In the ever-changing geopolitical arena, it is of the utmost importance to keep apace with modern and powerful technologies. The technologies such as nuclear weapons, for example, remain very desirable for many states. One of these states, the Islamic Republic of Iran, has been in constant struggle for it for years. Some say that Iran wants to acquire a nuclear bomb to dominate the Middle East, others justify its actions by its willingness to develop a peaceful nuclear program*.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was crafted to resolve this conundrum by providing Iran with all necessarily tools to harness the power of atom in exchange for the renunciation of its nuclear weapon program. However, due to the recent dramatic events of 2018, when the US unilaterally withdrew from the deal and reimposed its sanctions, the JCPOA is now in jeopardy.
In order to resolve the current nuclear predicament, we first must understand the situation from both sides. Does Iran want nuclear weapons? Why should it seek a different approach?
Misconceptions and prejudices in relation to Iran
Iran has always been a state which honors its undertaken commitments in good faith. But the sticking point is that the provisions of some landmark agreements, namely the NPT and the JCPOA, have been prejudicially applied to Iran.
In 2002, there was a revelation that South Korea was engaged in uranium enrichment experiments. But this fact was brushed aside by the international community. When Iran was suspected of such experiments, this issue was immediately brought before the UN Security Council and stringent sanctions were imposed on Iran. This case shows the inconsistencies in the application of some agreed rules in relation to Iran because Iran has always been stigmatized as an evil power, an existential threat to international security.
A recent example of such inconsistencies is growing uncertainty and a baffling situation around the JCPOA triggered by an international community, not Iran. It should be stressed that the JCPOA is one of the success stories of the multilateral diplomacy, a formidable example of a Science Diplomacy agreement which was instrumental in addressing proliferation concerns and providing the balance of economic and nuclear benefits in the Middle East. Iran was in good standing in terms of its steadfast compliance with the JCPOA since the Implementation Day of the agreement.
To say more, Iran and the IAEA showed an unprecedented degree of cooperation. In 2019, almost 20 percent of all inspections all over the world were done in Iran. Iran is the most inspected state in comparison with other countries. And then like a bolt from the blue, when the talks were advancing, the IAEA Board of Governors issued a resolution calling on Iran to cooperate with the Agency’s inquiries. To say ‘Iran is called to cooperate’ is a purposely misleading argument because Iran was cooperating with the IAEA. Such moves are very biased and counterproductive. Such moves do not create conditions conducive to peaceful resolution of disputes.
Iran has said time and again that the IAEA is a technical body and it should not be politicized. But unfortunately, some countries, headed by the USA, are politicizing this organization.
On the other hand, if we look deeper into the history of Iranian nuclear weapon program, it is worth mentioning that Iran was always committed to the nuclear-free world, sometimes against all odds. In 1974, Iran was the first country to initiate a resolution in the UNGA calling for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free- zone in the Middle East That clearly shows, that Iran, since the very beginning, had good intentions and always strived to create a peaceful Middle East.
It was the foreign minister of Iran, Javad Zarif, who sent a telegram to start discussions on Iranian nuclear program. Similarly, the text of the JCPOA was agreed on and signed by Iran, which shows its commitment to the nuclear-free future. Iran understood the restrictions and responsibility that it was putting on itself.
The US unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018
The US pullout from the JCPOA forced Iran to dramatically alter its policies. The USA didn’t cite any evidence of Iranian noncompliance with the deal when it withdrew. Consequently, the US unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA can be considered as an utter disregard of the US commitments under international law. The JCPOA is an annex to the UNSCR 2231. It forms an integral part of the resolution which was unanimously adopted by all the members of the UNSC. So, it shows that the whole international community was behind Resolution 2231.
It should also be noted that Iran remained in full compliance with the JCPOA for the year after the US withdrawal. But unfortunately, Iran did not receive any tangible benefits from implementing its commitments under the JCPOA. Iran was left with no other option but to reduce its commitment. This move was in line with Article 26 and 36 of the JCPOA, so Iran’s action was in conformity with the provisions of the agreement. Eventually, Iran resumed uranium enrichment to 20% in accordance with the law “On the strategic measures for the lifting of sanctions”.
However, not only the US withdrew from the JCPOA, the United States also reimposed unilateral sanctions on Iran. The very idea that sanctions have a track record of success is outdated and obsolete. If Tehran determines that its security depends on possessing NW, sanctions are unlikely to change its mind. In fact, adding more sanctions could be counterproductive. In essence, sanctions entrench the behavior they are trying to deter. A stick approach is highly likely to entrench the desire for nuclear weapons because sanctions make Iran feel even more vulnerable, giving it more reason to seek protection of the ultimate deterrent.
