against Iran currently.

Fourthly, according to the analysis of the intelligence agencies in the USA and other Western countries, Iran still needs time to have nuclear weapons. This also gives time to the USA. On the one hand, the USA hopes to force Iran to suspend uranium enrichment through UN’s sanctions. On the other hand, the USA wants to completely solve the Iranian nuclear issue through regime change. In March 2006, the US State Department established the Iran Office and allocated $75 million to promote democracy in Iran. This is also a major part of the US’s democratic reform strategy in the broader Middle East. The USA is afraid that Iran may undermine its strategy in the Middle East, so it has insisted on that Iran must give up its nuclear program. If the Iranian government is not opposed to the USA, the USA will accept tacitly Iran’s development of its nuclear technology.

Fifthly, every side always tries to keep some room for maneuver. Although the US’s Vice President Cheney clearly declared in last February that the USA would not rule out the use of force against Iran, the USA has also expressed it wants to solve the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomatic means. US Secretary of State Rice has said that she would like to talk with the Iranian officials under the condition that Iran suspends its uranium enrichment activities. On the Iranian side, although President Ahmadinejad has said Iran would counter-attack foreign military actions and reiterated time and again that Iran would not suspend its uranium enrichment activities, Iran has also expressed that it would seek to solve the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomatic means. The draft resolution submitted by the 6 countries has reaffirmed that relevant sanctions would be lifted if Iran has enforced relevant Resolutions. This is to say that the sanctions against Iran are reversible. The draft resolution is also the result of compromise by all sides.
The last reason is that there is still hope of compromise by the Iranian side. In recent years, Iran has always responded strongly when dealing with the international community on the Iranian nuclear issue at first, but at the last moment, it often makes some compromise so as to gain benefit.


* Deputy Director of China Defense Science and Technology Information Center