Punishing a state through economic sanctions has dubious results, it does not derail its nuclear program. Take North Korea, which succeeded in building its nuclear weapons despite countless rounds of sanctions.
Moreover, any move by the UNSC to impose military sanctions against Iran is illegal, it is against Resolution 2231. There is no legal room for the adoption of the resolution by the UNSC to impose sanctions on Iran. The snap-back was a very ridiculous proposition. The USA claims to be the party to the UNSC Resolution that is why it triggered the snap-back mechanism. However, it must be noted, that the Resolution 2231 endorses the JCPOA, these are not two separate documents. Therefore, the USA cannot invoke the relevant provision in 2231 for bringing back the old resolutions.
JCPOA is still a productive framework
Although the JCPOA was undermined, it is still effective enough to ensure the stability of the Middle East. The JCPOA provides, first of all, the balance of economic and nuclear benefits and secondly, it ensures stability in the region.
It provides a platform for Iran to develop its peaceful nuclear uses without threatening regional and international security. This agreement blocked two pathways how to get a nuclear bomb, first through enriching uranium and second through recovering plutonium from the spent fuel.
The Arak heavy water reactor represented a serious proliferation threat in this matter, as it was originally designed as a plutonium producing machine. Fortunately, due to joint group effort, made possible by the JCPOA, Iran agreed to freeze the reactor. It has also committed not to separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel or construct a facility capable of doing so.
As a result, the JCPOA has been very effective in resolving all the threats that arise from the Iranian nuclear program.
External threats to Iranian state security and defense
Some international experts mention that Iran has an external security problem in the Middle East region in the form of Israeli nuclear potential.
However, there is no factual proof of Israelis possessing nuclear weapons. Until this point in time, Israel remains, only allegedly, the only nuclear weapon state in the Middle East.
There is growing information that Israel continues its risky efforts at subverting Iran’s nuclear program through sabotage and assassination. The IAEA should have called upon Israel to cooperate in terms of putting all their unsafeguarded nuclear facilities under the supervision of the IAEA.
Iran began enriching uranium to 60% purity in order to show its technical prowess after a sabotage attack at Natanz. But the move is reversible if the US lifts sanctions and the other parties commit to the obligations under the JCPOA.
Israel’s provocative actions through sabotage and assassination might lead Iran to conclude that a breakout capacity is an insufficient deterrent, after all, and that only weaponization can provide it with the security it seeks. In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq to prevent a challenge to its nuclear monopoly. It did the same to Syria in 2007 (On 5 September, 2007, Israeli jets destroyed the Syrian nuclear facility, the military operation under the codename Operation Orchard).
The situation is exacerbated by threatening statements issued by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the UNGA in September who declared that: “Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment, and so has our tolerance. Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning…. We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”
In light of growing uncertainty, the Israeli Defense Forces in recent months have ramped up the efforts to prepare a credible military threat against Tehran’s nuclear facilities. Preparing for such a strike has become a top priority for the Israeli Air Force. Israel has conducted hundreds of strikes on Iranian-linked targets in Syria over the years. However, this situation has been greatly overlooked by the international community that leads one to conclude that the concept of double standards may be involved.
But does Israel constitute the UNSC with the mandate to resort to enforcement measures? When and by whom was Israel authorized to intervene in domestic affairs of another country?
Israel’s proven ability to strike potential nuclear rivals with impunity has inevitably made Iran anxious to develop the means to prevent Israel from doing it again.
Indeed, there are many arguments between Iran and Israel, that mostly arise due to the lack of understanding between the two states. But it must be underlined, that those issues can and should only be solved through dialogue and discussion and in accordance with Article 1 of the UN Charter, that is by peaceful means. Thankfully, none of the negotiations or discussions require having a nuclear bomb. Rather, it is the opposite. Nuclear weapons will certainly close the channel of dialogue.
A Glimpse of a grim future
Any action of any country in the world should be also seen from the micro level. In our discussions about geopolitics and new world order, we often forget about the common person on the ground, the people who will be affected the most when decisions are made. Here in this case, it is the people of Iran. The people who are peaceful citizens, haven’t done anyone any wrong or even wished harm upon anyone. These citizens will be the first who will feel the brunt of sanctions which will be enacted if Iran successfully gets the nuclear bomb.
The situation will only get worse. Many in Iran and around the world believe that economic sanctions from the USA are not as effective as they intend to be and can be easily bypassed. However, if Iran ends up getting nuclear weapons, the sanctions will come from the United Nations Security Council. These sanctions will thoroughly destroy the economy of the country and make the citizens suffer.
One may point out the case of North Korea, which has continued its nuclear weapons program even after being sanctioned, and that is true. But at what cost? The lives and livelihood of its citizens. It is a cost too high to pay even in the name of national security.
Solving issues, the non-nuclear way
In our world today there are hundreds of security risks. There are geopolitical risks, there are terrorism and extremism risks, there are questions of economic security and many more. The solution to all of them can be found without the use of nuclear weapons. Every country in the world has security issues. Be it Iran, be it Zimbabwe. However, it is the approach that a country takes to actually resolve the issues that matters, and not the weapons used.
Iran itself has seen how dialogue is useful in creating mutual understanding. Its ties with Qatar, Turkey and other regional states are a proof that Iran has become a regional power. It does not need nuclear weapons to assert its influence in the region. Its main risk emanates from Israel and the Gulf countries, but at the same time these countries themselves are a proof that a constructive dialogue can build bridges. If the Gulf countries can create diplomatic relations with Israel and even have economic ties, so too can Iran. It is a question of intent and need.
The history of use of nuclear weapons has shown time and again that these are rhetorical weapons that will never be used. And as such, if they are not going to be used, what is the point of developing them and putting strain on the country’s finances?
It should also be noted that among the key elements that facilitated a successful negotiating process of the JCPOA back in 2015 were the following factors: a) the recognition by the Obama administration that sanctions could not force Tehran to relinquish its nuclear programs, b) Washington’s decision to abandon the idea of pursuing a regime change in Iran, c) its willingness to peacefully coexist with Iran. So, the language of diplomacy remains the overarching factor leading to the win-win resolution of the Iranian nuclear dispute.
IAEA and Iran
When there is an intent to develop a clandestine nuclear weapon program, inspections serve effectively as a means of both deterrent and detection. The IAEA detects suspected clandestine nuclear facilities and provides credible assurances not only about the declared nuclear material, but also the absence of undeclared material and activities.
In the case with Iran, the IAEA continued to do inspections of Iranian nuclear sites at all times. The Iranian government has continued to give special permission to the Agency, even after the JCPOA stopped working, and Iranian representatives met with the IAEA head almost every quarter to discuss further cooperation. This once again proves, that Iran did and does its best to contribute to the world free of nuclear weapons.
The view on Iranian nuclear issue depends a lot on the perspective. On the one hand, Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons to protect its sovereignty and stability. On the other, there is a probability of Iran using the nukes as a leverage in exerting its influence over its neighbors. Iran wants to secure its position in the region, to protect its people and sovereignty. However, by getting the bomb Iran will merely gain a false psychological safety net. It will only lose international and regional support and provoke even more stringent sanctions if it attempts to go nuclear.
If Iran wanted to build a nuclear weapon, it could have done it some time ago. NW do not augment the security of Iran. Moreover, NW are in sharp contrast to Iran’s ideological views. Recently Hossein Amirabdollahian, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Islamic Republic of Iran stated that Iran is re-entering the talks on the matter and “will diligently pursue the policy of developing balanced ties with other countries based on mutual respect and common interests and it is resolved to avoid tying the expansion of bilateral and multilateral economic cooperation to the JCPOA”. This signifies Iranian willingness and contribution to the non-proliferation goal and sparks hope in all of us that nuclear weapons, indeed, will never be used. As Adlai Stevenson, an American lawyer, politician, and diplomat, once said: “There is no evil in the atom; only in men’s souls.”
The article was prepared under the auspices of III International Timerbaev Nuclear Debates. Soumojit Mukherjee and Alexander Umnikov, both students of MEPhI, were debaters from Negative team in case of Iranian nuclear program. The reviewer of the article is the team’s mentor Ms. Elena Tsyvkunova, Acting Head of the Special Linguistic Training Department at the Institute of International Relations MEPhI.
List of references:
 IAF to start training for strike on Iran nuke program in coming months // The Times of Israel. October 25, 2021. URL: https://www.timesofisrael.com/iaf-to-start-training-for-strike-on-iran-nuke-program-in-coming-months/
 Tweet of the Iran Foreign Ministry. November 13, 2021. URL: https://twitter.com/IRIMFA_EN/status/1459476421160624128